Incredible journeys

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Why watch television this Christmas when you can get into the action with CD-Roms? It's nearly Christmas yet I'm thinking mayfly. It's because I've been looking at lots of CD-Roms and I'm struck by two possible classification categories for the whole species of discs; ephemeral or evergreen.

Ephemeral, lasting only a day, is a good description of the attention span some early CDs provoke. You know what I mean, those many precocious titles which promised the earth and ended up delivering a rather small piece of real estate. Evergreen titles, on the other hand, display an encyclopaedic range. Like the now-classic game, Myst (Pounds 14.99 Mac and MPC, Softline), they repay repeated use and grow to become old friends who live very close to your CD player.

The good news this Christmas is that the ephemeral titles are being replaced by evergreens. CD-Rom-based games, reference works and explorations are now starting to display a complexity and range to mimic real life and justify repeated access and use.

Macbeth, from Voyager (Pounds 44 Mac, Softline), is a good example of the developing art. CD technology is being used to return the play to its rightful role as a performance. The screen design provides opportunities to jump to key scenes, access historical details and extend the resources with your own personal notes. A quick karaoke interlude is also provided with Lisa Harrow playing Lady M to your distraught, post-murder Macbeth. The disc also contains Shaxvective, a resource which randomly generates insults from Shakespeare. Here goes (no offence): "Thou churlish spur-galled pigeon-egg!" Installation of new CDs is now fairly straightforward for most makes of computer. The Apple Mac still the easiest, with the Acorn Archimedes close behind, but neither platform is displaying the explosive growth visible for the MPC (multimedia PC), where you still have to type "D:Install" for goodness sake.

Encarta (Pounds 85, MPC and Mac, Microsoft) is now a definitive multimedia encyclopaedia with over 26,000 articles and 8,000 picture resources. Schools are already happy to plunder, cut and paste from this storehouse and there is little reason to suspect that the same won't happen in the home. Microsoft's Ancient Lands (Pounds 45, MPC) provides a rich research environment to explore the worlds of Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. This is Microsoft's first mainstream CD that has been redubbed with an English accent and it does make a difference. Also from Microsoft comes Dangerous Creatures (Pounds 45, MPC), the disc with the best sound so far four-year-olds gasp as pythons slither and apes scream.

The transatlantic flow of discs does not have to be one-way, as Dorling Kindersley has proved with a new range of standard-setting titles for MPC (Mac soon).

Disc of the year will probably be Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time (Pounds 46.80, MPC, Longman Logotron), where you may play politically incorrect sketches, click on a brain-based navigation system and carry out a quest I haven't dared begin yet. Oh yes, and you can also play some dubious but compelling games, one involving flying pigs. Thirty of the most famous skits are also present as digital video clips. I make no educational claims for this disc but it's been the most popular disc of the month at teacher in-service training sessions.

Then there is the Woodstock CD (Pounds 25.52 Mac, Softline). "It's an even better trip on CD," boasts the packaging, and the software gives you a livid acid-green desktop. It has beautiful design from Time Warner and fine use of QuickTime digital video clips, along with surprisingly good sound, though there's not enough of it. An ephemeral title perhaps, although you can build your own psychedelic paintbrush and draw while you listen.

7th Guest from Trilobyte (Pounds 42.54, Mac, Softline) provides a disturbing yet enthralling journey through a haunted house a mix of game and horror story. Brilliant effects, hypnotic music and a skeletal, beckoning hand create a powerful interactive drama for those whose CD diet needs spicing up. Ghost (Pounds 39.99, MPC, Media Design Interactive) combines the familiar "explore the haunted house" approach with a library of factual data on the supernatural. Christopher Lee is the host.

Cinemania (Pounds 45, MPC, Microsoft) is never as encyclopaedic as you want it to be but it's a jolly good attempt. It contains 19,000 reviews and spans 180 years of the movies. Buffs will love it you can jump from Robert Donat in a short digital video clip on the train, to the film script and back, in a lot less than 39 steps. Slick cross-referencing allows easy and informative browsing. Film scores may well prove the most popular resource on the disc you can jump between 139 soundtracks.

For the smaller members of the family the diet is equally promising Tuneland from 7th Level (Pounds 38.28, MPC, Longman Logotron) provides a lively interactive cartoon with 40 orchestrated songs and a very friendly interface to introduce basic computer skills to children as young as three. The Oxford Reading Tree Talking Stories from Sherston (Pounds 39.95, Acorn, Cumana) will also prove popular for younger children learning at home, with six bright and appealing interactive talking-book stories. For early-language work, the Asterix titles currently for the Mac are also migrating to MPC in the spring and new from Eurotalk is Story World (Pounds 35, Mac), a four-disc series with Disc 1 featuring four nursery rhymes in a choice of 18 languages along with writing and colouring activities.

Magic School Bus (Pounds 45, MPC, Microsoft) takes the powerful idea of travelling through your own body, first demonstrated by the shrunken spaceship in the film Incredible Journey. Here the children travel by school bus through the mouth and around the body, clicking on corpuscles and having them explain their role in life. It's another of the Microsoft Home series, along with Dangerous Animals and Ancient Times.

Ruff's Bone (Pounds 39.99, MacPC dual format, Softline) continues in the fine tradition of Br?derbund titles begun with Just Grandma and Me and Arthur's Teacher Troubles just enough whimsy to maintain interest, just enough content to keep learning on the boil.

Changing Times (Pounds 120, Archimedes, PC and Mac, News Multimedia) is probably the best CD newspaper resource for home 15,000 articles taken from 200 years of The Times. Useful for homework on common social or historical themes.

Two residual worries about the CD-Rom market are the cost and the domination of the emerging market by a few massive companies. If CD-Rom is going to realise its promise as a cultural tool, 1995 will need to be the year of the maverick independent title. Start planning your own disc now.

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