The thing about Macintosh gaming these days is that, well, there are actually games. When I first started writing reviews for Applelinks, I'd have to spend as much time hunting down games to review as I spent playing the games. As crazy as it may sound, there was one huge benefit to this...I found a lot of great shareware or even retail games that would've otherwise passed me by.
I don't do much hunting these days, and we've been steadily expanding our staff here to handle all the games we already receive. However, thanks to websites such as VersionTracker and, of course, MacGamer and Inside Mac Games, I still learn of some smaller companies that are offering their titles to the Mac community. Case in point, Phelios, who currently have ten games in the Macintosh channel. Over the course of two articles, Erica Marceau and I will take a look at seven of these games, beginning with:
It's not uncommon, I suppose, for shareware companies to make a name for themselves by simply updating the standards; get people's attention with the stuff they know, then keep them coming back with the original material. The thing is, most companies will put a new spin on the old games to help make theirs stand out. With Swap, Phelios missed this critical step.
Swap is that type of game where you're presented with a grid full of balls of varying colors. Your objective is to swap the position of two neighboring balls (up/down or left-right) so that the swap results in at least three balls of the same color lining up (again, up/down or left/right). The touching balls will then disappear, causing more to slide down into their place. If this slide causes more colors to line up, then they will disappear as well. You get more points for causing such chain reactions, and also for lining up higher numbers of balls in your initial swap.
Phelios gives you multiple ways to play this game. You can see how many points you can get in within a 60 second or five minute time limit, you can play until you reach one million points (as long as you don't run out of swaps), or you can play forever, really. This final method, titled Relax, allows you to swap any two neighboring balls whether they cause a line-up or not. I guess this removes the pressure of losing, but it also removes the point of the game. Other than this, the variations are welcome.
There are also some balls that cause special events. Bombs will blow up all neighboring balls once they become part of a swap chain, lightning bolts can zap out an entire column, etc. These variations are also welcome, as they add an extra element of strategy to the game (and can help bail you out when you're in trouble).
Unfortunately, there's not much else to raise interest in the game. There is no music at all, the sound effects are minimal, and the graphics are quite bland. To make matters worse, the tints of the green and yellow balls are so similar that it's difficult to distinguish the two. This can prove quite frustrating in the timed modes when you're quickly scouting for matches. Also, although you can restart a game at any point, there doesn't seem to be a way to switch to a different style of game outside of quitting the program and relaunching it. Clicking Swap or the Apple logo in the menu bar does nothing, so perhaps this is a bug that may be addressed in another version.
Swap isn't bad, but there are many other variations of this game available that are simply better.
I'd never really thought of it before, but I'm somewhat surprised that more shareware companies don't make games for children. Yes, I know it's difficult for four-year-olds to figure out first how to steal their parents' credit card and then pay for a game onlineespecially now with all that three-digit-code mucky muck on the back of the cardbut, considering the clamor for more family oriented games, you'd think some shareware companies would step up to fill the void.
Phelios is attempting to do so with Lua Lua, a collection of six games aimed directly at the young'ns (ages 3 to 7). "What does it mean to aim a game directly at the young'ns?" you ask. Well, it depends up on who makes the game. In this case, it means cute animals, bright colors, and mostly win-win situations.
Included here are variations of tic-tac-toe, your standard memory game, a puzzle, etc., with names such as Soopa Koopa, Thinky Thinky and Pig-Tac Dog. I wonder at what point we quit getting names like this and start getting stuff like BloodRayne, Sin and Sacrifice.
You can't really knock the graphics and audio of games for children, as kids tend to like what annoys those how have to pay for what they like. So, the visual and audio appearance of the Lua Lua games are fine for their purpose. What's not fine were the difficulties I had getting the game running. On the 867MHz Quicksilver running Mac OS X v10.2.8, the game simply wouldn't play at all. It would load up, but after selecting Play, the screen would go black and just hang there. I could see the cursor, and clicking would produce a beep, but nothing else. Force quitting was the only way out, and a fresh install of the program didn't solve the problem. So, I installed it on the 500MHz iBook running Mac OS X v10.2.6, and the problem was gone. Could it have just been the Quicksilver? Just OS X v10.2.8? Maybe, but one thing I do know about 3- to 7-year-olds is that they're often not very patient. Therefore, parents are more likely to move them on to another game than try to troubleshoot those that don't work. Which I did...
Now, the point at which shareware companies really start to shine is when they begin making great original games. I'm not sure if Energy is original or if it's a spin on a game from the past, but I do know I haven't played anything like it on my Mac. I also know that this is easily my favorite of the Phelios bunch.
In Energy, your goal is to guide colored balls through a maze of chutes to collect them in various bases set up throughout. Each base can hold four balls, all of which disappear after four balls of the same color are collected in the base. Once each base has collected four similarly colored balls, you progress to the next level.
The game gets complicated when you're forced to pass balls through bases in order to reach others, and to also manage the path of the balls by clicking arrows at the interchanges. There are also other elements that affect gameplay, such as tunnels that change the color of the balls as they pass through. If it sounds complicated, it is, but it takes it a bit to get that way. The first few levels are fairly simple, allowing you get a feel for the game. As it gets tougher, it's still possible to get through the levels if you just take it slowly and think them through. A lot of time, the levels are more a matter of just getting some balls out of the way as you wait for the color you need. For instance, if you've cleared out one base, store other balls so you can get the color you want into the base in which it needs to go. Also, because the balls will bounce off of dead ends or off of other balls already in bases (but not off those rolling through the chutes), it's easy to get them trapped in an area and out of your way.
Energy is one of those games that keeps you coming back for more because it's hard to look at a new level and not immediately trying to solve it. With 100 different levels, that's plenty of solving. The levels are split into four different categories, and you can start at level one in any of the four categories at any time, but you have to then play through categories from 1 to 25 consecutively.
Aside from the originality of it, Energy is also aided by sharp graphics and a pretty cool soundtrack. The game looks like OS X come to life, only without all that brushed metal stuff. The background music is that typical "brain food" music, I like to call it, that's pretty effective in these games. It manages to convey a sense of urgency without actually getting in the way...and somehow reminds me of the music from the science reel to reels we had to watch in grade school.
Unfortunately, there are again some interface problems here. Although you can play the game within a window (as opposed to full screen), the game takes control of your cursor and won't allow you to click outside its window. So, not only can you not click in the menu bar as with Swap, but you can't click anywhere outside the game. You can, however, use the Escape key to back up in the games's menus if you need to.
So, within these three games, there's some encouraging stuff here. It's evident that Phelios has some growing to do, some more polish to apply, but it's also evident that they have the capabilities to do so. Of course, why stop here? To see what Erica Marceau has to say about four other Phelios games, just click here.