Xbox Live gives satisfying challenges at $10 a pop

I spent large chunks of last year playing the same video games everyone else played: BioShock, Rock Band, Super Mario Galaxy and so on.


But if I actually kept track of my gaming hours, I wouldn't be surprised to find that I spent just as much time enjoying the simpler delights of Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade.

For most of the year, I couldn't go to sleep without a nightly session of Catan, Big Huge Games' translation of the Settlers of Catan board game. I got hopelessly addicted to Puzzle Quest (for the second time) when D3 Publisher moved it from handheld devices to the Xbox Arcade.

I even got hooked on Pac-Man again after all these years, thanks to Namco Bandai's swell Championship Edition .

Over the holiday season, Xbox Live was jammed with new subscribers who'd gotten Microsoft consoles for Christmas. The technical problems kept a lot of us regulars away from Arcade for a while, but Microsoft seems to have resolved the issue by now. So if you're a new member of the Xbox Nation, it's a good time to get acquainted with Xbox Live Arcade. It really does have something for everyone, from chess buffs to action junkies, and almost everything costs $10 or less:

BOOGIE BUNNIES (SIERRA, XBOX 360, $10): The "match-three" game, in which you have to clear a grid by lining up three or more objects of the same color, is a staple of the puzzle genre. Xbox Live has an assortment of match-three variants, including Bejeweled 2, Hexic 2 and Puzzle Quest .

Boogie Bunnies adds a dose of goofy charm to the formula. The "objects" in this case are a tribe of dancing critters that most closely resemble the rabbit-shaped Peeps you see around Easter. You create matches by firing new bunnies into the grid, a la Bust a Move ; the twist is that you can also shoot from either the left or right side grid, rather than just from the bottom.

Is that enough of a gimmick to distinguish Boogie Bunnies from all the other match-three games?

OMEGA FIVE (HUDSON, XBOX 360, $10): Xbox Live Arcade also has plenty to offer fans of good, old-fashioned shoot-'em-ups, from classics like Defender and Galaga to modern, high-definition blast-a-thons like Geometry Wars and Every Extend Extra Extreme . Omega Five will warm the hearts of gamers who grew up on side-scrolling shooters like R-Type and Gradius .

It uses the dual-analog control scheme that's become a standard since Geometry Wars : You move with the left stick and fire your weapon with the right stick. Enemies attack from all sides, including from the background, so you have to keep moving.

But your weapons grow more powerful as you progress, and if you collect enough pink triangles you can uncork a smart bomb that obliterates everything on the screen.

SWITCHBALL (SIERRA, XBOX 360, $10): And then there are maze games, like Marble Blast Ultra , where your goal is simply to get from one end of an obstacle course to the other. If you like Marble Madness or Super Monkey Ball , you'll love this elegant take on the genre.

The twist here is that you need to change the makeup of the ball in order to solve the puzzles. The metal ball is heavier and can shove aside obstacles; the air ball can float; the powerball can pull off a variety of tricks.