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HOME COMPUTING : Tapping Into the Shareware Warehouse : Online is the name of the game--at least for those who are looking to save some money. Best of all, you get to play before you pay.

November 05, 1995|David Colker | David Colker is a Times staff writer. His Internet address is david.colker@latimes.com

Have you checked out the prices of CD-ROM games lately? "Gadget" and "Phantasmagoria" will each set you back about $60, the latest "King's Quest" mail-orders for about $53, and "SimCity 2000" is a relative steal at $39.95. To make matters worse, if you do buy a high-priced game and then decide you don't like it, you might not be able to get your money back or even exchange it.

But if you have a modem, you have access to the world of shareware, where hundreds of DOS/Windows and Macintosh games are available on a trial basis for free and after that for a low price.

These games, for the most part, have neither the dazzling multimedia effects nor the live-action sequences available in many commercial products, but a good many of these privately developed amusements are surprisingly sophisticated, especially in their use of graphics.

Most important, many shareware games are every bit as fun to play as the computer games you buy off the shelf--and some even more so.

Here's how shareware works: A sole developer (usually home-based) or a group (usually friends) designs a game on a home computer. The developer uploads it to an Internet site or commercial online service such as America Online or CompuServe. If gamers who try it like what they see, the game spreads quickly to a variety of cyberspace sites, where it might be downloaded by thousands of computer users.

Requested payments for the games, usually in the $10-$20 range, are paid on an honor system. You send the fee to the developer or, in some cases, the developer's favorite charity, and you are officially registered. Sometimes, in return for the payment, the developer will send a bonus gift, such as additional levels of the game or a code to unlock special features.

Although a few shareware games self-destruct after a certain period of time unless a registration code is typed in, you can continue to play most of them for free, forever. But that's not nice, and it discourages the development of more shareware.

Here is a selection of games available in each format. All are available online.

DOS-Windows

Larry's Hangman. No kid who is used to the likes of "Doom" is going to look at the crude graphics of this game and exclaim, "Awesome," but this software trifle is one of the most intelligently designed and challenging of the many hangman-style shareware games available. It gives you the option of playing at the basic or advanced levels and to add your own words. To make it especially hard, you can cut down on the number of wrong letters you can choose before you lose. Fee: $15.

Electranoid. Electronic paddles and balls have been a fixture of computer amusements since the days of "Pong," but this tough game takes the genre to a new level. While you scurry back and forth to get your paddle under a falling ball, all kind of enemy fighters try to do you in and multicolored bricks send the ball flying every which way. The fee unlocks 100 additional levels, but I only ever made it to Level 3 before dying, anyway. Fee: $13.

Palace of Deceit. In this adventure game, a teen-ager finds himself in the land of Salac, where he has to solve a number of puzzles to overthrow an evil leader. The graphics are fairly crude, but the clunkiness is kind of infectious. Fee: $20.

Ultimate Poker. This straightforward poker game lets you pit your skills against three computer-controlled players as you try your hand at five- or seven-card stud. You bet, check, raise and fold, just as in a real game. Payment of the fee gives you access to other games too. Fee: $13.

Macintosh

Jetpack. A man in a little blue suit with a jet pack on his back makes his way through a maze in search of an elusive little key. He has to find it and return to his entry point before he either runs out of fuel or is done in by a variety of nasties. This game isn't complex, but it sure is addictive. Fee: $10.

Apeiron. This arcade-style game is far from my favorite, but its fast-paced action, music effects and graphics are astonishing for a shareware effort. The group that developed it, Ambrosia Software, has a deservedly great reputation in Mac shareware circles. Fee: $15.

Mazeworld Catacombs. This game is kind of dorky looking, with its blue kangaroo-like enemies attacking from all sides as you make your way through a series of mazes. But once you get hooked, it's hard to give up the controls without just one more try at reaching a higher level. Fee: $10.

Hearts. Although there are lots of solitaire, poker and blackjack games around, this is perhaps the only one that simulates a game of Hearts. It has an especially nice interface. Fee: $15.*

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