The irony of eco-inspired video games is that those who play them could be spending their time communing with nature in real life, rather than battling enviro-villains on the virtual field. But the sheer number and popularity of nature-themed games seems to indicate that protecting Gaia (after whom countless vid characters and even an entire game have been named) is a quest that gamers will never tire of (how fitting, as the environment’s actual dangers loom greater every day). Here, Plenty picks three favorites from various stages of the commercial eco-game evolution. 

Zen: Intergalactic Ninja

(Nintendo, 1993)

Storyline: You are Zen, a blue-skinned warrior who’s been hired by the eco-conscious “Gordons” to fish Earth out of a sticky pollution situation. You must defeat evil filth monsters to give earthlings another chance to respect their planet. 

Our score: Zero points for graphic innovation, ten points for the villainous moniker “Lord Contaminous.” Watch for the forthcoming feature film based on the game; it may be the greatest cinematic achievement for eco-heroes since Captain Planet’s film foray went straight to VHS in 1990.

Harvest Moon

(Super Nintendo, 1997)

Storyline: You bought the farm! No, really: you manage and interact with livestock, crops and townspeople on internally clocked “real time,” with the gently ambitious yet slippery goal of achieving happiness through the joys of rural life. 

Our score: With local festivals to attend and charming village debutantes to court for marriage, Harvest Moon is surprisingly addictive for such a simple game — and the virtual cows get cuter with every new edition. It has numerous spin-offs, including one pending for the soon-to-come Wii platform.

Spore

(PC and Wii, 2007)

Storyline: You begin life as a pathetic, one-celled nothing. The game then lets you shape your own evolutionary path, with limitless creative license to craft entire planets and ecosystems. With no explicit goal, you may become a 14-armed, sixwinged triceratops who must fend off clutches of four-tailed lemurs.

Our score: Spore is reaping raves at gaming conventions, and with good reason: it’s both a superbly designed game and an intriguing look at how each player’s choices affect her world, even a world inhabited by ferretbreathed mega-llamas.

Story by Alice Shyy. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2006. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006