Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Potential mates aren't the only bar denizens enhanced by a beer-goggles haze. Those touch-screen video games nestled at the end of the bar tend to become more engrossing as last call looms. But in the soberer context of the Nintendo DS, TouchMaster, a collection of 23 mini-games inspired by watering-hole coin-ops, is a straight-up dog. TouchMaster's games and menus look like they were dragged out to the back alley and worked over with the ugly stick. Las Vegas slots and video-poker machines are fine art by comparison. And the game's music sounds like the kind of prefab cool jazz heard on training videos and infomercials.

All shallowness aside, this modest cart does pack a healthy variety of point-and-click diversions. Multiple flavors of solitaire are nearly worth the cover charge. Pond Kings Checkers, an amphibian-themed checkers game, and Wordz, a Wheel Of Fortune clone, aren't quite so compelling. But for every phoned-in offering, there's a classic time-waster like the tile-matching Mah Jongg Pairs. Touchscreen input using the Nintendo DS stylus makes nearly all the games a snap to play. Socialization is encouraged via pass-and-play multiplayer modes and the ability to wirelessly connect two handhelds.

Still, none of these features make TouchMaster essential. The captive, soused audience at the local saloon doesn't have the same gaming options as the average Nintendo DS owner. Nearly all the other casual-gaming fish in the sea of handheld games are more fun, and they're way less likely to inspire remorse the following morning.


Beyond the game: Bars have long been the lifeline of coin-op video games. Pong was first tested in Andy Capp's Tavern in Sunnyvale, California. Today's most popular arcade game, Big Buck Hunter Pro, rakes in quarters from the corner of the pub where Golden Tee once ruled.

Worth playing for: Ever get sucked in by that cheap video-poker game that grandma keeps next to her Barcalounger? TouchMaster crams nearly two dozen of those low-rent games into one package.

Frustration sets in when: TouchMaster's Internet connectivity feels pointless. Players can post high scores on a public leader board, but at press time, there were no tournaments to play.

Final judgment: TouchMaster is rough around the edges, but at least it isn't a cell-phone game.


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