November 29, 2004

Holiday Gamer's Gift Guide

by peterb

It's hard to know how to shop for a videogamer. How do you find something that's appropriate for their age, fun, and not too expensive if you don't play games yourself? The answer is: you bend to my will and let me choose your gifts for you.

My goal here is to recommend games beyond the "big names" -- the fact is, most gamers are more than happy to go out and buy the big marquee titles themselves; if there's a gamer in your family with an Xbox, for example, she or he probably already has Halo 2. Instead, I'm trying to find the more oblique, offbeat, and inexpensive selections.

Atari Anthology - $19.95 - Xbox or Playstation 2 - Perfect for the older gamer who used to own an Atari, this title will evoke feelings of nostalgia and guilt that will overwhelm the delicate and overjoy the unthinking. It contains 85 of the original Atari VCS games. Only in-house Atari titles are represented. Frankly, all of these games are available in more comprehensive collections for various computer systems, but there's something to be said about playing them on a TV with a reasonable console game controller. Available in both Xbox and Playstation 2 versions. Appropriate for all ages, but probably most appreciated by those over 30.

Katamari Damacy - $19.95 - Playstation 2 - If you can only buy one game for someone, and they have a Playstation 2, make it this one. You will instantly be transformed from whatever you are to this person -- friend, mother, gastroenterologist -- into "the glorious angel who bought me Katamari Damacy." "Odd" doesn't begin to describe this game. It goes through strange, past whimsical, and wraps all the way around into profound. The colorful graphics, the insanely infectious music, the oddball concept, and the straightforward yet challenging gameplay meld into the perfect game. You can read a review of it, if you'd like, but it's not necessary. This is the one. Buy it now. Appropriate for all ages; there's some cartoony violence, but it's as nonthreatening as an all-consuming ball sweeping up all in its path can be.

Harvest Moon - A Wonderful Life - $19.99 - GameCube - The Harvest Moon games can be a bit saccharine, giving a somewhat idealized view of farm life, but they nonetheless provide a view into husbandry of animals and crops that kids seem to adore. The game centers around doing chores and making schedules (rotating crops, for example). I find this sort of thing a bit tedious, but to kids under 10 it exerts a disturbingly magnetic pull. I wouldn't get this for a teenager, but for younger kids it's a good choice.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight - $24.95 (or $4.95 (!) with coupon) - Windows PC - It's become harder and harder with each passing year to justify using Windows as a game platform. Flight Simulators are probably the last class of games -- outside of text adventures, which are more of a boutique hobby at this point -- that realistically require a PC to play. MS Flight Sim is still best-in-class, and is beautiful to look at. Not really appropriate for kids, unless they're obsessed by airplanes -- this is a real simulator, and not so much a game. If the giftee loves to fly in real life, and doesn't have this yet, this is a no-brainer. Also, you can use this coupon until 2005 to obtain a mail-in rebate of $20, making this game, effectively, free.

Reiner Knizia's Samurai - $19.95 - Macintosh - Boardgames are different overseas. One of life's ongoing mysteries is why German mass market boardgames are interesting, clever, and fun for all ages, while American mass market boardgames -- like Monopoly -- are boring, stupid, and aren't any fun. Reiner Knizia is a famous German boardgame designer, and Samurai is one of his classics. Played on an iconic map of Japan, players play chits to try to exert influence over three different social groups -- samurai, peasant, and priest -- to gain domination. The computerized Mac version of this boardgame provides a decent single-player challenge via computer players, and also allows play over the Internet. The user interface is intuitive and the game is visually appealing. There is a demo available for download. Appropriate for all ages.

I hope you enjoyed this little list. If you've got suggestions, feel free to add them below. Extra bonus points if the game you suggest is under $25.

Posted by peterb at November 29, 2004 05:44 PM | Bookmark This

Breakquest ( is great, the best shareware game I've played in ages. It's ostensibly Breakout or Arkanoid, but the physics engine (ball shape, momentum, spin, etc.) make a huge difference and the levels are very creative. Each of the 100 is like an entirely different game. Lots of throwbacks for the nostalgic gamer, too, with the Asteroids and Space Invaders and 8-bit levels.

It's only $20 and there's a demo. I haven't played Halo 2 since registering it.

Posted by misere at November 29, 2004 06:25 PM

"Windows PC - It's become harder and harder with each passing year to justify using Windows as a game platform"

Seeing that MSFS is the only non-PC game you recommend, I think what you really
meant to state was that it's become harder to justify the PC as a gaming
platform. And I have to say that just ain't so.
If you're into real state-of-the-art 'eye-candah' and care about how big the
pixelation on your screen is you play a PC platform game, especially for all
kinds of FPS's.

Posted by bert at November 30, 2004 07:37 AM


I think you misspoke, somewhat -- can you rephrase your comments? MSFS is indeed a Windows PC game.

Obviously, de gustibus non est disputandum, but I stand by my statement that the PC has little to recommend itself as a gaming platform, even if you factor out the "costs an order of magnitude more than a gaming console" issue. I've written about this quite a bit here:

Yes, at any given moment the latest and greatest PC is likely to have more "eye candy" than the latest and greatest console; it's also true that _most of us don't have the latest and greatest PC_, and _most game developers aren't writing games that make use of the latest and greatest eye candy features_. I can run half-life 2 on my PC. Most of the DirectX 9 and 10 features won't work on my videocard. If I want to make them work, I can buy a new videocard. That alone will cost more than an Xbox (and the game will still run unacceptably slowly, at any resolution above 640x480). And it'll take me 3 hours to install. And will probably crash to desktop. And so on, and so on, and so on.

The pixelation argument I'm not sure I buy. Does anyone who has an Xbox think to themselves "Damn, if only this game were at 1600x1200, everything would look that much better?" Maybe it's just because I grew up looking at TV resolutions -- they look just fine to me, not pixelated at all. But maybe my eye isn't good enough -- is this an issue for anyone else?

I think there _is_ a small argument for having a PC for games (and let's be real: "PC" and "Windows PC" are interchangeable in this regard; Linux and FreeBSD are not serious gaming platforms). I think the argument for having a PC for gaming is the exact opposite of the one you make. You don't want a PC for the big marquee games like Half-Life 2. Those games are, sooner or later, going to come out for the consoles, because the big software developers like taking treasure baths and rolling around in fat sacks of cash (Bethesda, for example, made _much much more_ from _Morrowind_ on the Xbox then they did on the PC). The reason to own a PC for gaming is in fact to be able to play the _small_ games, the independent shareware games like Escape Velocity, A Fool and His Money, Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, Breakquest (thanks, misere!), and others. Those games are being produced by talented developers who don't have the bureaucratic resources needed to break in to the console market.

It turns out that most of those games will play perfectly well on the 5 year old PC you already own, or on the $300 lowest-end Dell PC you can buy.

Thanks for your interesting comments,


Posted by peterb at November 30, 2004 08:26 AM

Samurai is available for the PC as well as the Mac.

Posted by gregl at November 30, 2004 09:49 AM

If you can find it and/or afford it, a very good PSone game (which still works fine in the PS2) is _Intelligent Qube_.

(I do not know about the _I.Q. Remix+_ product that was subsequently put out for the PS2, but from what I understand it is not on par with the original.)

Posted by PGM at November 30, 2004 03:35 PM

Thanks for the recommendations. One of them will make a perfect gift for somebody I know.

Posted by Tom Moertel at November 30, 2004 04:23 PM

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