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Game, show

Playing TV’s biggest hits

9/5/2006 9:30:39 AM

DEAD MAN’S HAND: What good is staring down Al Swearengen if he won’t even call you a cocksucker?
We’re only a few hands in and already I’ve gotten Al Swearengen mad. He pulls out a revolver and points it at me over the stack of chips. I don’t know which is scarier, the barrel of the gun or Swearengen’s shark-like gaze. “Don’t get a mistaken idea,” he says. “It’s my money.” He pulls the trigger. My vision goes red and I hit the floor. Just another game of cards in Deadwood.

It’s not really the end for me. I’m playing  Dead Man’s Hand , an on-line game based on the HBO series Deadwood. No longer satisfied merely to provide episode guides and star bios on their Web sites, networks are increasingly offering enhanced multimedia content. Dead Man’s Hand is one of the most polished Web games available. It requires you to download a small applet in order to play, but the reward is faithfully rendered 3-D versions of Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, and other Deadwood characters talking smack and trying to shark you.

Dead Man’s Hand is more than a simple Texas Hold ’Em simulator. The narrative, such as it is, has you trying to bilk Swearengen out of his riches and then get out of town alive. Sometimes you fail without even knowing why. Sometimes the reason for your loss is a little more obvious, such as when you pull out your own six-shooter and start spraying the place with lead. If you’re lucky, you live to play another day and can put your initials on the Web site’s leaderboard. The game’s biggest drawback is its unfaithfulness to the salty language of the series. What good is staring down Al Swearengen if he won’t even call you a cocksucker?

Deadwood isn’t the only HBO program with an on-line game. You can answer trivia questions about The Wire or play a golf game based on Entourage . Rooftop golf should be familiar to fans of the show: the object is to destroy as much bourgeois property as possible. It’s a cute idea, but the game mechanics are curious. You don’t get to aim your shot; instead you watch a vacillating arrow and click when it’s pointing where you want the ball to go. Not that one would expect a Links-style golf sim here, but without a more compelling play mechanic it’s not worth listening to Turtle exclaim “Whaddup, playa!” over and over.

Often you’ll see similar games repurposed for different shows.  The Office Basketball  is almost identical to Entourage’s rooftop golf, the key distinction being that whereas Entourage at least offers lively visuals, The Office simply has you tossing crumpled-up paper at a brown trash bin. Much like the program itself, The Office Basketball encapsulates the drudgery of the workday. Unlike the show, the game fails to make it entertaining.


A few games dare to break the mold.  American Dad vs. Family Guy Kung-Fu  offers, à la Snakes on a Plane, exactly what it promises. A head-to-head fighting game with characters from both shows, Kung-Fu turns out to be surprisingly playable. It’s packed with little details from the two programs, such as the characters’ health being represented by the color-coded terror-alert levels. As with most Flash-based games, play control is a little suspect, but that’s hardly the point when you discover that Peter Griffin’s finishing move is to down a bottle of Ipecac and vomit repeatedly on his foe. Whether you love Family Guy or hate it, you’ll probably agree that the game is exactly as funny as the show.

Another, more serious game takes place in the world of Lost. The blandly named  Mission Survival  is reminiscent of classic adventures like Myst. You explore, first-person, the island setting of the show. The pace is languorous — point-and-click is as frantic as it gets — but the game does a good job of conveying Lost’s foreboding atmosphere, thanks mostly to the soundtrack’s blend of wildlife noises and ominous, distant rumblings. There’s also some of Lost’s absurdist humor, as you uncover the plane’s cargo strewn across the island. And watch out for surprise boar attacks.

24 may have been won an Emmy for Best Drama, but its on-line game  Countdown  ought to have disqualified it from consideration. I thought it was a flaw that I had to use Microsoft Internet Explorer to play instead of Firefox, my default browser, but that was before I discovered I had to download a proprietary program from the game’s maker, WildTangent. By all accounts, the WildTangent program exists just on this side of spyware, but I wasn’t comfortable with it. Certainly the game wasn’t worth the program: you drive a black SUV along a nondescript highway, chasing somebody, or running from somebody. Who knows? The landscape was punctuated by billboards reading “Mondays 9/8 on FOX,” and that’s not even true anymore. For shame.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the best place to go for TV-based on-line games is the place where only kids win: Nickelodeon, which offers dozens of games for each show. The SpongeBob Squarepants choices alone threaten to siphon an embarrassing quantity of your free time. Unlike many of the other games mentioned here, Nickelodeon’s simply work. There’s no need to download applets or potential spyware, and no unduly stringent browser requirements. Some of these games are downright fun. And SpongeBob SquarePants 3-D Pinball Panic is surprisingly sophisticated. You manipulate a pinball not by toggling the flippers but by tilting the board with your mouse. The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who’s tried the Monkey Ball series, but it’s executed well. You can also file Save the Krusty Krab 3-D under the “more fun than it ought to be” category as you race around Bikini Bottom rounding up errant Krabby Patties in a net. Yes, it’s more fun than going all-in against Al Swearengen.

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