Christmas is a difficult time of year for America's cheapskates. There are plenty of sturdy, reliable toys out there—broom-handle horses, packs of UNO cards, wooden blocks with wheels on them—all of which are inexpensive and delightful. But all anybody wants these days are video games: a PlayStation 3 or a Nintendo Wii, and full complements of pricey games to go with each. This stuff is expensive and often difficult to obtain, but your nephew will hate you if you give him one more toy that's fashioned from scrap lumber. What's a well-meaning penny pincher to do?
Lucky for you, Slate (in association with the Internet) has your solution: the best free computer games that cyberspace has to offer. The games listed below are exemplars of the casual gaming genre—video games meant to be played incidentally, as a break from work, for instance, or in lieu of sending an e-mail. Many of the games listed below are as clever and fun as their retail counterparts; all of them are free, free, free. They're the perfect last-minute gifts for those out-of-town nieces or second cousins who don't deserve $350 worth of love. Granted, an index card with a URL scrawled on it might not provoke as many cheers upon unwrapping as a copy of Halo 3. But it's the thought that counts. Right?
Some notes: The designation "best" is obviously subjective and incomplete, given that I have not played every single game available on the Internet. Most of these games are built in Flash, which means you can play them on pretty much any Web browser. Don't expect fancy graphics, though—if a game is called the Tall Stump, you're probably not getting advanced texture modeling. (Also, a big thanks to Jayisgames.com, the Internet's undisputed leader in casual gaming information and home to many, many people who know more about this stuff than I do.)
Best old-school side scroller: No, the Tall Stump does not have advanced texture modeling, but its charms are plentiful. Rejoice as you navigate through a charmingly cartoonish land of passageways, tunnels, and tubes, jumping, shooting, and collecting coins in an attempt to free your girlfriend from her pink candy prison. Sound familiar? It should: It's pretty much Super Mario Bros., but with paper hats and cacti instead of plumbers and broad Italian stereotypes. Mamma mia, this is a great little game!
Best all-purpose corporate game site: Who besides the Doublemint Twins would've thought that a chewing gum company would boast one of the Web's best gaming sites? There are dozens of games at Wrigley's Candystand—sports games, arcade-style games, puzzle games. All of them are easy to learn and fun to play, and none of them have anything to do with chewing gum. That's a serious flaw, to my mind; I have long dreamed about the possible ways in which Juicy Fruit's citrusy tang might translate into video-game form.
Best sports game: Crave a workout but too busy or apathetic to leave your chair? The best sports-themed games can fool your brain into thinking that you're actually playing a sport, instead of clicking a mouse and eating beef jerky. England Academy, a rugby game on the BBC's Web site, is the best in show here. When I first played this, I had no idea what I was doing or what the rules of rugby were. Several dozen attempts later, I'm still clueless—it has something to do with dropkicks and enthusiastic group hugs—but it's still fun as hell, and the mental gyrations required to follow along will get you close to actually breaking a sweat.
Best puzzle game: Thought that the era of locked-room mysteries died off with John Dickson Carr? Think again: The locked-room puzzle, wherein you start inside a sealed room (or car, or closet) and find your way out by virtue of your puzzle-solving skills, is alive and well on the Web. (I don't know why most of these games come from Japanese studios, but I suspect it has something to do with those creepy capsule hotels.) A lot of these games have a limited appeal, because all it takes to win is random mouse-clicking. But the best one I've found, Guest House, strikes the right balance between clicking, solving, and creepy blue-skinned women in futuristic iron lungs. I'm still waiting to find the cheat code that lets you blast your way out with a rocket launcher.
Best retro lo-fi game: Gamma Bros. brings back memories of Galaga, Centipede, and similar Golden Age pizza-parlor arcade classics. You're a spaceman who has to fight an unending fleet of pixelated enemy starships. That's it. Best played in leggings, Zubaz, or an Ayatollah Assahola T-shirt. 2008 is the new 1985!
Best simulation of your boring life: For some reason, there's a wildly successful subgenre of casual games that simulates the completion of mundane service-industry tasks: making and serving pizzas, for instance, or hamburgers. (To read more of my thoughts on the perils of such games, click here.) I'm not sure whom this stuff appeals to, but I suspect there's some sort of global conspiracy afoot involving Aramark and Tricon Global Restaurants. Choosing the best one of these games is sort of like choosing the best type of heart surgery, but if I had to choose, I'd go with Miss Management (requires download), which puts you in the role of a harried office manager tasked with, um, managing an office. A paradox: This is the one game in this list that you can play openly at work, but you might find actual work more entertaining than this game. Damn you, cruel irony!
Best text-based game: Text-only games—beloved by those who spent their high-school math classes playing Drugwar on their TI-82 calculators—are still around, even though they're now as anachronistic as floppy disks. Aunts and Butlers embraces this anachronism like no other text game I've found. Written by one Robin Johnson, a man who has modified his computer to resemble an old-timey adding machine, Aunts and Butlers features a Wodehousian plot involving miserly aunts, invaluable valets, and delightfully loopy ways to die: "A serial killer leaps out, effects an expert murder upon your person, and buries you on the nearest moor." Losing a game has never been more charming.
Best game with a social conscience: No matter how bad things are going, you could always be a subsistence farmer in Haiti. (To our Haitian subsistence-farming readers: God bless.) Ayiti: The Cost Of Life makes the Oregon Trail look like Candy Land. The game puts you in control of the lives of a Haitian family of five. You have four years to guide the family through a catalog of privations and calamities: hurricanes, robbers, depression, illiteracy, and on-the-job injuries. Ideally, you'll find education, prosperity, and health, but you'll probably just come down with malaria and die.
Best game in which I'm a character: Throw Shoes At Stu! (click through to "Arcade"). My friend wrote this game, based upon an independent movie in which I appeared. The object of the game is to throw sandals at my head until I am dead. Don't trip on any of the boxes that I scatter in my wake, however. If you do, you'll blast off into space. This really makes more sense if you've seen the movie, which you almost certainly have not. It's still fun to throw shoes at my head, though.