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Game Classics Redux
By Thiravudh Khoman

When it comes to computer game playing, my family members rate higher than I do, both in terms of activity and skill level. Oddly enough, my professor wife is the most active gamer of us all. It's interesting to watch her switch back and forth between Microsoft Word and her "game of the moment" when she's writing a paper. Apparently, she does it for relaxation or inspiration. Or something.

Me, I'm the "gofer" of the family when it comes to computer games. Surrounded only by females in the family, I'm fortunate that rarely do violent games grace our hard disks (save for a brief interest in Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 2 by my brown-belted tae kwon do progeny). Interestingly, the games currently in favour with the Khoman family are all updates of the "classics". Given that all of these were downloaded from the internet and not obtained from the better known game vendors, I felt a review would be useful for others who are also in need of "relaxation and inspiration". Or something.

Pacman Revisited

My wife has always had an affinity for Pacman. Twenty years ago, it was her favourite arcade pastime after a hard night of number and dissertation crunching on the university mainframe. When we started using personal computers, I scrounged around for Apple II and later, PC versions of Pacman. Invariably these were clone-renditions of Bandai's Pacman and Ms. Pacman arcade machines.

A few months ago, I came across a greatly enhanced version of Pacman (figure 1), one which sports a 3D motif and adds numerous bells and whistles. True to form, after initial complaints about the dizzyingly fast graphics, my wife was hooked and has been playing it every since. This new generation of Pacman is sold through eGames (https://www.egames.com). There are currently three offerings: "3D Maze Man: Amazing Adventure", "3D Maze Man: Winter Wonderland", and "3D Ms. Maze". These cost between US$9.99- 15.99 each for downloaded delivery, with each game weighing in at about 4mb in size.

Actually, there's also a fourth scenario although it's not strictly "Pacman". Called "3D Frog Man", it is identical to the Pacman games above, except that the central character is a frog rather than a Pacman. I mention this because unlike the Pacman games, a freely downloadable demo of this game is available to give you a feel for the game before you buy.

Technical Note: These games require Windows 95/98 with DirectX 5.0 drivers (the DirectX drivers are included). They also require rather fast CPU speeds. I wouldn't run these on anything slower than a Pentium 166 at its low-resolution setting, while its high resolution setting probably needs at least a Pentium II or Celeron. Finally, these games apparently require genuine Intel chips; I've experienced intermittent problems running these on PC's with AMD K6 chips.

Breakout Revisited

I'm old enough to have seen and even played Nolan Bushnell's first commercial arcade game machine, "Pong". Pong was a very simplistic game: bounce an electronic "ball" with an electronic "paddle" against a computer-controlled opponent and try to keep it in play. Miss three times and the game's over.

Breakout is a variation of Pong. Rather than bouncing the ball against an unbeatable opponent, you bounce it against a wall, with bricks breaking away whenever the ball strikes. Hit the wall enough times and the wall is decimated. The newest versions of Breakout add numerous enhancements, such as various shaped "walls", bricks which react in different ways when they're impacted, various types and sizes of paddles, guns/phasers to blast away bricks, multiple balls, numerous playing levels, etc.

Representative of these new Breakout games are the following. 1) "Break Thru", also to be found at eGames. A free trial version is available for downloading (3mb), while a complete version is also available for downloading at a cost of US$15.99. 2) "DX-Ball", which can be downloaded (840kb) from the author's site at https://www.home.stny.lrun.com/scorched/. DX-Ball is free to use and distribute. 3) "DX-Ball 2" is a follow-up to the original DX-Ball game but coded by another author (figure 2). It can be downloaded (2mb) from https://www.longbowdigitalarts.com. The DX-Ball 2 game itself is free, but if you'd like another 150 game levels, these can be purchased for US$15.

Technical Note: Break Thru runs under Windows 95/98 and requires DirectX 5.0. DX-Ball and DX-Ball 2 both run under Windows 95/98/NT and require DirectX 2.0 or higher. All three games require considerably less CPU power than Pacman.

Scrabble Revisited

Finally, something more cerebral. I've always enjoyed playing Scrabble and looked forward to playing the official computer version. But the official version's inability to run at my preferred 64K color setting and its slowness killed my interest in it. Fortunately, I managed to find a replacement which has wow'ed everyone I've shown it to - including my wife who now plays it regularly.

A company called Edisys (https://www.edisys.com) puts out a Scrabble-like program called "eWords". While the rules of the game are fairly similar to Scrabble, the boards (there are several) are not (figure 3). In fact, the standard Scrabble layout is not even part of the package, presumably due to copyright concerns. The boards, however, are completely customizable so one could create the traditional Scrabble board if one wished. My bet, though, is that after playing the so- called "Crazy" board you won't want to.

A 30-day trial version of eWords is available for downloading (1mb), while the registered version costs US$19.95. Registering the program merely involves entering a registration code into the program and does not require a separate download. Actually, if you're ready to buy, eGames also sells the same program under the name "Word Connect" which costs only US$12.99 (also available for downloading). This will save you US$6.95.

Technical Note: This is a very lightweight program which runs under Windows 9x/NT.

One More, With Feeling

Although it's not a "classic" in the usual sense of the word, I couldn't resist adding one more game recommendation for sentimental reasons. The game is called "Commander Keen" and it's an ancient, low- tech game that runs under plain MS-DOs (or Windows 9x DOS mode) utilizing only EGA graphics. Commander Keen was developed/published by two companies (id Software and Apogee Software) before they became engrossed in their current crop of gory, first-person killing games (Wolfenstein 3D, Duke Nukem, Doom, Quake, ad nauseam).

Commander Keen is a combination maze/puzzle/shoot-the-monsters type of game. The objective is to traverse a series of worlds, to search for keys to help you get out of each world, all the while fighting off or avoiding occasional monsters who are trying to end your quest. While this sounds violent, I assure you it's not. All the characters are cartoon-like, and the puzzles to be solved are reasonably challenging. I have an especially soft spot for this game because when my children were aged 3-4, they loved to watch me play this game while sitting on my lap. When they were younger, Commander Keen was also guaranteed to lull them back to sleep when they woke up in the middle of the night.

Commander Keen is available in 6 episodes. Episodes 1-5 can still be obtained from Apogee Software (https://www.apogee1.com) on a CD for a rather pricey US$49.95. Episode 6 was actually the property of another company which may or may not exist any more, and thus episode 6 may now be lost to the world. Episodes 1 and 4 are shareware and can be downloaded for free from Apogee's web site. However, I recommend that you dispense with episodes 1-3. They're very old, their graphics are primitive, and their key commands are different from episodes 4-6. If your interest is piqued, give episode 4 a try. It's a 700kb download but otherwise free. If you like it, then and only then decide whether you want to pay for the entire CD. Incidentally, there are numerous websites which extol the virtues of Commander Keen.

Technical Note: If you own anything better than a 286 PC you can run any of the Keens.

Copyright © 1998-2000, Thiravudh Khoman