List Updates

Just a quick post for those getting this through an RSS feed.  One of my earliest, original “Favorites” lists has received a long overdue update.  Several new entries have been dropped into the Windows XP Software list, two of which I’d like to give a special mention.  Most work in recent versions of Windows as well.

SoftMaker FreeOffice, from a very talented team of developers, is a fully functional office suite that rivals my previous favorite, MS Office XP (2002).  Both are similar in performance with the main difference that SoftMaker FreeOffice also happens to be really lite and snappy, supports Open Document Format (so you don’t have to worry about aging file formats), features a brilliantly elegant interface and is now – just recently – 100% free.  Oh, and it also runs on both Windows and Ubuntu.  If you don’t much care for the idea of spending hundreds of dollars on an Office package, and weren’t satisfied with the performance of OpenOffice, then I highly recommend giving SoftMaker FreeOffice a try.

1by1 is a unique, thoroughly streamlined, audio player by Martin Pesch.  Rather than trying to handle everything (as most media players do) this one stays focused on a single task – to play audio files directly from whatever folder they happen to be sitting in.  What does this mean for the user?  Well, assuming your music files are well-organized, say, by genre or artist, you no longer have to worry about creating and maintaining ‘playlists.’  1by1 goes directly to the source and plays all of the audio tracks right from the source directory, either in order or sorted randomly.  I’ve been using it for months now and it’s easily the best audio player I’ve ever worked with.  Great job Martin.

To both developers, Thanks for making it free.

For the gamers out there, especially those who are into Retro gaming, you may be interested in two of my more recent lists:

Arcade Games is a compilation of the most memorable arcade games of my youth (including a few from later years).

Video Games is a more comprehensive collection of the most memorable (commercially released) games I’ve ever played.

Both offer a comprehensive view toward some of the most important, noteworthy video games in all of gaming history.

Companion lists include:

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Published in: on May 26, 2011 at 12:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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Understanding Free Software

The world of Free Software is filled with commonly used, but often unfamiliar, terms due to subtle differences in the way the software is created.  It isn’t necessary to understand these things in order to benefit from using free software…but it can help, and may even put other things in perspective.  The purpose of this post is to explain in the simplest possible way how free software differs – and to offer a reminder that free software can be extremely high quality.  Most of all, it truly and genuinely doesn’t cost a dime.  Why?  Because it turns out quite a few people in this world are both talented and generous.  Seriously.  It’s true.  Here we go.

Freeware – Probably the most commonly used term for free software.  Also probably the most common type.  The underlying code is private (or “closed”).  Only the original author can modify it.  But this doesn’t matter to most users, who don’t care about the underlying code.  They are still free to download and use it and, in most cases, share it with others.  If you enjoy the software, and appreciate the hard work put into creating it, there is usually an option somewhere to offer a small donation to the author.

Open Source – Another popular term; a type of free software; also an entire movement within the software development community.  Unlike Freeware (and Commercial Software) the underlying code is completely “open.”  Users who are so inclined, and endowed with the proper coding skills, can open up the source code and tinker around with it, perhaps making improvements and changes along the way.  Almost by definition this kind of software is community driven.  That is, usually many talented people contribute to the project, constantly improving the software  and keeping it up to date.   There are many small nuances in the way all this works but that’s the gist of it.  Ultimately, the only thing that matters to the rest of us is that this software is free to use.  If we appreciate the hard work that goes into keeping it alive, a small donation is an excellent way to show our thanks.

Portable – This is just a quick way of saying that the software can run directly off a USB drive.  Some free software has two versions, a regular and a “portable” version.  Other software is natively portable (meaning that it will run from your hard drive or a USB drive).  Sometimes the software has to be installed to the USB drive in order to work properly.  Other times it’s as simple as dragging the software file (the executable) from your hard drive to the USB drive.  In every case the end result is that you can take the software with you.  It’s portable.  I use a handful of “portable apps” right here on my main computer.  Not because they’re portable, but simply because they work well.  The fact that they also happen to be portable is just a bonus.

Cross Platform – As you probably know there are but a few major Operating Systems that, pretty much, rule the world.  They are Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.  (Ubuntu is one flavor of Linux geared toward average users, and also happens to be 100% free).  These are “platforms.”  Software has to be written to run on a given platform.  In many cases the author of a piece of software will code it to run on multiple platforms, or all the major platforms.  The end result is a piece of software that is “cross platform.”  Otherwise, you would need to see which Operating System the software was written for.

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On the other side of things we have a sort of hybrid between traditional Commercial Software and Freeware.  This is called…

Shareware – The software is usually free to try for a limited time, after which the user must pay to continue using it.  Or, another approach is to offer a feature limited version of the software with no expiration.  But in order to take advantage of all the features users can (optionally) pay to upgrade to a “Premium” or “Pro” version.  Some might argue that the latter of these two still qualifies as “Freeware” since, technically, the user never has to pay if they don’t want to.  There’s no need to settle that debate here and now other than to agree that it’s a debatable matter.

Then of course there is what most people are used to, Commercial Software.  The underlying code is proprietary and closed, and probably protected by one form of copyright or another.  Users can purchase the software; but in reality you really only purchase a “license” to use the software.  In fact, it has even become difficult to define what it means to own a piece of software.  But that’s another topic for another day.  The defining characteristics of Commercial Software are that it’s purpose is to generate profit (for a corporation or individual), and is usually accompanied by some sort of customer support.  Although, it is not uncommon for even that to cost extra nowadays.

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I’m an advocate of Free Software because I’ve had the fortune of using some truly excellent Free Software to greatly enhance my productivity.  When you stick to those with a proven reputation one can almost be guaranteed to enjoy a game or application that’s both high quality and stable, and often comes with free support through the use of support forums (or message boards).  In this day and age of prolific, high quality free software, there’s no reason to believe we are ever stuck paying for and using costly, proprietary Commercial Software.  If you find something that works, works well, and you’re willing to pay for it…great.  Alternatively, there may be something else that works, works equally well (or better) and also happens to be completely free.

…just don’t forget to support these folks from time to time if you have the means.

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 11:07 am  Comments (1)  
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Review Criteria

The search for high quality Free video games is somewhat like hunting for treasure among the vast wreckage of a sunken ship.  There are so many places to explore, curious objects to sift through, even dangers to watch out for.  And yet, every so often one may just discover a rare hidden gem.  For many, the freeware treasure hunt is a burden.  For me, it’s one of the small pleasures of PC gaming.   And thanks to the dedication of talented, independent game designers quality free games really do exist.  Over the years I’ve probably playtested dozens of titles and among those I’ve tried some have earned a permanent place in my personal collection.  And that’s really what this folder is about, highlighting some of my personal favorites based on a very selective [and demanding] criteria.  You’ll probably notice as you browse through the collection that I tend to prefer games with an original idea or good gameplay versus those that rely on big explosions or fancy graphics. I’ve had a lot of fun discovering and playing these (and hope to maintain this collection indefinitely).  Hopefully you’ll enjoy discovering some of these gems for the first time.  Scroll down if you’d like to skip straight to the games; otherwise keep reading to learn more about the selection process.

Selection Criteria: Each consideration must…
1.  Be 100% Free.  No Shareware, Trials, Demos or Mods.
2.  Be compatible with Linux, WINE, ReactOS or Windows XP
3.  Be hosted at a site with a gray or better WOT rating.
4.  Have a focus on Single Player experience.  Online multiplayer games are the rare exception.
5.  Have Family Friendly Content (in-game and at the homepage).
6.  Be relatively easy to obtain and install (100 MB or smaller download) and not requiring an emulator to play.  Although for many of these you will need to be comfortable working with compressed files. 7-Zip is a great utility for this.
7.  Provide English language support.
8.  Be free of in-game advertising or microtransactions (IAP)
9.  Be a truly quality title, the best (or nearly best) in its class.
10.  Be a game I’ve actually played and…I Like It.

Concerning browser games of the Flash/HTML5 variety – these browser technologies are a legitimate gaming platform, but the problem with so many of these types of games is they are all too often front-loaded with (and otherwise surrounded by) advertising.  This doesn’t fit well with the ethos of truly free games where players are given the option to support a developer, usually in the form of direct donations.  In order for a “Free” browser-based game to pass criteria it must be hosted at a dedicated homepage by the developer and for that specific game.  Ideally, there should also be a downloadable stand-alone version, although this is more a preference than a strict requirement.

Guiding Influences: My lack of fondness for wanton violence, juvenile humor, M-rated content, anime, puzzle games, card games, fighting games, escape the room games, scrolling shooters, keyboard controlled platfomers and the majority of flash-based casual games.  My love for depth, originality, solid gameplay, engaging art and sound design, simulation & strategy games, classic retro titles and all around great presentation, whatever the genre – especially if it comes in a small package.

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Concerning Adventure Games
You might notice there is a conspicuous lack of Adventure Games in this collection.  That’s because I tend to regard these titles separately from all other game types.  From this point on I’ll be maintaining a separate page, created specifically to feature my favorite Adventure Games, free or otherwise.
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Note: Featured titles are listed in no particular order.  In other words, a game’s placement in the list should not be construed as a ranking.  They’re all favorites…

If you don’t see the games below click HERE.

UPDATE:  As it turns out it isn’t practical for me to do a full review on every outstanding free game that I play.  This is why the reviews will appear to have dropped off.  But I do still playtest the occasional discovery, and those finds (when they happen along) will be added to the Free Video Game list, maintained separately from this folder.  For an even larger selection visit the Honorable Mentions list.  Both are static pages (located in the right column there) that may even receive an update now and then.

Published in: on May 11, 2009 at 11:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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C-evo

Few games have captured the hearts and minds of strategy aficionados like the Civilization series.  For those who may not have heard of it the basic premise finds you as the leader of a civilization, whose job it is to guide your people through several thousand years of history.  Time progresses from ancient times up through present day.  Meanwhile, you’ll be competing with a handful of other civilizations for essentially world domination.  The flow of the game is turn-based, rather than the frantic pacing often found in Real-Time Strategies, as you carefully manage everything from exploration to city development, unit production, diplomacy, research and (of course) combat.  In the traditional series there are three possible victory conditions: Subdue your opponents through raw power, foster world peace through diplomacy, or be the first civilization to build and launch a colony space ship.  Depending on the size of the world map and number of players games can range anywhere from an hour to possibly even days – best broken down into smaller play sessions.

C-evo is among a handful of freeware ‘Civ-like’ games and it’s the one I happen to like the most.  This is due to its emphasis on single player games with good AI (Artificial Intelligence) opponents and streamlined gameplay.  The graphics most closely resemble Civilization II (1996), though it’s worth noting that C-evo doesn’t endeavor to be a precise Civilization clone.  Overall you’ll find there’s greater emphasis on unit production and combat, with less placed on culture and diplomacy.  Although the latter haven’t been removed entirely and still factor into a successful campaign.  And it’s still possible to win a victory through space colonization rather than world domination.  Newcomers to the series in general should realize that micromanagement is a big part of this type of strategy game.  Some aspects can be automated of course but this is often part of the appeal for fans of the genre, and reason for the longer learning curve.  Fortunately C-evo has you well covered in that department with a superb in-game manual that lets you look up game concepts using an intuitive drill-down menu or a handy search tool.  After reading through the Quickstart section you could conceivable learn to play as you go…just don’t expect a victory the first (or second) time out.  In addition to its addictive turn-based flow, this is the sort of game that grows more enjoyable the more you play.

One unique feature of C-evo that caught my attention is the ability to custom design military units, focusing on either mobility, defense or attack power.  Encounter one type of challenging enemy unit and you can try to research a good counter for it.  Fans of customization needn’t stop there as the game supports what the developers call ‘Modular AI.’  What this means is simply that you can download additional AI modules, with slightly differing strengths and play styles.  Newcomers with questions will find an active and helpful community centered around the game – and continuously improving it.  What I find most amazing about C-evo is that the entire game is only 2.4 MB; that’s less than half the size of most MP3s.  How they’ve managed to pack so much game into so small a package I’ll never know, but it’s impressive.  One small word of advice though, don’t start a game the night before school or work.  And if you do, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Designer: Steffen Gerlach and company
Type: Retro Remake
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Format: Installer
File Size: 2.4 MB
Control Scheme: Keyboard & Mouse
Portable: I’m not sure
Version Played: 1.1.1

Visit the Official Homepage

Published in: on May 11, 2009 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunar Lander 2

One of the most telling characteristics of a true classic is gameplay that’s still fun even decades following its release.  Another is the number of clones that follow in its wake. Lunar Lander is one such game, having come about during the dawn of video games in the early 1970s.  Much has changed in the way of graphics & sound with later iterations, but the core gameplay (if a game has been done right) has remained largely the same.  The basic idea is to take a small lunar module hovering near the surface of the moon and task the player with landing it safely on one of several landing platforms.  Your only control comes in the form of a single thruster and the ability to rotate the craft as it slowly descends.  Sounds simple enough right?  Until you realize the craft isn’t very robust and has the tendency to explode if it touches down too hard or at the wrong angle.  Meanwhile, the tricky duo of inertia and gravity are ever at play turning the whole experience into a game that’s really about finesse.  And therein lies the beauty of ‘lander’ games in general – that they take some getting used to, but in the end give the player a chance to hone and develop their skill with time and practice…yet another characteristic of classic gaming.

One remake in this long-running genre is a title coded by author ‘danjo’ for a 2008 software competition.  Lunar Lander 2 sets out to pay homage to this classic genre by staying true to its roots while offering a few modern frills, such as slightly more modern graphics and a soundtrack that has to be heard to be fully appreciated.  Not only has he pulled this off in spades, but what you end up getting turns out to be an entire Adventure/Strategy game that also happens to be compiled as a self-contained portable exe.  This tribute to the original NASA Apollo program has you working your way through 20 progressively challenging missions.  During each mission your performance (how well you conserve fuel coupled with how quickly you land) determines the final score upon completion.  This ‘performance rating’ proves crucial to long term success as ‘points’ serve the secondary function of enabling you to purchase additional fuel between levels.  With more points more fuel can be purchased. Not only are points necessary to maintain a critical fuel supply but they can also be used for upgrades such as more powerful thrusters and extra fuel tanks – things you’ll need for later levels.  Since remaining fuel carries over from level to level you’ll want to get very good at mastering the subtle nuances of the lunar thruster in the moon’s relatively thin atmosphere.  It won’t be easy but I can assure you practice will improve your performance and it’s a thoroughly fun – and satisfying – kind of trial and error.

Lunar Lander 2 isn’t totally unforgiving as once you pass a level you can pick up from that point at any time.  Although, if your performance curve isn’t up to par your accumulated points still may not be enough to carry you all the way through.  No doubt completing this game will take plenty of skill and practice.  The classic roots shine through once again with this achievement of being difficult yet at the same time rewarding, something not often seen in modern video games.  If I can offer some advice, learn not to rely on the thrusters too much…and be sure the craft is level during touchdown.  Also, while your inclination at the title screen might be to hit Enter you’ll actually need to use the Shift key as everything in the game is controlled with the Shift and Arrow keys.  Use Escape to return to the main menu.

As one who enjoys ‘lander’ games I can say I’ve tried quite a few.  But Lunar Lander 2 stands apart with high production value and excellent gameplay all in a tiny package (no installation required).  Did I mention that it’s free?

Designer: danjo (acoders)
Type: Retro Remake
Genre: Casual
Format: Compression Pack, Portable Exe
File Size: 6.6 MB
Control Scheme: Keyboard
Portable: Yes
Version Played: 1.0

Download Lunar Lander 2
Visit the Host Page at Classic Retro Games

Published in: on April 16, 2009 at 7:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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More Free Favorites

The games featured here in the “Game Reviews” folder represent merely a handful of my personal favorites, discovered during a brief period when I had the time give a proper write-up.  For a much larger selection of favorites visit my Free Video Games list.

But of course, in order to discover all those favorites I had to play a lot of other games…and it turns out there are many others just as noteworthy for good design, artwork, sound and presentation.  These Honorable Mentions are all standout titles deserving a look and could easily become one of your favorites.

Published in: on January 3, 2009 at 9:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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PhotoFiltre

photofiltreThroughout the years I’ve discovered a lot of really great freeware programs, many that I use quite regularly. But there’s one in particular I’ve become so attached to I can hardly imagine not having it installed on my computer. PhotoFiltre is a light-weight photo editor that features just the right mix of functionality and ease of use. It lets you work on single photos for quick touch-ups or dive in for major repair work. The tools are simple to use and the interface is about as friendly and inviting as any I’ve encountered so far. Yet despite its unassuming appearance there are plenty of eye-popping effects tools just waiting to be discovered. One of my favorite features is the one that lets you work with an entire folder. Thumbnails of all the images line up at the bottom, letting you work on each one-by-one. And still the program is so light it launches instantly (on my machine) making for quick cut and paste jobs, and slips quietly away the moment you close it.

My deepest appreciation and thanks to Antonio Da Cruz for this truly outstanding piece of free software. It is a work of art unto itself, and well worth any donation you’re willing to offer.

Get PhotoFiltre

Published in: on July 28, 2006 at 9:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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