Gaming Week, 1: Mmm... Good, But It Tastes a Little Gamey

I know that a lot of people see Thanksgiving through the oil-paint colors of a Norman Rockwell feast, but I see it in glorious silver halide black and white. My memory of childhood holidays focuses on old movies that the local New York TV stations ran all day. In our market, WOR and PIX were the under-funded stations that poured Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers into a day when they knew there was no competing with network football coverage anyway. For a sports-loathing, low-testosterone media geek like myself, this was pre-VHS heaven. "March of the Wooden Soldiers," "A Day at the Races," and "Horse Feathers" in tight rotation, sandwiched between a few reshowings of "42nd Street," was a blissful T-Day for Steve. My family thought I was whacked, gay, or both, but they figured it beat having to talk to me, so I was left to my obsession. Throw in some old Fleischer Brothers Popeye or Superman cartoons (circa 1940s only, please) and you damn well better not touch that dial unless you want to see just how much testosterone I could muster in a pinch.

I don't get this thrill anymore, because, well, my current family doesn't have that same Thanksgiving spirit.

"That mute guy with the horn, what's his name again?" my girlfriend asks. I try to explain who Busby Berkeley is, but that just leads to the inevitable, "you're sure you're not gay?" and/or "Isn't there a colorized version of this?"

I give up, so I pop in the DVD of her idea of real comedy, the relentlessly unfunny "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," and crack open a nearby phone before I have to put my eyes out.

New Thanksgiving entertainment tradition: look for that rare mobile game worth playing twice.

The bulk of video game sales occur in the last quarter of the year, and a good hunk of that sells through in the next week. So I declare this week game week for the Mobile Insider, even if the pickings are slim.

In what could be a hopeful sign of mobile gaming's upward trend or a bad indication of just how poor phone games are, this Thanksgiving I can only look forward to playing two titles that fit my very loose criteria: Electronic Arts' "Orcs & Elves" and Namco's "Scene It?" Mobile

"Orcs & Elves" is the only game to my knowledge that proved so good on mobile that it was ported to another platform, a new Nintendo DS version. Developed by Doom/Quake inventors in Software, this 3D dungeon crawl is a model of mobile design. It mimics an action title with turn based combat that actually feels real-time. The relentless march through wraparound 3D dungeons has a rhythmic, therapeutic quality that the best casual puzzlers achieve. And the puzzles are challenging but pitches to the admittedly shallower game play of mobile.

What is smart about this game is the same thing that is smart about any game on any platform: the developer is in touch with the player and where he is in the experience. An interactive game gives you the illusion of control and free will, but in most cases you really are enacting a script. I think a great game developer knows when the audience is frustrated, intrigued, in need of a challenge or a no-brainer, and especially a reward. Orcs & Elves has that quality of egging us on to the next level to see what is there to nab a new item or power. It is one of the few games that I actually will flip my phone to play even if a PC or video console is nearby.

I have to admit that I also started playing the DS up-convert of the title and it was not quite as impressive and compelling as the phone version. Context matters even in mobile gaming. On the phone, the game so outshines anything else on the platform, and it is so convenient to flip open and dash off another couple of rooms, that "Orcs & Elves" feels like a great treat. Put the same experience on a platform that also has the new "Zelda RPG" or the truly inspired "WarioWare" series and it is a good also-ran.

Mobile developers often complain that we need more games that leverage the phone's unique properties. This sentiment may feel like a theoretically sound notion but I am not so sure it has proven true yet. We have spent so much development time and money on multiplayer models that have no traction. I have seen attempts at mobile scavenger hunts that employ real-world locations. One developer (it may have been an early EA experiment) tried a cross-platform experience years ago that involved a real time unfolding of events and characters calling you. Again, these are noble attempts to test the possibilities of the platform, and I would never want to discourage it. Still, mobile users seem to be telling us to do something else. Do what "Tetris" did. Do what "Bejeweled" did. Do what "Pac-Man" did. What they did, and what "Orcs & Elves" does. is actually very hard. It is not just keeping the game play simple. That is easy to do. You have to make the simplicity somehow interesting by making the game play feel deeper than it probably is.

And the cool thing about "Orcs & Elve"s is that it also looks a lot more physically challenging and action-packed than it is. This is good for me, right now, because apparently I am not doing a great job of explaining the Busby Berkeley fetish to the girlfriend.

NEXT TIME: Watch our hero only dig himself in deeper by knowing too many answers to a movie trivia game.

Tags: gaming
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