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Caught in the Web - December 2003

Welcome to the first installment of Caught in the Web, a new GameCritics.com feature focused on the often overlooked genre of web-based games. While most hardcore gamers eschew these sometimes simple games for the deeper pleasures of console and standard PC games, millions of people play these free web-based games every day. This alone makes them worthy of discussion. And while many of the games that populate the internet are crude, badly produced and horribly unplayable, there are some high-quality gems to be found among the muck. This feature exists to point the reader toward some of those gems.

This month, we take a look at three sites that put a novel spin on some classic video game conventions.



Arcadia

Site: Shockwave.com
URL: http://www.shockwave.com/sw/content/arcadia
Required plug-ins: Macromedia Shockwave Player

Rating: 9.5

During gaming's golden age, games tended to have a remarkably focused gameplay: do one thing—and do it well—to get the high score. These days, though, games are increasingly becoming tests of multitasking power, asking players to utilize a variety of skills, often in rapid succession. Shockwave.com's Arcadia sits right at the junction of these two clashing idea of gameplay.

At the heart of Arcadia are four remarkably simple mini-games with graphics and sound effects that seem lifted right off the Atari 2600. The condensed, mouse-controlled versions of Pong, Pole Position, Super Mario Bros. and even the tabletop game Connect Four aren't all that interesting by themselves. What makes Arcadia worthwhile is the interesting twist of playing all four games at the same time. To survive, the player must constantly shift their attention between the four small, rectangular play areas that move at an ever-increasing pace as the game continues. Lose all your lives in any of the sub-games, and the game as a whole comes to a halt.

Arcadia

It sounds like it should be simple pickings for a generation of gamers used to listening to music, reading a book, and talking on the phone at the same time, but the attention-splitting nature of Arcadia takes some getting used to. Pay too much attention to the automatically scrolling walker of Jumpy McJump, and the car in OverDrive will crash. Focus on the OverDrive section, and the white blip in electronic tennis will sail by the paddle. The game's scoring system, which bases the total game score off the product off all four subgame scores, rewards the player that can best maintain control of all four games at once.

Just like the simple games it imitates, Arcadia quickly becomes an addictive quest to beat your high score (or the scores of others on the worldwide high score table). The games do begin to feel repetitive after a while, but the novel experience of playing multiple games at once keeps it from getting old too quickly. It's an intriguing and entertaining mix of two distinct game design ideals.


guimp - the world's smallest website

Site: guimp.com
URL: http://www.guimp.com
Required plug-ins: Macromedia Flash Player

Rating: 7.0

Guimp certainly lives up to its subtitle: the entire site fits in a tiny, 20-pixel square that sits centered against a blue background on your browser screen. Surprisingly, the micro-sized versions of classics like Pac-Man, Pong, Asteroids, and Space Invaders lose very little in the conversion. The controls and sound effects remain similar to their arcade upright cousins; the main difference is that you have to squint a little bit to see the action.

guimp - the world's smallest website

Of course, the gameplay takes a little bit of a hit in some cases due to the smaller size, but the essential elements are still there. The simplified maze and single ghost of Pac-Man might make the game easier, but the idea of running around and eating dots hasn't changed. Similarly, the quickly dropping aliens in Space Invaders similarly don't impact the easily recognizable and instantly accessible gameplay.

Guimp.com shows how the simple structure and sheer fun factor of these classic games can be maintained even on an extremely limited platform. The site is also a testament to how recognizable these classics are: the vertical white lines and single white dot remain instant signifiers for Pong even when they're a fraction of the size.

After a while, squinting at the tiny screen is apt to become too annoying to be worth the novelty. And the original games, which include an F1 race and a maze crawl, are too hampered by the small screen size to be much fun. The lack of a high score list may also make maintaining interest hard for some, but it's a decent practical demonstration of how timeless gameplay can survive in any format.


GameButton Arcade

Site: Kisrael.com
URL: http://kisrael.com/features/gb.html
Required plug-ins: JavaScript-enabled browser

Rating: 8.0

This site goes a long way towards proving one of my favorite personal maxims: If it's programmable, someone will write a game for it. How else can you explain the GameButton arcade, a collection of games and animations that use the clickable buttons from web-based forms as the controller and graphical interfaces?

These games manage to be pretty entertaining despite having only one input button (i.e., the game itself) and sometimes crude text-based graphics. The key again is the classic design that doesn't require complex controls or displays to work well. Some of the games, like 50 Yard Dash, manage to mimic the gameplay of their arcade cousins almost exactly, despite these GameButton Arcade limitations. Others like Dashstacker and DASHTEROIDS modify the classic structures enough so they work in the limited environment while still maintaining the simple feel and the basic quest for the high score that provides the lasting appeal.

More important than the core gameplay, though, is what the GameButton arcade says about our need to find diversion in everyday life. One could take it as a statement on how there is a hidden potential for fun in even the most mundane elements of our world. Just as a young child sees a twig and an acorn and sees bat and ball, the creator of these games saw a diverting use for a standard web form element. Looking from a more videogame-centric view, one could compare the self-imposed limitations of the GameButton to the technological limitations imposed on videogame designers throughout the history of the medium.

But even for those not interested in its philosophical implications, the GameButton arcade remains entertaining even after the novelty wears off. Overall, it's a triumph of function and design over form.

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