For hardcore gamers, controlling a video-game character is second nature. You use one joystick to run, use another stick to look around, press the right trigger to shoot and use various buttons to open doors, take cover or talk to other characters.
It all seems so obvious that I'm surprised when someone else of my generation doesn't get it. My brother-in-law, for example, is an experienced hunter and golfer - but he has trouble firing a gun or swinging a club in virtual reality. Perhaps game controls have just gotten too complicated.
A game like 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is designed for die-hards who can drive, shoot and talk on a cell phone (virtually, that is) simultaneously. After a few hours, though, you long for something simpler, where you're only doing one thing at a time. Such simple pleasures should be part of any gamer's diet, especially if you want to play with friends who aren't as hardcore.
'Boom Blox' (Electronic Arts, for the Wii, $39.99): This is the first fruit of a much ballyhooed collaboration between EA and Steven Spielberg, but if you're expecting an Indiana Jones-style spectacle, you'll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you're seeking a fun-for-the-whole-family experience, 'Boom Blox' delivers.
The core gameplay involves one action: throwing a ball at a pile of blocks. Some blocks disappear when you hit them; other cause explosions or fireworks. Most of the time the object is to knock over the entire structure, but you may be limited to a certain number of balls or score more points for hitting particular blocks. There's also a Jenga-like game in which you want to remove as many blocks as possible before the tower topples.
For such a simple concept, 'Boom Blox' has a lot of variety, with dozens of single-player puzzles and a good assortment of lively multiplayer modes. The graphics are sharp and colorful, and the physics - the way the blocks tumble and fall - seem dead-on. It's one of the Wii's best party games, accessible enough for just about anyone. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
'Echochrome' (Sony, for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, $9.99): In this age of ever more realistic computer graphics, you wouldn't expect to see a game made up entirely of black-and-white line drawings. But beneath the bare-bones appearance of 'Echochrome' lies a game that's unusually challenging and sophisticated.
Each level is a three-dimensional maze, with the ideal path typically blocked by bottomless pits or impassable gaps. The trick is that you have to rotate the maze, changing your perspective so that disconnected paths connect and obstacles are hidden. For example, if you move a post in front of a hole, the hole essentially ceases to exist, so your character can slide right across it.
It's quite trippy, reminiscent of the M.C. Escher posters decorating many a dorm room. (The designers have acknowledged the debt to Escher.) The elegant graphics combine with a mellow violin soundtrack to create a weirdly soothing experience, even though some of the mazes are quite difficult. 'Echochrome' demands a kind of thinking that video games usually don't require, and it's the most distinctive puzzle game in years. Three-and-a-half stars.