Microsoft introduces puzzling collection of games

THE MICROSOFT CORP. has long contributed to the electronic drain on America's productivity with games such as "Flight Simulator," "Solitaire," "Minesweeper," "Powerpoint" and "Windows Reboot."

Its newest entry is "Microsoft Entertainment Pack: The Puzzle Collection," a project developed largely in Russia and overseen by Alexey Pajitnov, the Moscow-born designer of the infuriatingly addictive "Tetris." He works for Microsoft.


The pack, on a CD-ROM, costs about $35; it is designed for Windows 95 computers with a 486/66 processor or better and can be installed to run entirely from your hard disk if you are willing to sacrifice about 30 megabytes of it.

The nine games on the disk all demand strategic thinking. The best are both easy to learn and tricky to win. They are welcome antidotes to recreational software's trend toward "realism," which largely amounts to ever-more-lifelike targets to shoot, kick, bludgeon and maim. Trial versions of three games are available on the Web at www.; before proceeding, check the caveats at kb/articles/q168/8/49.htm.


Like "Tetris," the games in "The Puzzle Collection" can last a while once you begin to get good enough to move through higher and higher levels, but they do not demand that you have as much free time as a typical 12-year-old. And in a welcome concession to busy adults who resent having to trudge their way back up through levels they have already mastered, these games let players choose both the difficulty level and the starting point. If you think you are good enough to handle level 99 at the Crazy setting that is even harder than Hard, go right ahead.

The games do not quite fill the screen even in 640-by-480-pixel mode, and they do not resize themselves at higher resolutions, leaving a wide border that cannot be avoided on many laptop machines. The online instructions for some games do not tell you what you need to know to make sense of them. The music is occasionally whimsical but sometimes seems lugubrious, flatulent or both. Fortunately, you can turn it off. And several of the games include irrelevant artwork in a vaguely realistic style that might best be called "early Soviet motel room."

But most of the games are fun to play. My favorite, "Fringer," is the simplest.

The goal is merely ("merely"!) to untwist dangling ropes before an inexorably descending bar pushes the knots to the bottom. The commands use just three keys, but figuring out the proper strategies gets trickier and trickier as the configurations get more tangled and the bar drops faster and faster.

"Lineup" involves placing geometric parts on a grid in a way to make room for more. It is in some ways a more complicated variant of "Tetris" but somehow lacks its forebear's sense of urgency.

"Jewel Chase" is vaguely reminiscent of "Pac-Man." It involves competing against a computer character to move around a grid and pick up valuables as you go. The rules are simple, but as the levels increase, the clever color-coded mazes become increasingly difficult to negotiate. Your opponent is rather slow and stupid at the Easy setting but gets a whole lot faster and smarter if you turn up the difficulty level.

"Spring Weekend" uses garden-themed visuals for some old-fashioned strategy puzzles. A particularly refreshing aspect of this one is that luck plays absolutely no part in your success or failure.

Your own wits determine that, not whether a particular proper piece happens to turn up at the right time.


The oddly named "Finty Flush" involves transferring colored balls from one large grid to four smaller ones, according to a complex set of rules, and once you get the hang of it, it becomes fairly involving.

"Mixed Genetics" is a strategy game in which you breed "pure" animated animals from others whose parts are all mixed up. It boils down to a very complex game of logic with rules that require a careful look at the help files and a half-dozen tries before you begin to figure out what is going on.

"Mouse Poker" sets fast-moving animated mice of various colors scurrying through courses that include traps. The trick here is to use the traps so that mice of particular colors flock together. Even at the lowest level, that is easier said than done.

"Charmer" involves getting snakes to emerge from their pots in time to protect them from falling shards, but the game is reminiscent of dozens of others and, at least at the lower levels, moves rather slowly. In "Color Collision," you must make sure a moving shape hits only objects of its own color as it moves around. Its artwork is charmingly amateurish, but the shape can be hard to control.

Finally, "Muddled Casino" seems an apt name for a game with a complicated and confusing user interface and rules that are not adequately explained in the help files. Only hard-core lovers of strategy games are likely to stick with it.

The games all include what the readme file calls "a 'boss key' that makes a game disappear should the need arise to look busy," but it does not quite do the job. Although a press of the Escape key does indeed reduce the game to a taskbar button, a sharp-eyed boss might still wonder why your machine is running something called "Mouse Poker." Just tell her it has something to do with Windows drivers for your pointing device.


Pub Date: 8/04/97