Crispy Gamer

Going Casual

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By Scott Steinberg

Greetings, friends -- you don't know me, but I'm hardcore.

I'm so hardcore, in fact, that the last game I beat was 1992's The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel -- and no, chuckles, I didn't do it 15 years back. I'm actually OCD to the degree that I've been so single-mindedly determined to conquer this point-and-click adventuring epic since adolescence that I finally killed that sucker last weekend with the help of desktop emulator DOSBox. Moreover, I'm that rare breed of geek so indoctrinated in nerd culture that I even recognized half the names on the accompanying .NFO file from the warez group who'd originally pirated it back when Bush, Sr. was in office.

I say this not to brag or boast, but simply to demonstrate a point: Times change, and people must as well -- even die-hard enthusiasts. Frankly, said sleuthing indulgence was a rarity, and, like many former PC/console addicts who've grown up to have jobs, families and full-time careers -- all serious impediments to a hardcore gaming habit -- I've seen my tastes morph over the years, too.

Real-time strategy titles? Fun in short spurts. Open-world adventures? People who score 100% completion rates on these suckers must be an urban legend. First-person shooters? Enjoyable once in a while, but less interesting as a genre than as the basis for the odd high-def home theater showpiece or anger-channeling multiplayer standoff.

Nay, as you may know, between the demands of juggling home ownership, maintaining gainful employment, and furthering personal relationships, time for playing today's 40-hour console epics can be hard to come by lately. Worse, outside of offerings for Nintendo's motion-sensing Wii, few of 2008's titles evoke the spirit or innovation with which countless lifelong fans (yours truly included) fell in love many moons ago. Thus, alongside millions of other players -- many of whom had previously abandoned the hobby for decades until trends shifted from Steel Battalion-style control schemes and cybernetic Nazi-hunting topics to more comfortable themes/setups -- I've turned to casual gaming for my daily fix.

So let's get this out of the way upfront. Say what you will about offerings ranging from Zuma to Luxor, Bejeweled and Peggle and their harmless approach, family-friendly trappings and eye-catching color schemes. I'd argue that they more truly exemplify the spirit of the 8- or fewer-bit legends on which this industry was founded than any recent console outings besides Contra 4 and Brain Age.

What's more, unlike the thousands of dudes who, according to a recent Casual Games Association survey, play these suckers as much as women but are too ashamed to admit it, I'm not afraid to publicly swear my allegiance. Wake up and smell the silicon: It's a new world out there folks, and this business has generated $2.25 billion in revenue (read: it's a freakin' behemoth) this year in the United States alone.

Enter an era where, as long as you're willing to free your mind (and schedule) for 15 minutes, the future belongs to the n00bs. No longer must we be slaves to giant corporations churning out inexplicable sci-fi epics and fantasy role-playing masterpieces requiring a dictionary-sized manual to play. Today, nearly any gaming desire can be filled in seconds by visiting RealArcade, iWin.com or Big Fish's Web site and picking simpler but equally engaging titles boasting similar themes -- or new styles of electronic amusement entirely.

Better still, it's possible to sample virtually any outing on-demand using downloadable demos; 'try before you buy' is a staple of nearly every casual gaming transaction. As for prices, multi-game packs or monthly subscriptions can go as low as $6.99 per title -- a price you can barely beat at Wal-Mart's budget racks. In other words, the day of Myst has given way to that of Mystery Case Files; the time of Super Mario Bros. to that of Super Granny 4.

Certainly, like the lingo -- what the heck's a match-three or a hidden-object game anyhow -- the pastime's overall audience has changed. (Get ready to start competing with little sis and great grandpa for the controller.) But with even the Nintendo DS, Wii and Xbox Live Arcade quickly being infiltrated by the phenomenon, as evidenced by quirky offerings ranging from 7 Wonders to Jenga and Uno, there's one key point you can't ignore: The industry is making an inevitable shift towards this more mainstream direction.

There is also a sudden need to acknowledge casual gaming just as much as the traditional interactive entertainment biz we already adore. Take a look at the release schedule at GameStop if you need convincing: This isn't just a fad that's liable to be going away overnight, unless by 'overnight' you mean 'sometime in 2116.'

Not man enough to admit you dig Cake Mania 2 or Dream Day Wedding? Hey, that's your problem. Me, I'm in touch with my feminine side. If it means getting to go hands-on with a riveting new breed of puzzler or side-scrolling, platform-hopping romp, no problem. Show me the proverbial lip gloss. As any college student can confirm, pitiable is the chump who puts pride before having a good time.

For those of you keen to point fingers, well...kiss my mouse. Hey, I dig BioShock as much as the next guy, but never forget: The first videogame, Willy Higginbotham's Tennis for Two, has more in common spiritually with Bookworm than Assassin's Creed.

Laugh if you must. Just don't be afraid to try something new. Because surrendering to the joy of casual amusements needn't mean abandoning the same gaming principles you grew up loving. Furthermore, long after the spotlight has faded on yesterday's treasures -- although it was only seven days ago for moi -- it's not like they're in danger of being forgotten.

After all, as this recovering hardcore gamer can attest, the fun's just getting started. If the need to prove you're still old-school strikes, hell... Remember that one can always pick right up with the pleasures of Agatha Christie: Peril at End House mere seconds after waving goodbye to the boys at 221B Baker Street.

For a look at Scott Steinberg's credentials, check out his writer page.