Top Casual PC Games of 2009

01/02/2009 by Bob Mandel | Source: Adrenaline Vault

Despite the explosion of blockbuster AAA retail releases this holiday season, the casual computer games market continues to flourish. Although more temptations than ever seduce game developers away from the PC platform, what with Xbox Live Arcade and the iPhone becoming primary casual-game outlets, the personal computer—because it is so open and everyone owns one—remains a primary development platform. So while many other game sites focus their attention on conventional retail offerings, I unearth for your playing pleasure the very best hidden computer treasures that casual gaming has to offer. To select the dozen 2009 award winners from an increasingly competitive field, I spent many hours scouring hundreds of full, registered versions developed all over the world to discern their overall value. Because of increasingly intrusive and annoying copy-protection schemes and the presence in many homes of multiple computers, some of which lack online access, I tested only the single-player modes of offerings that can be registered and played on a non-Internet-connected machine.

The definition of what constitutes a casual computer game has become quite murky, and some readers might disagree that all of this year’s award winners belong in that category. The wide-ranging ways used to delineate casual games include the following: (1) low price point; (2) small or “indie” development team; (3) compact code size allowing quick downloads and having low minimum system requirements; (4) appeal primarily to consumers who buy their games at places like Target and Wal-Mart; (5) something stay-at-home moms can play when they have a spare moment; (6) releases embodying low complexity and sophistication, often facilitating immediate play without reading instructions; (7) ease in completing specified game objectives with mistake tolerance, hint systems, and/or the ability to exit and continue at any point; (8) omission of dark, bloody or morally objectionable material; (9) the existence of a port on mobile devices; and (10) the inclusion of cute characters (such as cuddly creatures) or low-stress side activities (such as mini-games).

This is the 10th anniversary for this awards article, making it the longest-running continuous casual games award series anywhere. I am flattered that, since its inception, it has spawned several imitators. As a former shareware PC game developer myself, I am thrilled at the attention many indie game releases now receive. One of the pleasures of doing this awards article is that I get to meet some of the nicest, most imaginative and highly talented game developers on the planet. Reflecting backward over the past decade, while the technical aspects—graphics and sound quality—of the releases have certainly improved since the beginning of this article series, the gameplay has been highly enjoyable from the very beginning.

Machinarium by Amanita Design

All the way from the Czech Republic comes Machinarium, a highly immersive and challenging point-and-click adventure game. It features an entertaining story of a cute robot that needs to find his way home and save the world. There are around 30 locations to explore. You undertake a series of intricate steps to make progress in your mission, as there are few tasks that can be executed in a straightforward way. Often you know where you want to go or what you want to do, and have to consider carefully every option to figure out how to accomplish it. Along the way you collect items in an inventory, which often you must combine before you use. If you get stuck, a convenient hint system is available, either through general ideas or precise solutions (earned through playing a mini-game). The beautiful, enchanting graphics are hand-drawn, the sound effects are right on the mark, and the music is soothing and pensive. If you like an intellectual challenge that requires logical physical puzzle solving but no twitch arcade reflexes, you should buy this game.

Grappling Hook by Speed Run Games

At first glance, Grappling Hook looks like a traditional combat-oriented first-person shooter, but closer inspection reveals that it is a highly creative game from Germany that focuses on 3D platform action collecting pickups. The principal play dynamic involves a powerful grappling hook that can transport you long distances against the forces of gravity if you attach it to the right surfaces. As you progress, you find yourself using the grappling hook in increasingly unusual and intricate ways, as you encounter lethal obstacles that you must avoid or somehow use to your advantage. To overcome these obstacles, you often need to engage in highly skilled and speedy physical moves. The animated level design is amazingly complex, including moving walls, floors and ceilings. You encounter 31 levels, have the opportunity to earn 30 achievements, and face ever-escalating challenges. The visuals are crisp and colorful, and the music fits the mood of the game. If you like action-puzzle challenges that require a deft combination of hand-eye coordination and mental strategy, Grappling Hook is for you.

Cogs by Lazy 8 Studios

Cogs is an exciting action-puzzle game in which you cause animated machines to function properly by moving sliding tiles. Usually these movements trigger a dramatic pre-specified physical action. While what you see usually incorporates full 3D elements, on some especially fun levels you can even rotate the entire vantage point 360 degrees. This game uses 50 levels and multiple gameplay modes to provide a diverse play experience. In Inventor Mode, you can play without constraint, while in Challenge Mode, you choose to impose on yourself either a time limit of 30 seconds or a limit of 10 moves for level completion. You are awarded stars based on your ability to quickly and efficiently complete the puzzles. The visual design and imagination of the game are stunning, with great attention to detail, and the sound effects are downright enticing. If you want an unorthodox and creative experience that allows you to make complex connections using sliding tiles to complete bizarre working contraptions, then look no further than Cogs.

Defense Grid: The Awakening by Hidden Path Entertainment

Remember playing all those old tower defense games? Although some got boring after a while, it was fun trying to defend your installations. Now there is an action/strategy game in this niche that is better than anything that has ever appeared before and never gets boring—Defense Grid: The Awakening. After a thousand years of peace, an alien invasion is commencing, and the survival of the planet depends on your ability to manage the defense grid by placing defense fortifications appropriately to prevent the invaders from stealing your power cores. There are 20 unique maps in the campaign, 10 types of towers and 15 enemy types, as well as more than 60 unlockable challenge modes. You can earn gold, silver or bronze medals for efficiently protecting lots of cores. The graphics are really impressive, incorporating the ability to zoom in and pan about as you see fit, and the soundtrack adds tension to the action. While a snap to understand and play, Defense Grid quickly tests your mental and physical mettle. If you are defensively oriented and love strategic placement challenges, you will love playing this game.

Gridrunner Revolution by Llamasoft

Inspired by a 1982 game from the same developer for the Vic-20 and Commodore 64 computers, Gridrunner Revolution demonstrates that sometimes the best older concepts provide the basis for the best modern games. This British arcade-action game sets the stage for stunning, fast and frenzied twitch reflex action. While using a ship that can rotate 360 degrees to blast almost everything in sight, you collect sheep power-ups to enhance your weaponry. There are a whopping 200 levels, and four difficulty settings for every kind of player. You can unlock the original version of the game or a version with a different control scheme. A key gameplay wrinkle is complex bullet trajectories that loop around gravity wells. Sky-high production values are evident, with astounding graphics, sound effects and music; there is even a Jukebox Mode that allows you just to sit back and groove on the awesome audiovisual effects. If you crave a psychedelic play experience that will bring back frenetic retro thrills using the most advanced technological bells and whistles, don’t miss Gridrunner.

Plants vs. Zombies by Popcap

Plants vs. Zombies is an interminably cute action-strategy game between two unusual foes. You control the defensive placement of 49 armed plants to protect your front door against 26 varieties of marauding zombies. Because you have a limited supply of seeds and sun and each zombie has its own special skills, you have to act quickly and prudently to stop the relentless invaders. You play through day, night and fog, and even battle in a swimming pool and on a rooftop. Plants vs. Zombies contains four play modes: a sequential story mode, a mini-game mode, a special puzzle mode and an unlimited-zombie battle mode. You can also interact with the relaxing Zen Garden. If you are curious, you can learn background information about the adversaries, and if you wish to improve your lot you can shop for plant and game upgrades. The sound effects—particularly the mutterings of the zombies—are great, and the action rhythmically pulsates to the beat of the music. If you want to beat the forces of the undead with a smile on your face using strategic thinking rather than an arcade blastfest, then this game is for you.

Mystery Case Files Dire Grove by Big Fish Games

There is no niche of PC casual games that has seen more releases in 2009 than hidden object games, and the winner in this competition is Mystery Case Files: Dire Grove. This cleverly combines play dynamics from both hidden object and adventure games as you follow the trail of a group of missing graduate students within a mysterious village. The stormy winter weather provides an excellent backdrop for the intrigue. The special Collector’s Edition of the game features extras including bonus “Easter egg” levels, secrets related to other Mystery Case Files episodes, and a Deluxe Strategy Guide. A new challenge and achievement system is also present, and a comprehensive hint system, mysterious morphing objects, VHS tapes and a crime computer are available to aid you in your quest. From the beginning, the Mystery Case Files series has set the standard for this type of play, and the professional polish in all aspects of the game—sound effects, music and graphics—is exceptional. If this type of play is your cup of tea, you simply cannot miss this latest outstanding installment.


Osmos by Hemisphere Games

Do you yearn for a softer, gentler play experience? Then give Osmos (from British Columbia) a try. You control a “mote”—a beautiful circular object—and your goal is to grow by absorbing other smaller motes. To get where you want to go you shoot forward by projecting matter behind you, but doing so reduces your size. Accomplishing your objective sounds easy and straightforward, but the creative level design creates escalating challenges. The tone is mellow rather than frenzied; you can slow down time if you wish, and contemplation is welcomed. The dreamlike visuals and the soothing electronic soundtrack help considerably with this relaxed reflection. As you progress you encounter attractors, repulsors, and intelligent motes with similar abilities and goals as you. There are 47 levels and unlockable bonus content for your playing pleasure, and you can return and play random variants of levels you have finished. If you want to play a cerebral meditative game that will calm you down and chill you out so that you truly attain utter tranquility, you can do no better than Osmos.

Bumps by Utopian Games

Bumps is an entertaining action-puzzle game from the United Kingdom emphasizing mastery of physics in an intriguing way. The gameplay revolves around dropping colored balls onto just the right platforms so that they collect similarly colored keys used to unlock cages filled with captured innocents waiting to be eaten by alien invaders. The game contains 99 imaginative levels presenting diverse challenges. Along the way, you encounter obstacles such as chains and swinging devices, rotating platforms and rubbery surfaces. As you progress, special elements can change the size, weight or speed of a Bump, or even invert gravity. Best of all, often you can trigger fun chain reactions. Sometimes you can deduce a solution ahead of time, while in other cases you have to use trial and error. The visuals, animations, sound effects and music are all lighthearted, amusing and adorable. A visual level guide is available if you get stuck. If you are a fan of plotting collisions and rebounds so as to achieve complicated outcomes, join in on the fun in this enjoyable offering.

Enlightenus by Big Fish Games

Although looking at first glance like a hidden object game, Enlightenus has you focus on finding the proper location for objects in your inventory instead of on simply hunting for concealed items. Your goal is to track down each chapter of reclusive author Edgar Lee`s missing novels while exploring a huge mansion containing lots of rooms, physical puzzles and locks. Along the way, you get to play enjoyable mini-games, including placing figurine tokens in groups based on collected clues and matching animals with their homes and their preferred foods. There is no time pressure, so you can think carefully about finding paths to make it through challenges. If you get stuck, you can use Hint Orbs to obtain a hint, but you have to wait for them to recharge before you can use them again. To speed this recharging, you may use an Enlightenus Card, two of which are in every scene. The graphics and music are absolutely sumptuous. If you like exploring for covert clues within an enchanted setting but want a different twist than what has become a standard play mechanic, give Enlightenus a try.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! — A Reckless Disregard for Gravity by Dejobaan Games

For anyone with a fear of heights, this action release will either cure you of this phobia or make matters a whole lot worse. AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! is exactly the sound you emit while playing this offering, which embodies highly original play. You jump head-first off the top of tall tightly-spaced skyscrapers, and as you fall at incredible speeds you make split-second choices. These death-defying decisions include giving buildings “kisses” (momentary touches) or “hugs” (prolonged contact sliding down structures), smashing through colored glass plates, parachuting accurately to drop within a small landing zone, showing human spectators below a signal of approval or a rude gesture, and spray painting buildings. If you survive, these actions score you points earned in the form of human teeth, helping you to unlock other parts of the play grid and to get bizarre usable objects. There are 80 levels of insane first-person-perspective adrenaline-pumping action, all laced with humor and fun-inducing graphics and sound. If you always wanted to play extreme sports but are afraid to try, take the plunge and buy this game.

Astro Tripper by PomPom Games

Astro Tripper is a fast-paced British Defender/Guardian arcade shoot-em-up, and like Gridrunner Revolution it updates an earlier release (PomPom’s 2001 Space Tripper). From an overhead view within large, horizontally-scrolling platforms, you command a small craft that dodges and ultimately destroys scores of enemies bent on your annihilation. To do this under a time limit, your ship comes armed with blue lasers and red spread lasers, powered by picking up crystals left by obliterated foes, including alien insects, electricity-generating Aztec structures, fast UFOS, large motherships, ominous tanks and helicopters, slimy slugs, and ultimately mammoth bosses. The gameplay in Adventure Mode varies across 14 levels spread throughout four diverse worlds. In this new version, you see spectacular high-definition graphics, hear scintillating sound effects and music, and gain access to global online rankings and four Challenge Mode games. There are three levels of difficulty, but even the easiest is no piece of cake. If you crave the ultimate test of offensive and defensive twitch skills, this one is for you.