Simple, online games dazzle

Irony: Easy to play, basic games on the Internet attract millions of players for a reason: They're free and fun.

September 17, 2001|By Joseph Gelmis | Joseph Gelmis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Trying to play a much-hyped new computer game last week, I ran into a technology barrier. Neither of the two PCs available to me had enough system memory - 128 megabytes of RAM - to run the game.

It was a frustrating experience, and an all-too-common one. It helps explain why even the most acclaimed state-of-the-art computer games seldom sell a million or more CD-ROMs, while the audience attracted to simple but satisfying online games accessible to almost any PC now numbers in the tens of millions.

Another reason for the rapidly growing popularity of online mini-games, of course, is that they are free - making the good ones an exceptional value, compared with most of the shrink-wrapped game CD-ROMs sold at retail.

You can instantly judge for yourself whether one of these mini-games is worth your time. If it doesn't work for you, you can try another. There's an exponentially expanding inventory - currently in the hundreds - available on scores of Web sites.

And being free, short and technically simple doesn't mean the best mini-games are any less entertaining than the higher-tech games that took a couple of years to create and are designed to be played over a period of 30 to 40 hours.

Among the most engrossing online mini-games are puzzles set on a grid that have you race the clock against rudimentary geometric figures in motion. These games are based on the same principles that made Nintendo's portable Game Boy the most successful video game system in history.

So, when I had to postpone playing the new CD- ROM until the higher-tech PC I've been awaiting arrives, I went online in search of some free entertainment. I sifted through 10 games. Eight were silly, excessively complicated or mediocre at best - a percentage that is par for CD-ROM computer games.

Eventually, I found two mini-games that I can recommend as addictive fun, whether you're a casual or veteran player.

In Atomica, at Microsoft's Web site at www.zone.msn.com/atomica, the objective is to build molecules by matching four or more similarly colored circular "atoms."

Each time you move an atom, new atoms appear. When you construct a molecule, it explodes, leaving behind blank squares to be filled. You must move atoms fast, or the computer will fill the blanks and clog pathways. When you can no longer move, the game ends.

After a brief tutorial, I played several four-minute games. Badly. My highest rank: Dunce. No matter. I was hooked. Challenged. I played on. After three more games, my rank rose to Guinea Pig.

Three games later, my work was rated Undergraduate; I was encouraged to "keep practicing." I did. Finally, I was rewarded with the rank of Rocket Scientist. When I glanced at my desk clock, I was stunned to discover I'd been playing Atomica for three hours.

Blix, at Shockwave's site at www.shockwave.com, requires that you download the Shockwave player and the game itself to your hard drive. Then, you can play online or off. Like Atomica, it offers a user-friendly tutorial. The aim of the early levels - there are 300 levels in all, which would probably take weeks to play - is to deflect and guide dots (moving in straight lines back and forth or up and down across the screen) into a U-shaped bucket in the center.

You do this by left-clicking on your computer mouse at the correct time in the correct spot in front of the moving dot to produce an L-shaped right angle.

The direction in which the dot is deflected depends on where you click.

Because there's a time limit, this is more difficult than it sounds.

Blix kept me spellbound for more than two hours. It was different from Atomica, yet equally immersive. They are twitch games in the classic mode.

There's no three-dimensional cinematic eye candy. No adventure. Just compelling game play.

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