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Gamers Take It Easy

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"MSN Games for Windows Vista"

Vista $7.95-$19.95

E for Everyone

Gamers of the world, relax.

With the launch of its new operating system, Windows Vista, Microsoft wants to remind gamers that going casual offers as much fun as a big-budget blockbuster. Rather than talk about how Vista will change the face of gaming just yet, the Redmond crew started pushing easy-to-learn, simple-to-play arcade and puzzle games. Forget about "Gears of War" for a minute and try out a game of "Spinword."

Vista's arrival on the computing scene has come with the expected bumps and lumps of any new technology. Alex St. John stands out as a particularly vocal critic in the gaming community. As one of the principal creators of Direct X, the code that enables much of Windows' multimedia and game functionality, St. John speaks with a voice of authority. As the head of casual-game publisher WildTangent, his claims that Vista broke 90 percent of his company's games established his worries that the new system was anti-gamer.

While Microsoft has responded with fixes as the new operating system churns through the expected period of stabilization, the gamer on the side doesn't need to figure out whether or not St. John's claims hold water. The more important point to be taken from the whole fracas is that casual games - those card games and simple matching exercises - were a big-enough deal that anyone would care, much less claim, they didn't work right on Vista.

While hard figures remain elusive - even defining a casual game causes debate among the people making them - everyone agrees that the market is big and getting bigger. The International Game Developers Association's Casual Games White Paper points to revenues for the segment growing from next to nothing in 2002 to $400 million in 2004. The report expects these numbers to exceed $2 billion in the U.S. by 2008.

All that attention adds up to one thing: Casual games might not offer cutting-edge game play or graphics, but they do remain disproportionately fun.

Since last year, Xbox 360ers have played casual titles on the Live Arcade service. With 70 percent of the 6 million 360 players downloading at least a trial of these games, Microsoft can see that the snack-size titles retain a strong appeal. And even though the new "MSN Games" packaged especially for Vista consist mainly of retreads available elsewhere, titles such as "Geometry Wars," "Jewel Quest II" and "Darwinia" retain their charms on the new platform.

On the horizon, Vista will get a gaming upgrade. "Halo 2" will run only on a Vista PC and "Shadowrun" will use the new Microsoft's Games for Windows Live service to connect Vista and 360 players into one world of futuristic combat.

But for now, Microsoft wants to keep it casual.

Who's It For: While Vista can run many of your old PC games, buying a new computer, with a new operating system, is a perfect time to buy some new games. Microsoft's collection of casual games for Vista offers simple fun to help dissipate some of the frustration of learning a new computer interface.

If You Like This, Try That: "PuzzleQuest" for the Nintendo DS combines a simple role-playing game with a match-three puzzle game similar to "Bejeweled." This genre mash-up works surprisingly well. The story keeps the puzzle play from growing dull, while the puzzles provide their own compelling entertainment.

Best Part: While most of the new casual games for Vista work fine with a keyboard or mouse, some require a joystick for real enjoyment. Since Vista supports both wired and wireless 360 controllers, you can take your Vista laptop and 360 peripherals on the road the next time you want to enjoy a few rounds of "Geometry Wars."

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