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Jason Thompson

It certainly puts to rest the myth that online gaming consists of nothing but first person shooters and MMORPGs.

Platforms: PC (broadband or equivalent connection recommended)
Price: Subscription rate: $6.95/month
Multimedia: Realarcade
ESRB rating: varies

The world of online gaming has never been bigger. Thanks to the likes of titles through the years such as Quake, Half-Life, EverQuest, Neverwinter Nights, and tons of others, the online gaming community has continued to grow with each passing year. So much, in fact, that the home gaming consoles finally followed suit by offering either built-in or addable network gaming adapters. There's a fortune to be made out there online, as well as a fortune of fun to be had.

Yet online gaming via the web has always had a place. There are loads of free games to be found with just a simple search. A gamer can find everything from classic board and card games to arcade favorites, and everything in between to either play solo or with someone else online. And there are definitely plenty of great, free games out there to whittle away the hours. However, there's also a great subscription service from the folks at RealNetworks (the fine people who brought the web the Real medial players over the years) called RealArcade.

For a mere $6.95 per month, a subscription to RealArcade's GamePass nets players an extensive library of both free and purchasable games. The kicker is that this monthly payment actually ensures each gamer of not only a monthly certificate good for one free game of his or her choosing, but also a $5 discount towards the purchase of another game. No game costs more than $20.00 total, and there are quite a few for $10.00. So a free game plus another for $4.99 with the discount is quite nice.

I've been a member for a few months now, and I can safely say I'm one of the most skeptical folks out there when it comes to subscription-based services. I'd always rather play a free online shoot-em-up like one of the Quake games, versus something like EverQuest. And this is exactly the same reason why I've never bothered with online gaming via my home console; I just don't want to fork over extra cash. Call me stingy.

But even my jaded gaming veins know good deal when they feel it, and honestly, I've never felt anything less than 100% satisfied with my subscription at RealArcade. The number one reason is undoubtedly because the service provides a huge selection of puzzle-type games. I'm a sucker for any type of quick-to-learn, hard-to-master title. At the top of the heap of these games is Zuma Deluxe, in which the player controls a sort of statuesque frog that spits out colored balls. Spit a like-colored ball towards two others that are joined together and -- poof -- they disappear. Each of the nine levels has varying boards of madness, difficulty, and guaranteed endless enjoyment. That is, if you like puzzle games.

If you don't, the site also includes everything from space shooters to pinball games, and even classic games from Sega. Yes, you can once again own and enjoy Sonic the Hedgehog and Shinobi III. Indeed, I did say own. Probably the coolest thing about RealArcade is that it's not merely a subscription-based service, but one that truly gives you the goods. That said, a broadband or equivalent connection is highly recommended, lest you want to sit around all day waiting for the games to download (and some of these can be quite huge, going well over 30 megs at times).

RealNetworks has obviously struck up quite a few good deals with this enterprise. Not only have they secured games from such leading innovators as PopCap (makers of Zuma Deluxe) and Sega, but also with Hasbro/Atari. This means you can also dig into the full retail versions of such classics as Monopoly and Milton Bradley Classic Board Games, which tosses out an array of fun with checkers, chess, Parchesi, backgammon, Reversi, and dominoes all in one fun little batch. So yes, the games are consistently high quality and not just some quickly-slapped together titles to rake in the dough.

If you're not sure of a game, then there are not only gamer reviews to read through, but also video samples and downloadable demos to play so you can try before you buy. Plus, the RealArcade program itself makes downloading and installation a snap for those who may not be the best at such operations. Got tired of a game and don't want it around anymore? No problem, as there's always an uninstall button for every game. If you really don't like it, there's even an option to fully nix the installation file from your hard drive so that it's truly gone for good.

Certain games, like the great Mahjongg Towers II, allow players to design their own boards and share their creations online so that the game is always a new experience. Others, such as Scrabble Blast, bring new twists to old favorites, creating something that could truly only be a product of the computer age. It certainly puts to rest the myth that online gaming consists of nothing but first person shooters and MMORPGs. "And all this for the price of a large cheese pizza!" as they used to say.

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