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Originally published December 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 16, 2006 at 9:31 AM

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The Mac's got some game, too

One thing I enjoy about Christmas is the day or two of absolute untethered relaxation that goes along with the holiday. During that stretch of...

Special to The Seattle Times

One thing I enjoy about Christmas is the day or two of absolute untethered relaxation that goes along with the holiday.

During that stretch of lackadaisical hours, I could curl up with a new book or DVD that I unwrapped, but the time can also be good for firing up the Mac and playing some games that I never have time for during the workweek.

Yes, I used "Mac" and "games" in the same sentence (twice now!).

It's true that the Mac doesn't run anything remotely near the number of games available for Windows, a situation we've had to deal with for several years now. But that doesn't mean there isn't a healthy gaming market for the Mac.

Despite having grown up glued to an Atari 2600, I'm now only a moderate gamer. I usually want something that will distract me for a few minutes or a few hours, which is why I steer clear of lauded games such as "The Sims 2" ($50, or "World of Warcraft" ($25 plus $12 to $15 per month,; those are rabbit holes I'm just not willing to disappear into.

The following are games I've played and enjoyed or have been recommended to me this year.

SketchFighter 4000 Alpha: I've always been a doodler, which is why I was immediately drawn to Ambrosia Software's "SketchFighter 4000 Alpha" ($19,, an animated version of the space combat games I would draw in my notebooks during junior high.

SketchFighter is a top-down game where you pilot a spaceship through caverns, encountering obstacles and opponents along the way. But it's all rendered as if drawn in No. 2 pencil and markers (and the soundtrack is much better than the drone of my teachers during class).

You can play alone, but I found that team play with another person (either sharing the same keyboard or over the Internet) is a bit more fun: Your two ships are linked by an elastic line of dots, forcing you to cooperate even when you're trying to outscore each other. "SketchFighter" also includes an editor application that enables you to design your own levels.

Lego Star Wars: When I first saw "Lego Star Wars" ($20,, I thought it was an amusing gimmick: You get to be characters from the Star Wars movies (the more recent episodes 1 through 3), but inhabiting a galaxy made of Lego pieces. For bits of plastic, these characters are wonderfully animated in a first-person-shooter 3-D environment, with sound effects to match the familiar audio textures of the movies.

The action itself can be intense, but is also frequently punctuated by a bit of amusement that reminds you this is still a video game based on kids' toys. Wielding a lightsaber is particularly enjoyable, because the characters get to be a little more acrobatic than what appeared in the movies.

Call of Duty 2: If you prefer a little more reality in your action, "Call of Duty 2" ($50, puts you into the heart of ground combat in World War II. Playing as Russian, British and American soldiers, it's your job to hold off the Nazis in a variety of environments in Europe and Africa.


The game doesn't shirk from blood but doesn't glorify it either; frequently I would feel a sense of relief at having survived a mission vs. being proud of vanquishing the enemy.

For some players, the live Internet play will be the real draw, as you fight alongside gamers around the world. Personally, I like to stick with the single-player modes, where I'm not annihilated within a few minutes due to my relative lack of skill.

In that sense, you may lose interest as you progress through its scripted scenarios, but they're compelling enough to make you go back for quite some time before getting bored.

Texas Hold'em Poker on iPod: Good games aren't found just on the Mac. This year Apple introduced games for the latest fifth-generation iPod, including "Texas Hold'em" poker ($5, You can play a top-down version, but it's more fun to see your opponents across the table and suss out their "tells," or movements that give away the quality of their cards.

As you win, you advance to more difficult tournaments, which can be frustrating if you go all-in, lose your money and have to start over from the beginning. However, Apple built in a cheat: when the title screen for the first cardroom in Cupertino appears, quickly press the middle select button on the iPod and drag the scroll wheel to jump to a higher level. And keep an eye out for a few Apple executives such as Phil Schiller (or "Killer," in the game) and Greg Joswiak ("Shark").

Intel Mac gaming: Finally, if you own a Mac powered by an Intel processor, you may not be limited to Mac-specific game titles. Running Windows XP under Apple's Boot Camp beta (, I recently played the Windows-based "Star Wars Battlefront II" ($20, with no problems on my new MacBook Pro.

Doing so requires that I reboot the computer into Windows, but that's fine. I'll just be sitting around enjoying my downtime at Christmas anyway.

Jeff Carlson and Glenn Fleishman write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to More Practical Mac columns at

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