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Where have all the blockbusters gone?

From Friday's Globe and Mail

It was a good run while it lasted. After years of steady sales increases, the Canadian video-game market has taken a step backward. Retail numbers released this week by the research firm NPD Group showed hardware, software and accessory sales down 8.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period last year. It was the first sales dip since NPD started tracking the industry here in 2002.

There may be a sea change afoot – two of the three most devoted gamers I know have stepped back from the pastime recently. But it's probably best to avoid reading too much into those numbers. According to NPD, the first three months of 2008 saw the release of best-selling additions to the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series, and Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii was launched then, too.

This year, it has been quiet on the blockbuster front, and sales of older or struggling hardware systems – the last generation of home consoles and Sony's PlayStation Portable – have fallen off sharply. The current generations of systems, however, are continuing to thrive: First-quarter sales of the PlayStation 3 were up 35 per cent, Nintedo's Wii and portable DS were up 24.5 and 17.5 per cent, respectively, and Xbox 360 sales rose 6 per cent compared to the same period a year ago.

There are also sales that bricks-and-mortar retail numbers overlook. Take this week's first-play option, the new SpeedSudoku.com website from a Montreal company called Salamander Software.

Sudoku, for the people who haven't already filled out the grid in these pages, is a number-placement puzzle game. You are given some of the digits in interlocking grids that usually contain nine squares and the task is to use logic to fill the empty boxes. It has become a staple in many print publications and in digital games such as the Brain Age series, which added a ticking clock and a variety of difficulty settings.

With SpeedSudoku, Salamander has cannily combined the two: Once you register, you can solve easy, medium or difficult puzzles while racing against other users, for no charge. The players' position in each race is shown in progress bars, and once a match is done the results are added up on an international leaderboard (Canada's top ace, “WaterlooMathie,” currently sits in second place, behind a Malaysian number-cruncher).

The site has a variety of forums and social-networking staples – profile pages for each user, with statistics and a Facebook-style “wall” for messages. To pay for all this, the site has ads and a premium membership option: For $25 (U.S.) per year, members can create private games and skip the ads. With its simple design and casual competitiveness, it has already snagged the best Sudoku player in my family (happy Mother's Day, Mom), and print executives should probably be among the first people to put SpeedSudoku through its paces as the site begins to grow.

Another online factor not accounted by the NPD sales figures is digital distribution, selling software directly through download portals.

Two successful companies in that arena teamed up on a new game released Tuesday: Seattle's PopCap Games, maker of casual time-wasters such as Bejeweled and Peggle, released its new Plants vs. Zombies title using Steam, Valve Software's delivery system, for digital content.

For $10 (U.S.), PC and Mac players get a funny and somewhat fun tower-defence game. You start with a house, a front lawn that looks like a checkerboard, and a growing horde of zombies shuffling in from the street. Your job is to populate that lawn with specialized flora to combat the undead. There are peashooters, potato mines and sunflowers that provide the energy. The game's energy-collection system is nothing more than clicking on glowing sun orbs, but there are welcome splashes of humour. I liked the pole-vaulting zombies in athletic gear who start jumping over your first line of organic defences.

Once the pattern is established, Plants vs. Zombies (rated Everyone) seems happy to repeat it without advancing things too far beyond its formulaic roots. It did, however, remind me of Donald Antrim's excellent satiric novel featuring suburban lawn protection, Elect Mr. Robinson For a Better World, and it could serve as a good introduction to more challenging far. The current king of serious tower defending is Defense Grid: The Awakening, another Everyone-rated title for PCs and the Xbox 360's Live Arcade.

As for the absence of blockbusters this year, some of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of Nintendo. Instead of releasing new games for its Wii console, the company has been reworking hits from its GameCube days. The latest to get the “New Play Control” label for the Wii is Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, which originally featured the big primate collecting bananas as players tapped rhythmically on bongo-drum controllers. Here the drums are replaced by subtle movements of the Wii's two controllers, and it plays like a much more conventional – and much harder to defeat – platform game, with plenty of jumping over obstacles from safe point to safe point.

I haven't fully explored its jungle settings, but for my money, the best reworked game for the Wii is Mario Power Tennis, which uses small wrist movements to mimic real tennis shots. (And perhaps not so coincidentally, there is one pastime that has seen truly positive growth in 2009: Entries for the first outdoor tennis tournament in my area are up 75 per cent over last year, according to its director, and I noticed a distinct Wii Tennis influence among some of the first-round contenders.)

The new play control titles sell for $30, which means you can get three play experiences – SpeedSudoku, Plants vs. Zombies, and Mario Power Tennis – for about the same price as store-bought discs such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a new Mature-rated game for the PS3. This hack-and-slash movie tie-in seems to have been made for those players who believe past Wolverine games were not brutal enough. It doesn't try for much aside from pretty backgrounds and mindless gore.

Video games in general are slowly moving beyond such stuff, but in the meantime there are plenty of diversions – and tennis courts – available for those looking for an escape or two.

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