Time to play: Commercial games for free

Let’s face it: video gaming is not exactly the cheapest hobby, especially if you want to play the latest, graphics-crazy bestseller. Apart from having to buy the actual games, you need the newest version of your preferred console(s) plus equipment such as a screen, controllers and speakers. If you still belong to the endangered PC-gamer species, your computer has to be brought up to date (from the latest software to brand-new hardware). All that costs money. A lot of money if you go for the top-notch gaming experience.

I tried that for while. I kept my PC in shape. I changed graphic cards and CPUs on a regular basis to be able to play my games without lags. While I was never a high-tech hunter or the overclocking type, I still valued having a nice and neat gaming machine. But with my limited funds, eventually my PC was just too old. So, I decided to focus on free and retro games, because gaming shouldn’t cost so much; it should first and foremost be fun. And for that you don’t need to have the latest graphic experience, at least not in my opinion.

Many publishers — sooner or later — release old games for free or reshape them as a new, free version, either for browser or as a download or for other platforms. One very well-known example is Quake Live, a free, browser variant of Quake III Arena that only requires you to set up an account.

But it doesn’t always need a to be a polished, new version. Rockstar Games offers Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto 2, and publisher Bethesda offers the earlier parts of the popular The Elder Scrolls series as free downloads.

It’s also not necessary to wait until a commercial game is finally available for free. Free-to-play games are trending, especially when it comes to Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). Codemasters’ Lord of the Rings Online, for example, became free to play two years ago, following the trend of many other online multiplayer games. Usually, free-to-play games have commercial stores implemented that sell special in-game virtual items for real money. This can be quite frustrating if players with these real-money items have it easier. But if that doesn’t bother you, the free-to-play gaming world is wide open to you.

Some publishers offer free versions of their famous commercial franchises for advertisement purposes and to help with potentially annoying waiting times until the next full game is released. For example, Electronic Arts (EA) — besides jumping on the free-to-play trend with games like Battlefield Play4Free and 2012’s Command & Conquer — offers some free versions of its famous commercial franchises: fans of the Sims world can play The Sims Social or SimCity Social on Facebook, to name just two.

Even if you are waiting for the next instalment of your favourite commercial video game series, if you feel retro or if you simply want to find a good game without spending any money, former commercial games for free are not a rarity anymore. Nearly every major gaming series offers free download versions or free flash games related to their bestsellers (e.g. EA’s Dragon Age Journeys as part of the Dragon Age world). Some games are even ported for other platforms, such as smartphones, to play for free.

In this column, I’ve already mentioned numerous free games, but I’d still like to recommend one that meets my free browser game definition: completely free, no download necessary, no account needed, a lot of fun and, to fit this column’s theme, very retro.

In 2012, Microsoft and Atari decided to show how HTML5 will influence video gaming and also to celebrate 40 years of the Atari brand. So, they opened an entertainment web portal including Atari games. One of them is — drum roll — Asteroids, a very popular arcade game, first released in 1979.

The gameplay in the browser version of Asteroids is simple: you take control of a spaceship and try to avoid crashing into the asteroids flying around you. At the same time, you have to shoot as many of them as possible without demolishing your ship. The longer you survive, the crazier it gets, because more and more asteroids start filling up the screen. Later in the game, hostile spaceships come into play, adding more tension by trying to eliminate you before the asteroids can finish the job.

Since Asteroids was released as an arcade game back in the day, the main focus is on getting a high score quickly. Shooting smaller asteroids will bring in higher scores, but first you have to break them into pieces. As soon as you hit an asteroid, it will break into smaller pieces and will continue to do so until it reaches its smallest shape.

Even as a browser game, Asteroids is quite addictive, but the handling of the ship is a bit tricky: hitting the W or the up-arrow key gives propulsion, but there is no key for braking. By pressing the S or down-arrow key, your ship is automatically warped to another spot on the screen, which may or may not be helpful, depending on where the ship is placed.

You need to always think ahead about where your ship is going, because in Asteroids the edge of the screen is not a hidden wall. If your ship or an asteroid drifts off the edge, it will reappear on the other side of the screen.

Asteroids is not the only classic Atari game on the portal. Arcade veteran Pong can also be found on the website, among others, and the portal includes the “Atari Arcade Developer Center” with starter guides for people who want to publish games.

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