Last Updated on Sunday, 28 October 2012 14:03 Published on Sunday, 28 October 2012 14:03
The free games that have been included with the various versions of Windows over the years occupy a unique position in the video game landscape. No one would include them on a list of the best or most influential games of all time, and it’s unlikely any of them have ever acted as a “system seller” to influence someone’s choice of OS.
Yet over the past decade, games like Microsoft’s Solitaire, Minesweeper, and Mahjong may be the most widely played video games on any platform (though the Angry Birds games have probably come close to beating them). From bored hardcore gamers messing around on a borrowed laptop to bored secretaries on an extended coffee break to bored grandmas clicking away at their grandchildren’s hand-me-down Windows 98 tower, you’re unlikely to find a PC user that hasn’t at least tried these titles at one point or another.
The free game tradition continues with Windows 8, but oddly enough, this year’s collection of Microsoft-produced titles doesn't come preinstalled with the standard version of the operating system (we’re guessing some OEMs might fix this oversight before shipping their hardware, however). Instead, the games are tucked away in the Windows Games Store alongside more professional third-party fare like Fruit Ninja and Hydro Thunder Hurricane, as well as countless cheap-o knock-offs like Mahjong Plus and Card Game Collection. Downloading and installing Microsoft's free titles is relatively easy, but we have to wonder how many Windows 8 users will actively seek them out, rather than stumbling upon them in a preinstalled Games folder.
The most immediately noticeable change to the free games in Windows 8 is that they’re all designed to run primarily in full-screen mode as “Windows 8 style” apps. On the plus side, this helps create some very streamlined interfaces without distracting window borders or menu bars getting in the way. Multitaskers can play some of the available games in "snap mode" by dragging the game to a small sliver on the left or right side of the screen, but the results are mixed—Minesweeper and Wordament work fine in this compressed space, but the card layout in the Solitaire Collection gets so cramped that it's nearly unplayable. If you want to play Mahjong or Taptiles while you're on a teleconference, you're going to need a dual-screen setup.
This year’s crop of games is also the first to integrate with Xbox Live through the "Xbox Games on Windows" program. For most of the games, this functionally just means you can get a set of unimaginative, easy-to-unlock Achievements that aren't even worth that many Gamerscore points. Wordament is the only one of the games to make impressive use of any sort of multiplayer features.
Solitaire, Minesweeper, Mahjong and Taptiles also come equipped with Daily Challenges; a rotating selection of scenarios with special rules, time limits or goals. The quality and appeal of these Challenges varies greatly, as noted below, but many players will likely be put off playing them by the need to watch a 15 or 30 second video ad before getting to each day’s challenges. It’s not a horrible inconvenience, but it’s a bit grating that Microsoft feels the need to further monetize games that were, until recently, seen as a bonus for just buying its operating system.
I tested all of these games on our (overpowered for these purposes) Velocity Micro rig. I wasn't able to get access to a tablet running Windows 8 to test the touchscreen controls, but the games seem tuned for tablets in many ways, as noted below.
With those general notes out of the way, let's take a deeper look at the six free games from Microsoft Studios currently available in the Windows Games store. [arstechnica]