Virtual Villagers

It wouldn't be a popular theory with hardcore gamers, but as they lament the death of arcades worldwide there is a modern day equivalent that's in rude health: casual games. On the face of it Cake Mania and Space Invaders have little in common, but there are similarities: ultra simple premises and controls, purposefully short and sweet play times, rampant plagiarism and even a similar brutal inelegance to the names.

You can probably immediately guess what you're going to get with something called Virtual Villagers. In fact Virtual Villagers is so unambiguous a name you can likely picture it in your mind's eye without ever seeing a screenshot. Especially if you've ever played the casual PC game on which it's based - although obviously that's cheating.

If the original has passed you by, though, the game opens (via a CGI cut-scene - the game's presentation really is top notch) with a bunch of castaways finding refuge on a desert island. Although you're supposed to be some manner of tribal leader your only interaction with the world is by means of disembodied hand. You're a little lacking on the god-like powers though, as you coax and suggest rather than command.

At first your main goal is to simply set up shop and make sure everyone is fed and watered. You can pick up any villager you like, and by setting them down near an interactive object, such as a berry bush or water source, you can encourage them to try and use it. Cleverly if it's a resource, such as food, they'll continue to keep harvesting it - bring it back to the village - until you tell them to stop.

Before you know it you're constructing artesian wells and other even more unlikely buildings. Once you're certain that nobody's going to die of dysentery you're then able to split your time between urbanising your village and exploring the rest of your island - which is naturally filled with unexplored caverns and other not-very-deadly secrets.

A more unexpected element of the game is that unless you purposefully pause it before turning it off it will all continue on in your absence. This pushes it into the realm of Tamagotchi-style virtual pet simulator, except here you get to go away and come back to find all manner of new items have been researched, buildings have been constructed, and cannibal holocausts have been endured (well, not the last admittedly - but you can lose all your food stock sometimes).

The graphics really are excellent and although the island background can seem a little plain in places it's filled with the detail of gently swaying palm trees and moves without a pause in its silk-smooth scrolling. The actual villagers look great too, with large, bold, designs imbued with plenty of cartoon character.

Those who demand action or ultra-specific goals will find little to enjoy in this sort of game, but for everyone else it seems much more suited to the mobile format than even veteran god games such as Townsmen. If you're ever marooned on a desert island this is the game you'd want to be stuck with.

Virtual Villagers

A superior slice of people management that makes up for its lack of depth with an addictive charm
Roger  Hargreaves
Roger Hargreaves
After being picked last for PE one too many times, Roger vowed to eschew all physical activities and exist only as a being of pure intellect. However, the thought of a lifetime without video games inspired him to give up and create for himself a new robot body capable of wielding a joystick – as well as the keyboard necessary to write for both Pocket Gamer and Teletext's GameCentral.