The Game Room

SAN FRANCISCO (07/27/2000) - As a gamer, I'm a trollop, a floozy, a . . . well, you know. In it for the kicks and then on to the next one. I thought I should be up-front about that. You may judge me as you will. That's why I'm grateful the folks at the Ricki Lake show never book gamers as guests. Because if they did, at some point I'm sure I'd get lured on camera under the pretense of a free makeover, and only when I was sweating under the harsh studio lights and the harsher vocal judgment of Ricki's audience would I learn that the actual show title was "Baby, It Ain't Just Me You've Been Spinnin'! And Whoop! You've Been Found Out."

It's just that in my experience, games rarely end with a sense of completion and utter mastery. Usually, I discover that the game is a panoply of mysteries and secrets, cunningly crafted and skillfully executed, none of which motivates me to continue unraveling them. Or else the game play turns out to be the equivalent of the song "I'm Henry the VIII, I Am," where the sole point seems to be to go through the same bloody routine over and over again, only faster each time. That sort of thing is a lot of laughs on a school field trip, particularly if your group is in the seats above the leaky muffler, but in my office or sitting on the sofa, it just leads to crushing, existential boredom.

The Games Andy Plays

So it's dashed rare when a game stays on the active playlist in my house for long. It really means something when a title gets permanent space on my hard drive, as opposed to sharing a bin with a bunch of old Intellivision cartridges at the local Goodwill store.

Alice: There's Alice, for example. It's a showpiece, sitting on display on one of my shelves. I never play it. I never really played it when Apple first published it, back in 1984. To my knowledge, no one has ever played Alice. It's utterly and completely unplayable.

But it's historic. Mac architect Steve Capps wrote it. It's the only Macintosh game Apple Computer Inc. ever published, and it was the very first piece of commercial Mac software ever shipped. Alice looked like a million bucks, too.

It's a small hardbound book that opens to reveal a page of illuminated text and, under a sheet of protective vellum, a disc (bearing the Apple logo) that pops out of its little well with the tug of a scarlet ribbon.

And if you're smart, you'll leave that ribbon untugged. You play the game on a chessboard, where you, as Alice, are one chess piece facing off against the Queen of Hearts and her full squadron. Your objective is to capture all of the opposing pieces using standard chess moves before they capture you.

Unfortunately, those pieces are moving continually, and even a 128K Mac can process moves ever so much faster than a human -- which means that in the third of a second you need to figure out how to mouse Alice in a knighty sort of move, your opponents have all dog-piled on you and the game's over.

I've never been sure what the point of Alice was. Surely it wasn't designed as an amusement. I think Apple just wanted to begin the Mac's relationship with its users by firmly establishing who was in charge. Either that, or the universe needed a whole bunch of new profanities and this was the quickest way to invent them.

Battle Girl I first found Battle Girl (http://www.battle-girl.com) at a Macworld Expo and promptly lost both the game and the name. But when I saw it written up on MacGaming.com some months later, I couldn't get my online order in fast enough, because the US$25 Battle Girl is that rarest of gems: an arcade game so impossible that you have to keep playing it.

Battle Girl has a story line, but as with all arcade games, this is incidental.

In this 2-D overhead-style shoot-'em-up, you fly over the playing field, defending program pods against "reprogramming" by bots. As you climb through the game's levels, better and better doodads defend the bots themselves.

What makes the game such a complete winner is that it focuses on the playing experience. It pares things down to the essentials: what you need to do and how you're immediately gonna go about doing it. Visually, it's perfect -- absolutely spot-on. It's designed to evoke the tactical display of a fighter ship, so instead of busy patterns, you get clean, clear vector outlines and visual cues of off-screen aggression, as well as flawless animation even on a huge screen.

And it's got a killer soundtrack. I actually listen to Battle Girl's smooth techno-groove in my car!

Go, Girl! The cool heroine of Battle GirlUberhocken: Finally, let me talk about Uberhocken. Let me eulogize it, actually. As far as I know, it never proceeded beyond the stage of a playable prerelease version -- but man, was I ever ready for this game. Two words: air hockey.

Air Apparent Yes, Uberhocken is exactly what it appears to be -- air hockey.

What could be more appropriate, given the shape of the modern Apple Mouse?

"Air hockey, you thoroughly silly man?" Yes. Uberhocken was, in my opinion, the greatest idea for real-life sports simulation on any computer, ever. Wait!

Before you toss this column aside in utter disgust, let me explain why.

Air hockey is a sport you play by swiping a handheld pucklike thing around the flat, smooth surface of a tabletop. I spend most of my day swiping a handheld pucklike thing around a smooth tabletop. So riddle me this -- why hasn't there ever been a computer air-hockey craze? It's as though the standard computer input device was a little compartment with seats, a steering wheel, and a set of pedals, and no one ever got around to making an Indy racing game!

Yeah, a hockey-ish game called Shufflepuck appeared many years ago. But after a botched attempt at a color upgrade, it went away. Which is why when Cajun Games (http://www.cajungames.com) sent me the playable alpha of Uberhocken, my heart sang. It was 3-D; it was photo-realistic; and while special wacky tables were available as options, at its core you found real, standard, no-holds-barred Chuck E. CheeseÐstyle air hockey, with all of the physics and strategy but none of the kid-or pizza-related odors.

Unfortunately, it never went farther than what I've got. As so often happens in software development, it was designed with the idea that Someone Else's Code Module would eventually arrive and be a snap to integrate, but it didn't and it wasn't. Like the Soviet Union's space shuttle, it sits as a half-finished shell, a monument to What Could Have Been, perhaps permanently.

But don't call these games my "favorites." Total tramp that I am, my favorite is always whatever game I'm playing right now. To those of you in my audience who disapprove, I think a Ricki Lake guest recently came up with a delightful bon mot when she faced a similar situation: "Y'all can kiss my &$%!!!&^$%!!!"

Amen to her gentle wisdom.

Andy Ihnatko is a longtime Mac commentator and columnist. He writes columns for MacCentral.com and the Chicago Sun-Times and occasional nontarty bits for Playboy. His Web site, www.andyi.com, might actually be up and running by the time you read this.

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