Quickies: Desktop Diversions, Part I


- Episode 37 - April 1st, 2005

When I spend hours at the keyboard working, I need a break every so often. Of course I follow sound ergonomic principles and get out of the chair, stretch, change positions, and such.

I do all that, but there are times when I just don't feel like moving out of my comfy chair. My body doesn't need a break nearly as much as my brain. So I try to find games and other diversions I can double-click and play with for a few minutes to give my wetware something other than work to chew on.

The keys to a great desktop diversion are: No CD required; launches quickly on a PowerBook; and takes 10 minutes or less to play a complete game.

Two of my all-time favorites won't cost you a penny. JewelToy and iColumns, shown in Figure 1, are both based on getting three jewels in a row. Both are challenging, fun, quickly learned, and never mastered. Better still, both are freeware.

Figure 1: JewelToy and iColumns-fast, easy to learn, and free.

Both games are fun and you can't beat the price, but there's such a thing as too much of a good thing. So I'm always looking for a new desktop diversion or two to turn to when I need a short brain-break.

I won't bother telling you about all the poker options except to say that all of the games I've described for you here (in Episodes 24, 25, and 36) are great desktop diversions and work great for a five or ten minute break from serious stuff. That said, here are a few other neat desktop diversion-type programs I've discovered recently:

Monster Fair by LittleWing; 2,980 Japanese Yen (roughly $30 depending on exchange rate)

When I was a boy I loved pinball. I'd hang out at the local bowling alley playing the dozen or so classic analog pinball games for hours. Pinball on a computer isn't as much fun as shaking a machine in a bowling alley was, but that doesn't mean it can't be a lot of fun.

I've played a lot of different pinball simulations over the years and most of them suck. The only ones I've ever liked come from LittleWing.

If you've never played one of LittleWing's pinball simulations, go to the site and download one of the demos this very moment. The attention to detail is amazing and the physics can't be beat.

All of the LittleWing pinball sims I've tried are fabulous-Tristan, Crystal Caliburn, Loony Labryrinth, JINNI ZEALA, and the latest and greatest, LittleWing's 8th, MONSTER FAIR.

Figure 2: MONSTER FAIR is almost as much fun as real pinball.

It's like pinball without the bulk. You flap the flippers and try to keep the ball from dropping through the out hole. You get three balls per game and a game lasts around 5 minutes (in my case, usually less… unlike real pinball, I pretty much suck at this.)

MONSTER FAIR, like all the other LittleWing games, is fun, flashy, and a near-perfect desktop distraction.

No Limits Roller Coaster; $29.95

I got a press release alerting me to this program a few weeks ago and decided to take a look. I'm glad I did… this is a roller coaster simulator for roller coaster enthusiasts that is almost as much fun as the real thing.

Don't take my word; here are quotes from the No Limits Web site:

"As a professional coaster designer, I want to congratulate you on a superb piece of software development."

John Wardley - Coaster Designer (created Nemesis and Air)

"I'm the developer behind Disney's original Coaster game, that came out ten years ago. I just wanted to say, its about time somebody made a good sequel for the designers in all of us, that don't care about park admissions, or lines. Great Job guys!"

Dan Duncalf - CEO Pipeworks Software, Inc.

"The best 3D replication of roller coasters I have seen to date."

Bob Mandel - Senior Editor AVault

"The best 3-D roller coaster simulator on the market"

James Allen - Editor GameGenie

"The most realistic coaster simulation game I've ever seen."

Jeremy Cardon - Webmaster ATTRACTIONLAND.COM

Still not convinced? Here's what it looks like when you ride a coaster:

Figure 3: "The Loch Ness Monster" as seen from the front seat of car #1.

Riding the coasters is almost too realistic. Some of my friends said it made them queasy (but not me-I loved it). You can speed the coaster up or slow it down, and you are able to look around you 360° during the entire ride. Sweet!

And if you're not content with the nearly 30 included tracks, you can build your own using the NoLimitsEditor:

Figure 4: An almost-finished coaster design.

I still suck at designing my own but I'm having a blast trying. Download the demo and give it a shot.

Bubblegym; Donationware; $6 to unlock game.

Bubblegym not only gives the brain a break, you get a teeny-tiny bit of aerobic benefit, too. It's the first tilt-controlled game I've seen; you play it by tilting your (new) PowerBook left, right, forward, and back.

Current PowerBooks include a feature known as SMS (Sudden Motion Sensor), which could save your bacon if your computer is dropped or suddenly shifted by quickly moving the heads away from the disk. The sensor that makes this possible is built into the logic board of new PowerBooks.

It's a cool feature and, of course, it didn't take long for developers to find other interesting uses for SMS.

Amit Singh wrote a little program called AMSVisualizer (Figure 6) that shows your PowerBook's x, y, and z values in real time. I use it here to illustrate the way you'd tilt your PowerBook to squash the watermelon guy, which is the object of the game. (See Figures 5-7.)

The game itself is kind of dorky but a goofy kind of fun in its way.

Figures 5-7: I tilt the PowerBook towards me, and to the right, as shown by AMSVisualizer (middle) to run over the melon dude (bottom).

The game itself is kind of dorky and it didn't take long for the novelty to wear off on me. But it makes for one of the coolest PowerBook demos and everyone I've seen has oohed and aahed over it.

My new PowerBook was a review unit borrowed from Apple, which I'm sad to say I had to return yesterday. So I won't be playing this again for a while. But if you are fortunate enough to have one of the new PowerBooks, Bubblegym is worth the download.

P.S. If you're interested in how SMS works, Amit Singh (of AMSVisualizer fame) posted a very readable treatise on SMS and PowerBooks at KernelThreads:

And that's all he wrote...