Cheap thrills or extreme ripoffs?

Value: Low-priced games can be fun, but some of the software falls short on realism.

August 09, 1999|By Aaron Curtiss, | Aaron Curtiss,,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Most video game publishers cringe when their titles end up in the bin marked "$20 or Less." It's a sure sign that the game's life cycle has neared its end.

But what about games that start out priced less than $20? The "value" segment of the game business has taken off, led by last year's surprise hit, WizardWorks' "Deer Hunter."

No good deed goes uncopied in the video game world, so no sooner had "Deer Hunter" racked up impressive sales -- once the best-selling title in the country -- then other companies launched low-priced games.

Most offer activities such as snowmobile racing, water skiing, fishing and, oh, yes, hunting. That limited assortment prompts some developers to deride the segment as "redneck games." Get past the snobbery, and games developed for casual players -- the 95 percent of people who don't devote all their time and money to keeping their machines up to snuff -- make sense.

Like any game player, I'm all for lower prices. But the question consumers should ask is whether low-priced games have real value, or are they just cheap, assembly-line titles squeezed out to keep fresh product on the shelves?

The answer lies in a sample of titles by Head Games, which Activision acquired last year just to publish less-expensive games. "Extreme Boards & Blades," "Extreme Mountain Biking," "Extreme Rodeo" and "Extreme Wintersports" highlight the best and worst in cheaper games.

Aside from sharing the word "extreme" in their titles, all the games are sponsored by other companies. "Boards & Blades" is presented by Mountain Dew. Trek bicycle company slapped its name on "Mountain Biking." And Justin Boots did the same with "Rodeo." I'm not a big fan of paying good money -- even if it is just $20 -- to be bombarded with advertising.

That aside, the games run from pretty good to just plain awful -- mirroring the universe of higher-priced games. All will run on a Pentium 166, although "Boards & Blades" and "Wintersports" require a 3D card.

"Boards & Blades" is a painfully sloppy skateboarding and in-line skating game that rewards players for doing tricks in places such as corporate office parks. I doubt even the most die-hard fan would dig the crummy graphics, awkward control and goofs that plague "Boards & Blades." Characters sometimes get stuck in a game environment, running in place or just not responding.

The environments are nothing special. Everything moves slowly.

"Extreme Mountain Biking" gives players a little of what they crave. I was reminded of Microsoft's "Motorcross Madness" because many of the tracks look just as good as in a game twice the price.

Missing is the speed, but this is mountain biking. Players navigate jumps and other obstacles in tricky courses. The control is a little loose, but my only real complaint concerned the directional marker.

Because some courses are unmarked, players follow a little green arrow that hovers above the rider. It's supposed to guide players from turn to turn. But mine kept fritzing out, spinning as I tried to follow it.

I was annoyed before "Extreme Rodeo" finished installing itself. The confirmation sound on each click is that of a whinnying horse. Cute at first, then grating.

"Rodeo" is a hoot. Players can choose from bronco riding, calf roping, barrel racing and other rodeo mainstays. Silly as it sounds, it's tricky to stay atop a virtual bull.

Players unfamiliar with the rules of rodeo or control of the game should pay close attention to the instructions, or events will be over before they know it started.

"Extreme Winter Sports" was a no-show. It kept crashing my computer before reaching the menu.

In four years of writing I've never been unable to get a game running. I spent two hours monkeying with "Extreme Winter Sports" with no luck.

Some value.

Pub Date: 08/09/99

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