It used to be that the only way to play games for free was to distract the local game store clerk with a Girls of Anime calendar while your friend reached behind the counter. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. But thanks to the new iTunes Application Store, gaming on the go is both fun and affordable, assuming that you already own an iPod Touch or iPhone.

And while slogging through the glut of available apps in order to find the proverbial diamonds in the rough is a thankless task, it is made easier by the thought that our findings may perhaps benefit the disposable-income-challenged among us. So browse on, thrifty reader, and find out how to game on the cheap.

Cube Runner — Boasting simple, addictive, accelerometer-based game play, Cube Runner is everything that intermittent gaming should be. The visuals are very basic but they get the job done, and while you only start with three difficulty levels, additional maps can be downloaded online. Just Google “Cube Runner maps,” and soon you’ll be the envy of every block-dodging wannabe from here to the iTunes store.

Dizzy Bee Free — Cute, beautiful graphics and vertiginously frantic controls make Dizzy Bee Free a blast. Tilting your iPod Touch or iPhone moves the entire level, allowing Dizzy to navigate different mazes and rescue her friends. Unfortunately, said tilting also moves your enemies. Get to the end without getting squashed, and everyone will know you for the queen bee that you are.

That’s it for this week. Be sure to tune in next time for more tips on which free games are worth your hard-earned free time.

A classic tale of love, hate, betrayal and redemption
(Oh, and a trip to the moon.)

When the latest remake of Final Fantasy 4 for the Nintendo DS hit store shelves earlier this month, I approached it with not a little trepidation. Though excited, the bittersweet taste of nostalgia couldn’t quite drown out the nagging questions that rebounded inside my skull like a ball trapped in the upper-half of a pinball machine. Would the 3-D visuals be as charming as the old 2-D sprites? Would the newly revamped translation hold up? Most importantly, would it be as much fun as I remembered?

The answer is a resounding yes. While there are many aspects of the game that have been improved, the visuals certainly deserve top honors. Lush and imaginative — yet familiar — they almost seem like confirmation of a memory that was actually as pleasant as you remember it being. This, in and of itself, is a rare achievement indeed.

The musical score survived the upgrade intact and remains to this day a testament that music in games can be much more that the stereotypical “bleeps”, “bloops” and “pew-pews.” Sorrowful, scary, quirky and triumphant, there were more than a few times that the unfolding story matched with the truly masterful score to put me in goosebumps.

The one thing that perhaps set Final Fantasy 4 apart from the crowd when it was first released was the amazing character development. While this was, and is, mainly a function of the original story, the new translation has certainly helped to fill in some of the gaps and provide a more cohesive narrative. Aside from added clarity, it is also deliciously tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly funny at times.

Unfortunately, it’s not all rainbows and smiles. The addition of voice acting is a mixed bag: sometimes cool, occasionally overly dramatic, and more often than not a little goofy.

While not necessarily a gripe, the difficulty has been ramped up considerably in this version, and even Final Fantasy 4 veterans will start to dread the random battles. On the other hand, boss battles were surprisingly easy — no doubt due to the intense grind sessions that preceded them.

The new augment system, which allows characters to learn special abilities, should have been cool but instead comes off as deeply flawed. There’s just no way to know how and where to find different abilities, and there are no hints as to how they can be triggered. It’s a frustratingly broken setup that mars an otherwise brilliant revamp.

Final Fantasy 4 is a textbook example of how to successfully improve and remake an already great game, and fans of the series should be rushing out to buy it in droves. If you haven’t played it yet, here’s your chance; if you’ve gone through it before, this is the definitive version. Now, if only we could get Square-Enix to dedicate some time and effort toward some original ideas…