If you've got an internet connection, thousands upon thousands of free games are just one click away. The problem is picking the right site, with many so-called free services providing a route for hackers, phishers and spyware developers to access your PC.
So to help you play, and play safe, we compiled this sampler of our favourite free game sites, offering everything from single-player arcade classics to a surprisingly sophisticated multiplayer Pictionary clone. We even found freebie versions of big-download titles originally created for PCs and/or consoles.
Many sites are supported by adverts and you may also have to install an Active X control, Java, or Adobe's Flash player. But you'll never have to type in a credit card number - and you may just find a new way to enjoy your PC.
We've numbered the sites to help you keep count, rather than in order of preference. And if you want to want to keep on playing when you're away from an internet connection - on a laptop while on the move, for example - we've also put together a list of the free games downloads.
So, the weekend is here - it's time to play!
The big portals
These are perhaps the four major game portals. Although AOL Games now incorporates Pogo.com, it still exists as a separate site, so we count it here as one of our top 15.
1. AOL Games
2. MSN Games
4. Yahoo Games
If you've ever taken even a remote interest in playing games online, you've probably already stumbled on to one of the big portal game sites. But if you haven't checked out AOL Games (aka Pogo.com), MSN Games, or Yahoo Games recently, you might want to pay a visit to see just how large and impressive these mega-collections have become.
As ever, you'll find the best free board and card games here - MSN even offers duplicate scoring with its bridge game, although Pogo's interface is more user-friendly - but these offerings have been fleshed out with literally dozens of Flash and Active X games, many of which are web-based versions of arcade-style titles you may have run into on a console or even a handheld device (think Bejeweled or Alchemy).
Yahoo has a particularly appealing collection of Flash-based casual games: I'm currently hooked on Armor Games' Trapped! - a point-and-click puzzle adventure in which you wake up with amnesia in a locked bathroom and must use your wits not only to escape, but to figure out what's going on.
A secondary addiction is 2D Play's Perfect Pizza, in which you try to place various toppings on your pizza exactly the way they are positioned on a model pizza.
What I especially like about Yahoo's games is that Yahoo accompanies them with a link to the game's publisher, so if you like a game on Yahoo, you can visit the publisher's site to look at its other games. Because of Trapped! I checked out Armor Games and found a slew of interesting Flash games. In fact, PCWorld.com games blogger Matt Peckham recently wrote about one of the games I found on Armor's site, called Portal: The Flash Version.
Flash and Shockwave Fun
The slogan on this site reads 'A new addictive flash game every weekday, or your money back' - and they don't appear to be kidding. For instance, one recent game du jour was a charming time management title, Sushi Go Round, which challenges you to assemble various sushi orders for customers at a sushi-boat bar.
Games are categorised by type (Action, Classics, Puzzle, and so on), and there's a list of the most played games if you're the monkey-see, monkey-do type of casual gamer. You'll have to play a lot of games to run out of things to do here.
Shockwave.com has a mixed bag of downloadable and free web-based games, for both single and multiple players. Many of the web-based games are versions of popular desktop games: I tried out Sandlot Games' Cake Mania but found it painfully slow, even on my fast office connection, compared with the PC game (which Shockwave.com repeatedly offers as a $20 (£10) download).
Other games are just fine, though. A colleague confided that the Shockwave.com version of Bounce Out was her guilty pleasure, and you may find others here too.
Blasts from the past
If you've never gotten over your first console love affair, you'll want to head immediately to this site. Here you'll find hundreds of old Nintendo (as in NES), Sega, and Gameboy classics, all playable for free (no ads, either) via your browser with Java 1.5 or later installed.
It's not complete - you won't find franchise titles such as the original Legend of Zelda or Mario Brothers. The emulation plays in a fairly tiny screen, and the sound on the games I tried out was pretty scratchy. Still, I had fun revisiting the Back to the Future games, and Matt's blog post about the site mentions several other oldies but goodies, including Double Dragon, Ultima Exodus, and Wizards and Warriors. All in all, a nice trip down game memory lane.
In a similar vein, 1980-games.com is a treasure trove of old arcade and NES games. Here I did find Donkey Kong, Galaga, and a really well-done Ms. Pacman. The emulators are excellent, with none of the audio issues I found on Every Video Game.
There are some fairly unobtrusive Google ads; the only display ad was in French (typing 1980-games.com without the /us extension at the end gets you a French-language version). The selection, while impressive, falls short of the numbers on Every Video Game, but there are a lot of links to even more game sites. Be aware, however, that I saw at least one link going to adult content.
If World of Warcraft is too pricey for you, head over to UK developer Jagex's Runescape to get your free, ad-supported, massively multiplayer online role-playing game fix. A $5 (£2.50) per month membership dispenses with the ads and provides access to more content, but the free version is eminently respectable and has already reportedly attracted some 10 million signups.
I walked through an elaborate and fairly lengthy in-world tutorial that teaches you the basics of the interface and game skills, from cooking meals to casting spells, creating weapons, and fighting. It felt to me like a souped-up version of a MUD (multiuser dungeon) - the largely text-based multiplayer games that first appeared on electronic bulletin boards. If you're on a quest for quests, start here.
Puzzles and multiplayer rooms
Wikipedia has an entire entry on the mathematics behind Planarity, but you don't have to be a math geek to enjoy this puzzle game. Basically, it presents you with several points connected by straight lines; your goal is to reposition the points (which drag their connected lines in rubber-band fashion) so that none of the lines cross.
Planarity seems fairly straightforward when you start out with just six points. But the number of points and lines escalate with each level, and you'll spend quite a bit of time figuring out the puzzle as they climb higher into double digits.
Brettspielwelt means Board Game World in German, and this totally free (and ad-free) site is all about recreating board games online for real humans to play. Don't go looking here for Monopoly or Clue, however; the games are generally less commercial and more contemporary. Popular titles include Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, backgammon, and the Asian classic, Go.
Brettspielwelt demands a certain amount of effort for newcomers. While you can play directly in a browser, things may go more smoothly if you download and install a Java client. Although by default everything is in German, you can tweak the settings to default to English (detailed instructions for doing this can be found on a Brettspielwelt tutorial website devoted to helping English speakers get up and running).
While most of the players are German, they almost all speak at least some English - and there is a large contingent of native English speakers.
The games can be complicated, too - it's not easy to recreate three-dimensional game pieces and game boards for a two-dimensional PC display. But the graphics are pretty amazing, and if you find a board game you love (there's a list of the games on the Brettspielwelt site; click the small British flag on the upper right to get the English version), you'll love being able to play it online pretty much 24 hours a day - for free.
Have you ever played Pictionary? ISketch is a surprisingly sophisticated (and totally ad-free) Shockwave version of the game, where a group of players try to guess a word or phrase that one of them draws. The game randomly assigns sketching duties (ten rounds per game), and you know it's your turn when a set of drawing tools (simplified versions of palettes found in all image editors) appears, along with the word or phrase you're supposed to draw. You're awarded points for guessing the word that's being drawn (the person who gets it first receives the most points), and you also acquire points when people successfully figure out what word you're drawing.
Game play goes on in dozens of rooms that each accommodates up to ten players. There are rooms for different languages, and for specialty subjects such as movies or songs. Users are invited to submit their own word lists (at least 1500 entries are required) to form the basis of a new room.
The rooms have one pane for drawing, one for typing in your guesses, and another for chatting, where nothing you type is construed as a guess. Players police each other; people who persist in rude behaviour, or who scribble words in the drawing pane, are often given the boot.
I stumbled across ISketch several years ago and was amazed by it then; I'm positively stunned that it's still running as a free game with not a smidge of advertising (as opposed to Shockwave.com's similar InkLink game) - and with even more features than I remembered. It's a true Internet gem.
Still more on tap
This isn't so much a site for online games as it is a site for downloading and playing big PC games - commercial titles, some of them older (BloodRayne, Bust-a-Move, Myst, Root Beer Tapper), that you once had to purchase on CD or DVD.
To begin using the site, you must first register and download a player app that allows GameTap to dictate the rights associated with its titles - for example, I will only be able to play the original version of Myst (called realMyst here) for free until December 31. GameTap changes the free game lineup every week, and when I visited the site recently, it indicated that only 44 of the nearly 1000 games in its catalogue were actually free.
The game downloads can be huge - several hundred megabytes. Still, some are vintage A-list titles that people may enjoy revisiting - especially for free.
BoxerJam is not the most attractive site on the web, and it can be a bit pushy about trying to get you to click on ads. But it has an entertaining collection of word and puzzle pastimes - and what really keeps me coming back are a couple of highly addictive multiplayer game-show-style games.
In Strike a Match, you're presented with a collection of six or nine names or phrases (depending on the round of the game) from which you must click the two or three (respectively) that belong together. You play against up to seven opponents (although many tend to drop out as it becomes clear that they aren't doing well).
I also like Out of Order, in which you compete against other players to successfully unscramble words before the clock stops. (The game doesn't make you type in complete words - it demands only the first three letters, and if you get those right it assumes you know the rest.)
Speaking of game shows, our last site presents a novel approach to gaming. Moola lets you compete (for free) against other players to win cash prizes funded by ad dollars. It works like this: You start out with a penny that Moola gives to you, and you try to double it by playing a game against another player who also has only 1 cent. The winner plays against someone else with 2 cents, and the stakes keep doubling as you advance; if you lose, you start over again with another penny.
Caveats: Participation is by invitation only (remember the early days of Gmail?), but you can ask to be invited; it took me all of 15 minutes to get an invitation. Also, you don't have much of a choice of games; only three (two card-like games and a version of Rock, Paper, Scissors) at the time of writing. But the site's literature says it will be adding more games, and the prospect of winning millions (however remote, as you would have to win a whole bunch of games) does give game play an added dimension.
Bonus: Free downloadable games we love
Unless you're playing games at work (and we know some of you are), it's very likely that your internet connection will bomb out occasionally. But don't let being offline interfere with your gameplay. There are loads of free games you can play in a few minutes (you have to do SOME work today, don't you) and are available for download.
Here's a taste:
Side-scrollers are the 2D games, epitomised by Super Mario Bros and Sonic the Hedgehog in their younger days. But mention them to newer gamers who cut their teeth on 3D action games like Castle Wolfenstein, and you'll get only a blank stare. I mean, blanker than usual. And Yet It Moves offers proof that simple 2D side-scrolling games still have plenty to offer.
The typical side-scroller puts a character in an underground labyrinth from which they must escape by running, jumping, and solving the occasional puzzle. And Yet It Moves similarly starts off with a young man trapped in a cavern. Instead of being made out of the usual Lego-like blocks and hackneyed texture mats - so 20th century - this cave is fashioned from crumpled paper. The character is made from simple line drawings.
Despite its simple graphics, And Yet It Moves is not a simplistic game. It makes gravity a key element by allowing you to rotate the world. (That explains the title, which is based on Galileo's defiant heretical claim that the earth revolves.) A false turn can send our young hero plummeting onto spiked rocks or put him in the trajectory of a falling boulder. In the second level, solving puzzles requires an understanding of the laws of physics evoked by each turn of the earth. The game is clever in concept and ground-breaking in design.
Even more abstract and just as fascinating is Flow. This game is reminiscent of Edwin A. Abbott's classic Flatland, a mathematical novel about creatures in a world where a third dimension is unknown. Flow is certainly the most relaxing game you will ever play that involves killing other creatures. In it, you are some sort of microscopic life form that looks vaguely like the petroglyphs drawn by cliff-dwelling tribes.
You swim though a primordial soup looking for smaller forms of microscopic life to consume. Your goal is simple: Eat and evolve. Other creatures are obeying the same primordial mandate, of course, and they're bigger than you are. There are no sudden movements, and the mechanics of the play assure that each move made by the abstracted creatures is as graceful as the soothing background music, even while they are being eaten.
There are occasions - such as when your internet connection has broken for the fifth time, or when the stupidest person in the office has got your promotion - when nothing will do but a good, noisy, fiery ka-BOOM! Like what you get with Warning Forever.
The great thing about Warning Forever - I have no idea what the title means - is its simplicity. If you have at least three fingers spread over two hands and a passing familiarity with arcade games of the '70s, you have everything you need to play. You're at the bottom of the screen, moving warily back and forth, as you shoot gracefully wavy streams of - oh, let's call them 'vortex torpedoes' - at a mother of a mothership.
Right off the bat, you've got a fighting chance. But it diminishes rapidly with each new level, which of course brings a form of new spectacular weaponry that the mothership uses to kick your butt in a new spectacular way. The retro graphics are primitive compared to those of most games, but so what? You didn't launch Warning Forever because it's Art Appreciation Day. You needed it to vent some of your inner killer before you take it out on the next person who wishes you a 'nice day'.
What's that you say? Oh, it is Art Appreciation Day? In that case you should launch Rrootage. It's essentially the same type of game play as Warning Forever. You scoot back and forth at the bottom the screen firing off lasers and bombs to take out the enemy ship, which is half dreadnought, half work of art.
The action is more intense than in Warning Forever, but better still are the amorphous, semi-abstract artwork and the high-energy techno background music. You could run Rrootage, and then not touch a key until your ship disintegrates, and your body would be running on pure adrenalin. If you're the type who needs a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, Rrootage will pick you up and throw you out the window.
If you think the spaceships in Warning Forever or Rrootage aren't good enough, why not just build your own? You can, with Astro Battle 2, a game where skill in assembling a deadly fighting machine from power generators, thrusters, cannons, and cockpits is equally as important as your skill with a joy stick. To test your theories of weaponry, the game features constantly raging fights on Astro Battle's home page. The fighting itself is top-down 2D, which is generally lame but works well for testing the strength of armaments and munitions instead of a person's fighting skill.
One of the best games of the olden days was Worms, which really wasn't about worms unless the worms you know are capable of calculating bomb trajectories and elevating cannons to try to take each other out. Scorched 3D is the ultimate extension of Worms. You're still lobbing shots at each other, but the game's full-colour 3D extends to the rippling ocean waves and the gently falling snow. Full camera movement, zoom, and rotation let you scope out the enemy and catch all the action - and, of course, the magnificent, billowing fireballs.
Scorched 3D begs you to modify it by allowing you to create custom battlefields and cities just so you can blow them up. But best of all, cannon balls have evolved into missiles that screech toward their targets on tails of flame. The armament even includes multiple warhead rockets to spread the explosions over a bigger territory. In true Worms tradition you can play by taking polite turns, sweating it out as your enemy takes his time calculating range and wind. But you can also engage other players over a network in a real-time, catch-as-catch-can battle. Who said the apocalypse won't be fun?