A game that leans exer-gaming in the right direction, without quite tipping it over into must-play.

Making exercise less boring. For millions of gamers, this was the promise of the original Wii Fit. Sure, the game and its scale-like Balance Board controller could guide and grade you through simple yoga poses and strength-training exercises. But those sections of the game largely replicated exercises you could learn easily from a book or an exercise video.

The real appeal of the original Wii Fit — the thing that made it unique — was found in the Aerobics and Balance Games sections, where the game promised to distract and entertain even as it provided a full-body workout. For a generation that grew up controlling on-screen characters with their thumbs, this new mixture of gaming and exercise had the potential to be a hell of lot more interesting than jogging on a treadmill for an hour.

But most of the games in Wii Fit had a crucial problem: They were shallow. Extremely shallow, for the most part. While they held up decently well for the first few hours, few had enough depth to sustain a gamer’s interest for the weeks and weeks of regular exercise that make up a regular fitness regimen. It only took one or two play sessions to master the art of launching off a virtual ski jump or walking across a virtual tightrope or twirling a virtual hula hoop, or most of the other one-note activities presented in Wii Fit. After that, the games had roughly the same entertainment value as a stationary exercise bike (which provides a much more robust workout, by the by). The concept of “making exercise less boring” only works if the games themselves aren’t, you know, boring.

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Given its standing among developers, critics and fans, it’s surprising that there aren’t more games that blatantly rip off Super Metroid. Where Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter II and DOOM inspired whole movements of cash-in clones, Super Metroid‘s distinct item-based, nonlinear action-platforming has been confined primarily to two franchises: Metroid itself and Konami’s Castlevania series.

There are a few exceptions in recent memory — indie hit Cave Story, for one — but the subgenre has been coined “Metroidvania” precisely because of those two series. With the release of Shadow Complex, though, the genre may just have to be renamed. I’m still undecided on what that new name should be. Metroidvaniacomplex? Shadowmetroidvania?

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In a way, Wii Sports Resort and its included Wii MotionPlus accessory represent an admission of failure on Nintendo’s part.

Since late 2005, Nintendo has been promising that the Wii Remote would change the way we played games by replacing button-presses with real-world motions. The original Wii Sports, packaged with the Wii, single-handedly sold millions of Wii systems at $250 a pop, many to people who had never before considered picking up a game console.

But Wii Sports‘ proof of concept for a marvelous, motion-controlled future was aided by a significant helping of smoke and mirrors. Extended play showed that the Remote wasn’t accurate enough to detect the angle of a tennis racket as it made contact with the ball, or correct swinging form in Baseball or Golf. The cracks in the motion-control scheme really started to show in the Boxing mini-game, with matches that universally devolved into a mess of random Remote- and Nunchuk-swinging that had little to no correlation to the action on-screen.

There was a ray of hope in the original Wii Sports: The bowling mini-game, unlike the others, showed the real promise of motion controls by accurately detecting the angle and power of your Remote swing as you hurled the virtual ball down the lane. Here, finally, was a game where the Wii Remote was used in a way that couldn’t be emulated by a traditional controller — where how you moved the Wii Remote was just as important as the fact that you were moving it at all.

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Don’t pay for play

The iPhone has brought a lot of unique features to portable gaming — a large, multi-touch screen, a tilt sensor and significant built-in storage among them. But one of the iPhone’s most revolutionary features is its large library of instantly accessible free games. Every previous portable system required at least a little bit of money, effort and forward planning to buy a game and take it along, in anticipation of future gaming on the go. Now, with the iPhone, you can download any one of thousands of free games the moment you find yourself with some free gaming time.

The question, of course, is whether any of these free games are worth your time. To find out, I thought I’d put the App Store to the test by downloading the top 25 free titles from the “All Games” category (based on number of recent downloads as of July 17, 2009), and playing each one for as long as it could hold my attention. The only caveat was a 15-minute time limit for each game — because if a free game holds your attention for at least 15 minutes, that’s pretty good!

With that said, let’s dive right in to the top free games:
1. Wooden Labyrinth 3D Lite

I had a love/hate relationship with my old tabletop Labyrinth game as a kid. I loved the concept, but I hated how much I sucked at manipulating those little knobs to guide the ball past the holes. The iPhone version, with its simple tilt controls, makes things more enjoyable. I’m surprised how accurate and realistic the physics are, and I love the way the 3-D perspective shifts as you tilt the unit, making the screen feel like a window into an alternate world. The randomly generated levels in this “Lite” version are hit-or-miss, but the variable difficulty ensures lot of replay value.

Time wasted: 15 minutes

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In some ways, I’m probably the worst person possible to review this game.

For one, I’ve never played any of the original Monkey Island games. Call me a delinquent game journalist if you must, but despite the never-ending seas of critical praise for LucasArts’ classic PC adventure series, I’ve never bothered to figure out the Secret, cure the Curse, or try to Escape from Monkey Island (much less fend off LeChuck’s Revenge).

While I’ve hung around enough gamers to recognize the name Guybrush Threepwood and the joys of Insult Swordfighting, I’m definitely not part of the nostalgia-influenced market Telltale is targeting with this remake. This worried me a bit going into this review — I feared the game would be full of references to characters and events from a decade-old series I had no experience with. To Telltale’s credit, while I feel like I missed a few obvious inside jokes directed at Monkey Island veterans, for the most part Tales of Monkey Island works well as an introduction to the series.

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Ten Key Racing Game Innovations

Today’s virtual racing fans have an embarrassment of riches at their feet. From realistic simulations to arcade-style driftfests to futuristic hover-racing to weapon-based vehicular combat, the genre is as broad as it is deep.

But today’s varied racing-game market is the result of a steady, 35-year progression in technology and game design. With the Indy 500 coming up, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 most important innovations that fueled that progression.

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Even in the context of its PlayStation release in late 1997, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile looked a bit anachronistic. Coming a year after Super Mario 64‘s wide-open three-dimensional worlds, Klonoa was still confined to a linear, two-dimensional plane, using graphical trickery to evoke a 3-D feel. In a time when games like Final Fantasy VII were changing the way we looked at epic videogame storytelling, Klonoa seemed to revel in a simple narrative that didn’t resort to fancy CGI cut scenes. Even in 1997, Klonoa smacked of a gaming past that was quickly receding — a past where bright, colorful levels and mine-cart excursions and collecting 100 freaking gems for an extra life weren’t just accepted, but expected, parts of what gaming was.

Over a decade later, all those anachronisms still remain in the recent Wii re-release of Klonoa. Rather than dating the game, though, they make it a delightfully charming throwback to a style of gaming that seems quaint and nostalgic.

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 Plants vs. Zombies

It starts out small. So small, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine it ever growing into anything. When the first level of Plants vs. Zombies rolls out a single lane of grass, and asks you to click falling sunbeams for fuel to grow a pea-shooting plant that can hold off a line of slow-marching zombies, it’s easy to assume the worst. They’ve dumbed down the tower defense game! They’ve over-simplified things for the Bejeweled crowd! They’ve turned a proud, new strategy genre into a glorified click-fest with cutesy graphics!

But then the game adds new branches to this simple trunk. First it lets you harness more sunbeams with crucial, resource-producing sunflowers. Then it introduces new, tougher zombies that require more firepower from new, tougher (and more expensive) plants. Then you’re battling it out on nighttime levels where short-range fungus shooters can grow like weeds (except where there are zombie-producing gravestones). Before you know it, you’re deploying watermelon catapults to drive back rows of Zombonis (those are zombies on zambonis, don’tcha know?) while simultaneously erecting a protective canopy of palm trees to protect your balloon zombie-popping cacti from an overhead assault from zombies on bungee cords.

The change is so gradual that it barely registers from level to level, but at some point you look up and realize that Plants vs. Zombies has grown from a small, insignificant seed into a complex, chaotic, fast-paced strategy game that’s as addictive as the best in the genre.

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Puzzle Quest: Galactrix

Ask the average “hardcore” gamer what they think of a game like Bejeweled and you’ll often get a lengthy tirade on the evils of the bestselling puzzle game and the casual gaming boom it helped spawn. These kinds of mindless, over-simplified gem-matching games represent everything that’s wrong with today’s game industry, the argument goes. Instead of creating a compelling universe or crafting a tight set of deep, slowly unfolding rules, these games latch onto one simple mechanic (move a gem to create three in a row of one color) and wring it for all it’s worth — which usually is about 15 minutes of interesting gameplay. At their best, these gem-matching games could be called pointless diversions. At their worst, they’re pure mental masturbation: a single, nearly instinctive action, endlessly repeated, culminating in a violent explosion of sights and sounds that leaves you feeling oddly unsatisfied in the end.

I understand these arguments, and agree with large parts of them. What confuses me, then, is how these same arguments seem to fall by the wayside when hardcore gamers talk about Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords and its recent sequel Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, two games that dress up this same simple, tired gameplay with the thinnest patina of role-playing clichés.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve succumbed to the seductive power of the gem-matching game before. I recently fostered an intense, month-long addiction to Bejeweled Twist, spending every free moment mesmerized by the game’s effortless, autopilot gameplay and bright, colorful explosions. But Puzzle Quest: Galactrix lacks many important elements that made Bejeweled Twist so compelling, namely: an effortless interface; excellent presentation; a smooth, quickly-progressing difficulty curve; and, most importantly, a frustration-free reward system that minimizes the role of luck.

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Rhythm Heaven

The rhythm game genre wasn’t always all about dancing and playing plastic faux instruments. At the genre’s beginnings, games like PaRappa the Rapper and Space Channel 5 were the Broadway musicals of the gaming world, telling simple, sweeping stories with the aid of catchy songs; evocative “set design” and basic, call-and-response, button-tapping gameplay. Rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero and Rock Band have turned this quirky niche into a mainstream obsession. As much as I love those games, though, there’s a part of me that’s been longing recently for more of the absurdist rhythm-game musicals of a decade ago.

Well, Rhythm Heaven certainly satisfies that need, cramming 50 tiny variations on the classic form into its tiny silicon wafer. Nintendo’s take on the genre is so old-school that it actually throws out the kind of minimal stories that held PaRappa and SC5 together, opting instead for dozens of disconnected micro-stories — each just as absurd as those of a rapping dog or a dancing space reporter. In one, military cranes (like the bird, not the heavy machinery) train for an unseen war. In another, Easter Island’s moai statues sing love songs to each other in gibberish. Dumpling-eating monks, dolphin-riding synchronized swimmers, robotic ping-pong players, ninja dogs, gopher-destroying beet farmers, lovesick chemists, race-car photographers, karate masters and soccer stars all feature in their own mini-dramas. They each stick around barely long enough to establish themselves as characters through some crude graphics and extremely expressive animation.

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