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With winter now in full effect you may be thinking of getting your seedlings in the greenhouse and turning over the turf. Take a piece of advice though, do not play Magic Garden instead. If you are brave enough to face the rain and snow then you have enough courage to take on a very different style of game. Magic Garden is not a horticulture simulation: it is unlike anything you have ever played.

Grobble is a naughty Gnome who has been banished to a rural garden by the Gnome King. He is imprisoned there until he has all grown up and responsible; which he can prove by making the dilapidated garden both beautiful and functional. The garden contains flower beds, a lawn, vegetable patch, an old hollow tree, a fountain, a greenhouse, a garden shed and a well.

Laughing gnome
Grobble is the sprite, that has to put right, this English country garden. Wandering about he looks like just the sort of jolly, chubby sort of gnome you would be proud to have in the front garden (Only if you are one of those weird people who think that a small concrete statue looks good - Ed).

He is controlled by either joystick or mouse, and can scurry anywhere in the garden. To access the various areas just move him there and up pops a close-in screen of the building or location.

Magic Garden is a test of time and object management. Grobble has a shoplifter's coat that is packed full of pockets, where he carries his garden-tending tools. To plant seeds for example, he needs a digging tool, seeds and to stand in the flower bed. By accessing his pockets (press fire) he can select which seeds to plant.

Clicking on the 'use' icon starts Grobble planting, provided he is carrying the trowel. This takes time, though, and while the flowers are being prepared, the lawn may be going to waste, the fountain could be leaking or roof tiles could be falling from the shed.

One action has to be traded off against the other, to gradually bring the garden up to the Gnome King's standards. There are two ways of telling how well Grob is doing. First, and most immediate, is the food gauge. If Grobble is not constantly fed he will starve and die! A good garden is a working garden, so Grobble has to swiftly become self-sufficient and grow his nosh. Once this is under control it is time to worry about the garden's overall fitness - a percentage gauge at the base of the screen shows the garden's current status. The more Grobble does right, the higher the percentage goes and if it reaches 100 per cent, he is free and you have won. If it slips down to zero though, the Gnome King will try to fry Grobble with lightning bolts.

Capability Grobble?
Gardening is always seen as a relaxing, therapeutic past time, but Grobble has to contend with the random elements that make his life rather hectic. Weather is his primary concern. A forecast meter tells him when bad weather is on the way: this can ruin a good garden.

On top of this are the impish elves who sneak out to steal bits of the lawn and fish that escape from the pond for a float around the garden. Both must be caught and put back in their proper place if the garden is going to be magic, not tragic. These add new twists to the game, forcing Grob to chase, sprite style, around the garden and the tunnels beneath the well.

Magic Garden has a strangely cute feel. Its individual nature is strong enough to stand and be counted as a major development on the Sim City management-style genre. Everything needs to be done at once but only one job can be done at a time. It forces players to grasp the core elements that influence the status of the garden, to maintain these bare necessities and then tweak the peripheral elements.

The graphic language this test uses is its strongest asset; a refreshing and boldly original approach. Using the gnome theme the management is cute without being twee, it is testing but does not feel it. The symbols, flowers, vegetables, lawn mowing, gnome catching etc. interact logically if the humorous logic of the game is appreciated.

Magic Garden is not an action game and can be slow especially when accessing pockets and different areas of the garden. These are not fatal flaws, but they do annoy. If you get into the game, and it does take a while to understand why and what you have to do, it becomes riveting. If you like your games to be instantly accessible stay away from Magic Garden, but if you do not mind a little learning and you fancy something different then it is worth going through the gate for.

Magic Garden logo

Electronic Zoo hat die digitale Gartenarbeit entdeckt: Hier gibt's kein Blut, keine Gewalt, noch nicht mal einen Superhelden - nur Zwerg Grobble, der zur Strafe für seine Unartigkeit ein magisches Gärtchen auf Vordermann bringen muß...

Aufhören darf er erst wieder, wenn das Grünzeug dermaßen wuchert, daß sich der Zwergenkönig nicht mehr einkriegt vor lauter Begeisterung!

Aber bis dahin ist viel zu tun: Grobble muß den Rasen mähen, ohne dabei kleine Tiere zu verletzen; der Wasserstand im Brunnen sollte regelmäßig kontrolliert werden, und falls dort Fische herausspringen, müssen sie mit einem Netz eingefangen werden.

An und an schauen freche Zwergekollegen vorbei, die den Torf aus dem Rasen rupfen wollen - Grobble hat's wirklich nicht leicht!

Der kleine Gartenzwerg wetzt ständig von einem Ort zum andern, sät Gemüsesamen auf den Beeten aus, züchtet im Gewächshaus Blumen, reguliert die Temperatur, holt Werkzeug aus dem Schuppen, durchkramt seine Manteltaschen nach Blumensamen und anderen wachstumsfördernden Gegenständen, gießt und repariert und macht und tut...

Auf den ersten Blick ist der magische Garten ein ganz originelles Puzzle-Spielchen, bei dem es vornehmlich darauf ankommt, die richtigen Gegenstände im richtigen Moment zu finden bzw. Anzuwenden. Aber die Geschehnisse wiederholen sich sehr schnell, weil der Garten doch arg klein ist.

Manche Grafiken müssen immer wieder neu geladen werden, außerdem sehen sie nicht besonders aus, die Zwergenanimationen sind auch ziemlich daneben. Kurzum, eine gute Idee, aber mäßig ausgeführt. (C. Borgmeier)

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Oh dear. I don't know where to start with this one. It's certainly weird - what else can you say about a game starring a gnome running around inside a walled Victorian garden? - and (erm) original, but actually coming up with any useful criticism is going to be slightly tricky.

From the sweeter-than-sweet subject matter, you'd initially think it was aimed at pretty young kids (of a ginger-beer drinking, Enid Blyton-reading, don't-really-exist-anymore variety), but having played the game I'm not so sure.

I think it's actually more likely to be appreciated by Fairport Convention-listening middle aged hippie-types (the sort of people you always imagined playing Speccy text adventures with names like Bulbo And The Lizard King) - them, or simply people with very strange taste in games indeed.

Let's face it then - most of us simply aren't going to get interested in this at all. For those who are intrigued by the chance to play an animated garden gnome tending to a, well, 'magic' garden though, the story goes something like this. First things first - the whole game is set in said Victorian style walled garden, with a pond, a lawn, a shed, a greenhouse, some flower beds and, um, that's about it.

The only times you ever leave it are for the odd excursion into a tunnel system set underneath - which isn't surprising really, because the plot has it that the character you play, Grobble the gnome, has been trapped in this self-same garden.

The only way he can ever leave is by impressing the Gnome King (the giant eye you see at the top of the screen) that he's now a reformed and responsible character, something he does by tidying up and generally keeping in order this rather annoying garden.

Annoying? Well, turn your back for a second and roof tiles will fall from the shed, grass will grow, and flowers (!), fish (!!) and naughty gnomes will start running around the place, messing everything up.

Effectively, then, it's a management game, necessitating mucho running about, using of tools (our gnome chum has a coat full of pockets where he keeps a selection of seeds, spades, ladders, keys and other useful objects) and balancing of priorities as our hero battles against the odds to keep the place in order - not unlike a simplified, horticultural Sim City or Utopia, in fact. A percentage bar at the bottom of the screen shows how well you're doing efficiency-wise - if you do everything right the bar fills up and you've finished the game, but if it slips right down to zero the Gnome King will set to frying you with lightning bolts (it's much like the popularity rating thingie in Sim City).

Yes, yes, I'm sure you're asking - but is it any good? Well, I don't really know how to answer this one. Some people seem to have got quite into it ('individual' and 'humorously logical' are words I've heard bandied about) but for the life of me I can't really see how - you need a stronger stomach than mine to stand the intrinsic tweeness of the whole exercise for starters, while the sloppy overuse of disk accessing can annoy.

For most of us, the basic game idea, strange though it is, could have worked with larger, brighter graphics, and extended game area, a smattering of shoot-'em-up elements and a Codies-style £8.99 price point. (But then it would have been just another Codies game, not this bizarre Holly Hobby thing).

As it stands it's simply an oddity, and - for me at any rate - not a particularly entertaining one at that.

Magic Garden logo

You'd think life as a gnome was boring enough - all that standing around fish ponds in suburban gardens waiting for dogs to pee on you - without having to control one in a game as dull as The Magic Garden.

The idea sounds promising: a mischievous gnome has to manage the Gnome King's garden as a punishment. The lawn grows rapidly and can fall victim to rampaging plants and other naughty gnomes who dig up the turf. To complicate matters, the climate is unstable and you only have a limited amount of energy which must be replenished by growing vegetables to eat or discovering little life-giving hearts.

Much of the work you have to do in the garden involves you using objects in the shed and the greenhouse. The gnome can store useful implements in his pockets, anything in fact, from trowels through seeds, lawnmowers, watering cans and gardening forks.

There are also objects which stop him losing energy too rapidly, such as an umbrella when it's raining and slippers when it turns cold. Both the greenhouse and the shed need a regulated temperature, which involves getting a generator up and running and repairing broken windows in the greenhouse.

There are less obvious areas of the garden to explore including the outdoor lavatory, a hollow tree stump and a magic well which leads to a maze of tunnels. These all contain more useful items, particularly extra energy.

The Magic Garden is reasonably good to look at - while the characters are small, they're well defined. Part of the problem is the irritating control method which involves you riffling through the gnome's pockets and clicking on objects to activate them.

Most of all, though, the gameplay simply doesn't add up. It turns out to be about as interesting as listening to Gardeners' Question Time, and that's gnomean feat.