Gaming on a netbook: yes we can


— 10:52 PM on February 26, 2009

As you might have already seen, I recently had the chance to play with Asus' new Eee PC 1000HE. In my journey to further understand the merits of netbooks, I found myself curious to see what games I could play on it. After all, PC gaming is of great interest to many of us here at The Tech Report. No matter how focused a product's role or how one-dimensional it may be, if it's got a user interface and buttons, we want to know how to waste time with it.

I know what you're thinking: we've all seen the Intel GMA 950 benchmarks. We've all watched the proof-of-concept YouTube videos showing Half-Life 2 or World of Warcraft running at a dozen frames per second while some guy tells you it's "perfectly playable." That's not what I'm interested in. I don't care if some dork can dig through configuration files and console commands to force a game to launch, because after you've died for the seventh time due to slideshow performance, you're just not having any fun. No, I wanted to find games that were entertaining and actually ran well on a netbook.

For gamers, netbooks present some unique challenges compared to their full-sized brethren. Not only are you limited by the lackluster integrated graphics and energy-conscious Atom CPU, but the display resolution and input mechanisms create new hurdles.1024x600 doesn't leave enough vertical space for most new games, though some still find ways to fit. The keyboard and trackpad are often much smaller than on a regular laptop, which makes twitch reactions or precise movements difficult to pull off. The trick to gaming on a netbook is to find titles that play to the strengths (or at least fit within the constraints) of the platform. Believe it or not, you're not just limited to Solitaire.

Cave Story (a.k.a. Doukutsu Monogatari)
Cave Story is a game that hearkens back to the NES platformers of old. Part Metroid, part Castlevania, and a dash of Mega Man come together to form a wonderfully retro title made by a single programmer known only as Pixel. Cave Story's charming characters and challenging gameplay will keep you coming back for more, even after you've beaten the game. And of course, the low-resolution graphics and simple controls make it a perfect fit for netbooks. Did I mention that the music is awesome, too? An updated version will be arriving on the Nintendo Wii later this year, but the original PC version of Cave Story, along with an English translation, can still be downloaded for free.

Battle for Wesnoth
Linux users might have heard of Wesnoth already, but they're not the only ones that can enjoy this turn-based fantasy strategy game. Fans of Heroes of Might and Magic will feel right at home, while genre newcomers will warm quickly to the game's simple yet subtle game mechanics and interesting setting. Thanks to its open-source roots, Wesnoth has countless user-made scenarios and is regularly updated with new content. Battle for Wesnoth is a free download for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and more.

Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2
No, you don't need to spend $30 on Steam for a Grand Theft Auto pack to play these 2D classics again. A few years back, Rockstar Games released both GTA 1 and GTA 2 for free on its official website. If you've been meaning to revisit the series' roots, or you're just curious about where it all began, the 2D installments of the GTA franchise are a great fit for netbooks.

Freeciv
I don't care what you tell me—Sid Meier's Civilization series peaked with Civ II. Thanks to some endeavoring programmers, we can relive the glory days of the turn-based pioneer with Freeciv. As you might expect from the name, it's a free clone of Civilization II that just happens to have a great community to go with it. Freeciv doesn't like to be limited to 600 vertical lines, but as long as your netbook supports 1024x768 with scrolling, you'll be just fine.

The Ur-Quan Masters
You've got to love free clones of classic games. Some consider Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters to be one of the greatest PC titles of all time—a satisfyingly deep space adventure that broke new ground with its exploration and customization elements. Now, over 15 years after its initial release, we can experience the game all over again thanks to a free, open source remake called The Ur-Quan Masters. The slow gameplay style and limited visuals make it a perfect fit for netbooks. Regardless of whether you have a netbook or not, you owe it to yourself to give The Ur-Quan Masters a shot and see why the game is still held in such high regard to this day.

Adventure games
Point-and-click adventures also work great on netbooks. They're the opposite of twitch gameplay, and they don't require long gaming sessions. You can simply fire one up and enjoy it for a few minutes at your leisure, and then return to it whenever you like. Sierra On-Line was a pioneer in the genre and made some of its most memorable titles. The company's franchise-launching King's Quest was remade a few years back by ADG Interactive and released for free. Point-and-click fans will also want to grab ScummVM, which allows modern systems to run original versions of classic LucasArts and Sierra On-Line games.

Emulators
All right, the Atom won't be able to play God of War, but there are plenty of older systems it will emulate just fine. Pick anything from before the 3D era, and you'll generally be good to go. The SNES and Genesis are my favorite consoles for netbooks, with dozens of RPGs to sink hours into. Anything with more action than that can cause some control issues—you don't want to attempt some of those jumps in Super Mario World on a netbook's tiny arrow keys. Don't just limit yourself to consoles, either. DOSBox makes revisiting some of your favorite games (that haven't been remade) a breeze. Performance on the Atom can be hit-or-miss, but it should be enough for some good old-fashioned Doom, SimCity 2000, or Worms.

Netbooks clearly aren't ideal gaming platforms, but with a little creativity and some nostalgiac thinking, you can still have fun with them. What games do you have loaded on your netbook? Maybe you're faithful to the "net" part of the term and rely solely on Flash games, saving yourself the hassle of installing anything. Did getting a netbook get you on a classic gaming binge, or have you found more free or independent titles to keep yourself entertained? Netbook owners, feel free to hit the comments and let others know how you have fun with your tiny laptop.

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