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.
Microsoft Solitaire Collection
When you say “solitaire” to most people, their mind will probably jump to Klondike Solitaire, the card game where you flip cards from a deck three at a time and try to make stacks of alternating colors and descending values. That’s available here, but it’s actually the least interesting of the five games included in this wider-ranging single-player card game collection, which gathers other solitaire games that have been available on various Microsoft Windows game packages in the past.
Freecell is definitely the most difficult of the available games to master, removing luck entirely by revealing every card to the player at the start. The rules are a bit tricky for beginners, but there’s a simple tutorial to explain how to use the "free cells" to move stacks of cards around in stacks of alternating colors. Almost every randomized deal can be solved with careful thinking and planning ahead, making for a diverting mental workout. Unfortunately for fans of the previous Windows Freecell editions, the Windows 8 version seems to have removed the ability to select a specific card arrangement by entering the game number (or at least I couldn’t find the option).
The other available solitaire games require much less skill, and primarily involve rote pattern matching mixed with a modicum of luck-of-the-draw. Tripeaks was the most compelling to me. Even though the entire game can be summed up as "looking for an available card with a value one higher or lower than the current card," I found something deeply satisfying about finding and creating long chains of cards snaking up and down the value chain (complete with sound effects that continually rise in pitch).
Pyramid was much less interesting—matching up pairs of cards whose values add up to 13 feels like a task designed for slow second graders more than functioning adults. I was more intrigued by Spider Solitaire, which uses multiple decks of cards and asks players to create descending stacks of entire suits while avoiding having other cards get in the way. There’s a bit of strategy and organization needed to succeed here, though not so much that you’ll have to strain your brain as much as in Freecell. Altogether, the available games are pretty good at engaging that OCD part of your brain that sees a messy deck of shuffled cards and just craves to put it in some sort of discernible order.
The entire collection looks great as a full-screen Windows 8 app. There’s a nice variety of premade visual themes to choose from, but the ability to customize backgrounds and cards with your own picture collection is sure to be a favorite feature for many. The ability to undo moves going back all the way to the beginning of a game is another nice feature that hasn’t always been present in Microsoft’s card games in the past, and while this does make it pretty easy to cheat, it’s solitaire, so the only person you’re really cheating is yourself.
Oh, and before you ask, the cards don’t do that little bouncing thing when you win a game. Instead, they turn into sparkling butterflies and fly about the screen. Seriously.
The only thing you really need to know about the Windows 8 version of Minesweeper is that it has an Adventure Mode.
I’ll let that sink in for a second.
They added an adventure mode… to Minesweeper.
How do you turn a puzzle game about clicking a grid full of mines into an adventure game? By adding a spelunking motif and giving players control of a cave-excavation specialist that’s trying to dig for treasure while avoiding traps. Of course, those traps are marked by large numbers hidden under the adjacent dirt, indicating how many traps are nearby, just like in the base Minesweeper game. But there are also plenty of adventure game trappings larded on top of the randomly generated levels, including doors that can be opened by hidden keys, walls that can be blasted through by dynamite, and stationary monsters that can be taken out by a bow and arrow. There are maps to find hidden treasures and shields to offer extra protection and basically just a lot of exploratory stuff that you wouldn't normally associate with Minesweeper.
While the sheer weirdness of Adventure Mode is interesting for a little while, the implementation just isn’t strong enough to be a long-term draw. There’s way too much empty space, and each blank area has to be annoyingly excavated by hand (rather than cascading automatically, as in the base game). The wonky camera makes it a bit too easy to misclick and lose a bit of energy unintentionally, while the randomly generated levels are too repetitive and lack compelling designs. I ended up putting it down for good after clicking through just five levels
Outside of Adventure Mode, Minesweeper is still the same game of mathematical logic it’s always been. It's a timeless design that provides a good, basic mental workout, like push ups for your brain. The only real design issue, which the new version still hasn't solved, is the fact that many randomly generated boards still come down to guessing the location of those final mines, which can be incredibly frustrating after spending minutes flawlessly clearing the rest of the board.
The mouse controls are as efficient as ever: right-click to mark a tile, left click to reveal, click them both to clear all adjacent tiles. You can use the scroll wheel to zoom in and out from the full-screen display, which is a nice touch for those playing on smaller monitors or living room TVs. And the Daily Challenges put some interesting twists on the basic game, including one mode where you can only place mine-marking flags on a partially exposed playfield and another where you’re actually trying to blow up a set number of mines in as few moves as possible.
This is the free Windows game that’s more commonly known as “the one your mother-in-law plays.” At least it was to me, before I started in on this review. What I thought would be a simple game of visual acuity actually turned out to be a little more subtle.
Yes, the game can be boiled down to finding matching pairs of tiles and clicking to remove them from the board (the Windows 8 version slams those matching pairs together with a satisfying thunk before rushing them off the board). But you can only use tiles that can be slid out unencumbered on the left or right, and that aren’t covered even partially by another tile in the 3D layout. This means you have to plan ahead a little bit and actually decide which potential pair will reveal more tiles and serve you best going forward, rather than just making the first match you find. This is particularly important in the challenging “Lightning Match” Daily Challenge, which gives you a set number of matches in which to uncover and match special colored tiles before they explode.
The latest version of Mahjong offers a fair selection of tile arrangements ranging from beginner to expert level, though it forces you to unlock them in sequence for some reason. It would have been nice to let players create their own arrangements too, and perhaps share them with friends, but the patterns on offer are sufficient. There’s a decent selection of background themes and tile patterns, though again there's no option to customize these for yourself as you can in Solitaire Collection. The 3D effect that gives the playfield depth is almost too subtle here; I often found it hard to tell which tiles were stacked on top of others, which made it tough to figure out at a glance which tiles were available for matches. The bare-bones interface does a good job of providing the necessary information without being distracting. I particularly liked the prominent count of “available matches,” to let you know how you’re doing without giving too much away.
Note: This is a Windows 8 port of a game that is also available on Windows Phone 7.
In this simple, Boggle-inspired word game, the goal is to make words using adjacent strings of letters on the 4×4 grid, with rarer letters being worth more than common ones. There are scoring bonuses for longer words, as well as occasional board bonuses for finding words on a certain theme (animal sounds, herbs/spices, etc.) or using certain tiles (the “E”s in the corner, a double-lettered “TO” tile, etc.). You can play with a mouse, but the interface seems best designed for Windows tablets, where you can simply swipe to make words. I found my mouse pointer wasn’t quite steady enough to trace out letter paths quickly and accurately, especially when going diagonally from one letter to another.
Wordament makes the best use of Microsoft’s Xbox on Windows features of all the Windows 8 freebie games. When you start the game up, you’re thrown into the middle of a live match against everyone else playing the game at the same time (including those playing on their phone). At the end of each two-minute round, there’s a 30-second break where you can see where you rank compared to everyone else playing the same board (there were always hundreds of live players during my testing, a number that’s sure to go up after Windows 8 is officially released). You can compare yourself directly to anyone on your Xbox friends list who happens to be playing, or mark “Frenemies” on the high score list, to measure your continuing progress as you inevitably play just one more round.
It’s a simple and compelling competition, but I couldn’t help but want more out of Wordament. There’s no way to challenge players on your Friends List asynchronously, for instance, meaning you have to be actively playing at the same time as your friends if you want to see who’s better. A feature to find potential friends through Gmail or Facebook accounts would also be nice. These kinds of features are pretty standard on similar iOS games, but missing from this basic effort.
Still, the streamlined presentation is loaded with interesting stats like words-per-second and average word length, covering both your last played game and your entire career as a Wordament-er. The Leaderboards currently show one player that has found almost half a million words during the Windows 8 testing period, showing that this one definitely has the potential to be a major time waster.
Consider this a simplified, faster-paced, fully 3D version of the more sedate Microsoft Mahjong. The rectangular tiles in that game have been replaced here with cubes that are arranged in a wide variety of complex 3D shapes, which you can rotate around with a swipe of the finger or the mouse pointer. You can still only match tiles that can be slid out to the left or right, but there are fewer distinct symbols to match here, meaning each title has a larger number of potential mates available at any point.
Speed is the name of the game here. Taptiles provides an increasing score bonus for each match you make without a significant pause, and unlocks helpful temporary power-ups if you can get your speed bonus chain high enough. I found the timing window on this bonus to be a little unforgiving, though. I think of myself as someone with pretty good twitch reflexes at this point in my gaming career, but I was constantly losing my speed bonus if I took just a split second too long in moving my mouse to the next tile. The timing is probably better suited to the touchscreen, where you can make matches simply by tapping with two fingers at once, but even there I find it hard to imagine you’ll have time to rotate the board to find a hidden tile without losing your bonus.
When you can get in that zone, though, there’s something very zen-like about the way the pairs seem to just flow. When you’re playing well, you’ll be able to uncover a tile and immediately know where its best match is, moving to click it even before the game has fully processed the last match. Eventually you’ll be able to see two or three moves ahead, moving between matches almost by rote and continuing speed bonus chains through multiple boards. It's a pretty wonderful feeling, even if it isn't the most mentally taxing thing in the world.
Adera stands out from the rest of Microsoft's free Windows 8 games in a number of ways. For one, it's the only one of the set with a story, infused with ancient stone-and-sorcery magic and a search for a grandfather who has apparently come back from the dead. The decently made 3D animated cut scenes seem to be trying to capture an Uncharted-style vibe, but the writing isn't nearly as witty and the voice acting is downright painful to listen to at points.
Gameplay-wise, Adera plays like "Baby's First Adventure Game." You click around the environments looking for items helpfully indicated by shiny purple sparks, then figure out how to use those items to solve problems highlighted by glowing blue puzzle pieces. The game is quite upfront about nudging you in the right direction when you click on a puzzle piece ("I'll bet I could cut through those vines"), and a generous hint system will outright show you the next step in the chain if you want. Even without these clues, though, it's pretty clear that the sun-shaped gear fits in the sun-shaped hole, for instance.
The adventure game logic is broken up by a number of simple mini-games, ranging from matching similar glyphs to sliding stone tumblers to arranging triangles in a Tangram. There are also a number of hidden-object puzzles where you have to click around a crowded room to find specific items, a task that quickly sapped my will to live. Some of these puzzles are decently tough, but most can be solved by simple guess-and-checking without any real thought required. If even that is too much work, the game provides a convenient "skip puzzle" button after a few minutes, just to show how little it really cares whether or not you figure out its mysteries.
The free download of Adera is actually the first chapter of a continuing episodic adventure, and future updates will cost money. For a free demo, it provides a decent amount of content, ending on a cliffhanger after about two hours worth of gameplay. It's not incredibly compelling to anyone who grew up playing more elaborate point-and-click adventure games, but it could serve as a decent introduction for someone who isn't familiar with the genre.