- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

Parker Bros.’ legendary property-trading game has been given a virtual makeover for entertainment consoles with Monopoly (Electronic Arts, $39.99). Hosted by a bubbly Mr. Monopoly, it nearly duplicates the nuances of its board game equivalent while adding an additional mode for players with limited time.

Just as in the standard version, entrepreneurs use dice rolls to move their tokens around the 40-space board. They land on property squares and use cash to buy, sell, build, trade and pay rent while testing their fates by occasionally drawing Chance and Community Chest cards.

The virtual game offers four human or computer-controlled characters the same level of fun. The traditional and new World Edition boards are available immediately, and the action can take as long as the original, at least a few hours, or maybe longer, thanks to the host’s droning.

It also allows for rules to be tweaked, including critical components in my Monopoly world: Landing on “Free Parking” wins a player the accumulated tax money, and the standard salary is doubled for landing on “Go.”

Using the Passport is an added twist. As players amass property, locations are represented as stamps that are pasted into a virtual book. Collect enough stamps and unlock nine new boards, such as ones themed to cooking, sweets and even cheese (wouldn’t a “Star Wars” theme be a bit more exciting?).

New to this virtual Monopoly is a condensed version of the action called Rich Edition. In this game, jovial Mr. Monopoly randomly scatters tokens on the board, based on dice rolls. Set in six-, nine- and 12-round sessions; rent is paid purely in properties and players attempt to amass the highest real estate cash value by the end of the game to win.

Four dice are rolled in each round. Each player picks a die, placing the same number of tokens on the board.

Here’s the clever twist. To pick a die of their choice each round, the players must compete in a minigame. Where a player finishes in the minigame determines the choice of die.

The nine challenges range from picking up wads of cash to shoot into a safe, to a permutation of Operation, to driving a train on the Reading Railroad and stopping at stations.

The biggest problem with this Monopoly is there is no multiplayer online support. As the popularity of casual gaming increases, its ludicrous that Electronic Arts would not have added some level of action that could be enjoyed while connected with folks around the world.

Also, the action is very passive. As far as I’m concerned, major components of Monopoly’s greatness include looking opponents in the eye while waving property cards and cash under their noses.

Learning time: Unfortunately, a key educational component of the game - counting one’s money - is left out of this version. It’s done automatically.

However, the lessons in basic bartering techniques and core economics are still there, along with an outlet to hone decision-making skills.

Also, considering all of the geographical locations presented on the boards, it might have been nice to offer some information or even a video clip of some of the cities featured in the game. It might have slightly made up for the lack of online possibilities.

Age range: The whole family can huddle around the television and take part in the lengthy challenge. Games can even be saved and returned to later. Under the Rich Edition, the minigames might frustrate much younger or older players as by the time they figure out what to do, the game has been lost.

Final advice: Electronic Arts has done the bare minimum to bring this classic to video game screens. It looks pretty and uses the basic game mechanics, but can’t duplicate the live game nor does it add enough to give players something really new.

For my money, I would stick with hovering around an actual board and watching my friends and family turn into money-grubbing tycoons.

Game Bytes

Monster Lab (for Wii, Eidos, $29.99) — A belated Halloween treat turns a player into a junior version of Dr. Frankenstein as he assembles creatures to defeat evil Baron Mharti and his minions.

First off, I can’t howl enough about the polished combination of animated designs, game depth and Wii controller functionality that completely immerses the player in this ghoulish experience.

As an assistant researcher, a youngster works his way up through the ranks of the Mad Science Alliance. He eventually mixes ingredients to produce more than 150 body parts and assemble some cool monsters.

With help from experts in mechanical, biological and alchemical monster building (Dr. Fuseless is a Bela Lugosi kind of a hoot), his primary tasks take place in a scary castle complete with a room to shock the new creations to life.

The player then deploys his new friend to B-movie-style towns to help citizens, retrieve more ingredients and challenge frightening foes.

Minigames abound and act as ways to assemble body parts and collect those precious ingredients. The 20-plus games range from protecting a growing heart (use the Wiimote to shoot carnivorous seeds), repairing a monster after battle (spin an electrical wheel using a circular motion with the Nunchuk to heal body parts) and digging for buried treasure (the Wiimote is a shovel and swing the Nunchuk to strike an item).

While in towns, monsters move via spaces, as in an intricate board game, and encounter plenty of enemies. Versus, turn-based battles ensue, requiring scientists to target opponents’ body parts and attack or defend with acquired moves. Battles can extend into online multiplayer contests via Nintendo’s Wi-Fi connection.

Great characters, twinned with Scooby-Doo-friendly humor makes it one of the best games around for tweens enamored with monster movies.

Exit DS (for DS, Taito, $19.99) — Famed professional escapologist Dr. Esc breaks away from the PlayStation Portable and appears on Nintendo’s handheld wonder to give puzzle fans a stylish selection of nail-biting adventures.

The player controls a heroic silhouette peppered with a bit of color as he works through more than 100 side-scrolling rescue missions, traversing fires, floods, earthquakes and even a sinking luxury liner to save a variety of citizens.

Our hero moves with a click of the stylus on the touch screen and uses tools such as ladders, fire extinguishers and ropes to get to survivors and clear an exit path. Rescued citizens can join in on the heroism or further complicate Dr. Esc’s life.

Each timed mission is a stress-inducing, as well as satisfying, addictive challenge. Although a bit of frustration may set in due to imprecise DS controls, overall, Exit DS is budget-minded, pure - er - escapist entertainment.

Joseph Szadkowski’s ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washington times.com.