Crispy Gamer

Going Casual: Garden Defense, Lumines, Super Granny 4, and more

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Unsurprisingly, following a banner year for interactive entertainment as a whole, casual gaming has been booming recently, with reports showing this already $2.25 billion industry steadily growing at a 20 percent annual rate. No shocker there, I concede.

What does blow the mind -- besides, naturally, just how long it?s taken for traditional videogame fans to wake up and smell the coffee break-friendly fun -- is just how hungry otherwise choosy vidiots are for any and every title that falls into this category, with so many look-alikes and clones of popular smashes contributing to that massive bottom line. Frankly, it?s a little like watching desperate gourmands hungry for wild boar rush to grab the latest juicy, pork-filled McRib or hitting the local deli for a ham sandwich.

In other words, as much as we enthusiasts love to beat our chests and bemoan publishers? general unwillingness to embrace innovation, it?s obvious that, at least where bubble-shooting diversions and table-waiting simulations are concerned, plagiarism pays. Whether the game is shameless copy or not, most folks are all too happy to dive head-first into a fresh knock-off -- or seven -- of a popular hit. Such caveats simply underscore how important it is that we all take the time to celebrate those special outings that actually (gasp) dare to be different.

Granted, I understand the appeal of titles that fall into the former, less intellectually-stimulating group: If a basic gameplay concept isn?t broke, why bother fixing it? Certainly, for every Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate, there are bound to also be a dozen high-quality "homages" (Amazing Adventures: The Lost Tomb, G.H.O.S.T. Hunters, etc.) that successfully ape the approach to the delight of even us jaded, pissy old sorts.

Simply taking an old premise and dressing it in fresh clothes not only dilutes the original title?s overall contribution to the gaming canon, it also lessens the impact of truly meaningful debuts and creates brand confusion, causing sales numbers on pioneering titles to drop, thereby lowering the chances that we?ll see sequels or significant upgrades to deserving outings. It also, of course, adds to an overall stagnation in creativity, as financially-driven developers devote their attention more to feeding the masses? appetite than to raising the bar for high-quality productions.

But I digress. I come not to take a big, fat, smelly number-two on the makers of me-too outings like the formulaic Svetlograd and Little Shop: Big City, but rather to praise the upstarts behind the sector's surprises. The good news is that, in truth, there are plenty of titles to rave about.

If you haven?t been paying attention lately, make no mistake. You?ve been missing out on many great new iterations of prior offerings, as well as a smaller, welcome variety of amusements that stand out for their pure inventiveness alone.

Following are just a few unexpected gems that deserve to find a happy home on your hard drive, and (gag) in your heart. Our fervent hope: that you?ll enjoy them enough to put down Crysis for 10 seconds and see that there?s more to life than hyperrealistic 3-D worlds filled with squawking chickens and ass-whuppin? alien invasions, and that their success will pave the way for developers to dare to put their proverbial nuts on the chopping block more often -- and push current gaming boundaries in the near future as a result.

Garden Defense -- Ever played the Flash-based or Warcraft III-fueled editions of the popular outing Tower Defense? Brilliantly channeling its spirit, this whimsical, Nickelodeon-style tour de force takes the title?s basic principles -- stop invading foes from marching towards an end-point by building and upgrading stationary/mobile defenses -- and translates them into the cartoon arena. Never mind the brilliantly pastel-colored presentation; you?ll mostly adore the tale for its willingness not to skimp on tactical challenge, and for substituting shot-spitting gnomes, bug-bashing plants and urinating fountains for guard towers, catapults and moats. Plus, the game definitively proves that real-time strategy translates as well as any genre to a simpler, more ergonomic (yet no less addictive) format.

Lumines -- Yes, we?re talking about that same Lumines, the psychedelic puzzler previously released for consoles and mobile phones that is so popular it could practically give Tetris a run for the money. Ported over to the PC by WildTangent, the techno-flavored romp challenges you to form chunks of like-colored blocks to the beats of trippy house music. Clear objects from the screen as a brick-removing line sweeps across it at varying intervals, and you?ll be treated to dynamic sound effects that only enhance the Zen-like quality of the experience. Give it a shot; you won?t just permanently expand your mind, but also your list of all-time favorites.

Super Granny 4 -- Yeah, yeah? Any title starring a wisecracking octogenarian (catchy speech samples really make lines like "You want Granny? You can?t handle the Granny!" pop) must be strictly for old farts, right? Not so? Admirers of certified '80s classics such as Lode Runner and BurgerTime will find this a nostalgic trip down memory lane, as you climb ladders and race across platforms, collecting kitties and digging holes to trap enemies so you can run atop their heads. From wielding foe-foiling items like frying pans and anvil-filled shopping bags to solving puzzles by switching between multiple on-screen characters, ? la The Lost Vikings, this is old-school mayhem at its best. A built-in level editor only adds to the offering?s replay value and appeal.

Home Sweet Home -- Even the best of us have been forced to watch HGTV at least once to please our significant other. This funky interior decorating sim makes it easier to empathize. Offered cryptic clues to clients? dispositions, players must outfit their homes with throw rugs, bookcases, stereos, pool tables, custom flooring and hundreds of other accessories that?ll hopefully be to the patrons? liking. Afterwards, you?ll have to construct items by managing a crew of quirky DIY types in finger-cramping real-time challenges, assigning them to projects or patching injuries as needed. Weird, yes. Something you can afford to miss? For sake of your relationship, no.

Jojo?s Fashion Show -- Lame name, cool game. Here, given certain motifs (Western, summer, bridal, etc.) you must dress models accordingly using a limited selection of clothes and accessories. The more apt and stylish your selections, the better you score -- and access to additional power-ups that instantly dress subjects in chic fashions or shuffle the selection of available shoes, skirts and tops. Playing virtual dollhouse might not be everyone?s cup of Earl Gray, but the title shares a lot aesthetically and vibe-wise with shows like "America?s Next Top Model" and "Project Runway." The upshot: As regular primetime viewers will quickly note, the creators have found a clever way to take a seemingly TV-specific format and "make it work."

These all-star outings are just the beginning. Hit your favorite online portal to see what other cost-conscious downloadable charmers have landed of late. Sure, casual games might not enjoy the same amount of media exposure as, say, complementary offerings for the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360, but darned if titles such as these -- willing to take a chance and flip the finger at convention -- don?t show that many are no less deserving of the spotlight.