Author

John R. Quain

New computer games aimed at the mall crowd

Girl power made Hanson a household name and saved director James Cameron’s career. But in the field of computer games, it has yet to make an impact. The reason? Despite high-profile successes like 1996’s Barbie Fashion Designer, most girl games have been aimed at the under-8 crowd rather than the allowance-toting preteen and early-teen block. That’s changing this holiday season as software makers introduce a second wave of CD-ROMs ranging from sitcom spin-offs to interactive fashion magazines. But will young girls think these sugar-and-spice titles are cool?

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Lego goes digital in time for Christmas

For every parent who’s ever spent Christmas morning cursing under his or her breath trying to put together Johnny’s new toy, Lego has a new nightmare for you. The Danish company responsible for those snappable plastic building blocks has given its latest model a computer brain. And you have to program it. The $200 Lego Mindstorm’s Robotics Invention System comes with a Windows programming application and a microcomputer that’s about as big as two decks of cards.

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The search for extraterrestrial intelligence

ET, modem home? The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at Home, or SETI@home (setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu), wants you and your computer to help it look for life elsewhere. Backed by scientists, mainly at the U. of C. at Berkeley’s famed alien-seeking project, SETI@home will officially launch next year, offering Net users a screensaver program designed to analyze outer-space radio-telescope data. Sign up as an online investigator and you’ll receive weekly chunks of data to analyze, decode, and send back to SETI researchers (what, no decoder ring?).

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In the noirish sci-fi game Angel Devoid: Face of the Enemy, you are both the hunter and the hunted. As a cop whose face has been surgically altered to look like that of Neo City’s most notorious criminal, Angel Devoid, you must elude flying motorcycles, futuristic fuzz, and wild cyberdogs while pursuing your evil doppelgänger. While enjoying the high-res graphics and snazzy effects, you can explore some offbeat sites, including a high-tech men’s room.

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Billed as ”an investigation into the world of serial killers,” Mind of a Killer delves into the criminology, psychology, and bios of 14 infamous murderers. While its centerpiece is a series of somber narrated videos on such figures as Jeffrey Dahmer and Edward Gein (who inspired Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs), Killer doesn’t dwell on gory details. It does reveal frightening ironies, though: Ted Bundy once wrote a government pamphlet for women on rape prevention.

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In trying to energize such topics as the electromagnetic spectrum and quasars, Invisible Universe does a disservice to its subject and guide, astrophysicist Dr. Fiorella Terenzi, whom the box pitches as ”a cross between Carl Sagan and Madonna.” Dressed in a miniskirt and speaking in a thick Italian accent, she reads cosmic poetry with Timothy Leary and offers New Age music composed using radio signals from galaxies far away. In the end, this slick electronic coffee-table book veers light-years off the target. C

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Based on collages by Tennessee Rice Dixon, Scrutiny in the Great Round combines dark, multilayered images with narrated poetry and subtle 3-D effects. Some viewers will find this interpretation of the cycle of life — divided into 12 sections with such titles as ”Concupiscence” and ”Egression” — pretentious, but the material is beautiful and the work genuinely inventive. A typical scene employs mesmerizing diaphanous Victorian images that transform into aboriginal carvings while a soundtrack of loons, crickets, and drums plays in the background.

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Before tabloid tales of aberrant human behavior and space aliens littered supermarket checkout lanes, cartoonist Robert L. Ripley was plying his sketches of contortionists, dubious facts, and bearded ladies. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! The Riddle of Master Lu eschews the sensational, instead focusing on Ripley as a globe-trotting 1930s adventurer in search of curiosities. In this Indiana Jones-meets-Charlie Chan tale you direct the action, wending your way through animated scenes, solving puzzles, and evading foreign assassins.

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With more actors lending their names, voices, and visages to electronic games, CD-ROMs are beginning to resemble digital road shows, sort of like out-of-town appearances for former A-list actors. Two of the latest titles with familiar faces — C.E.O. (I-Motion), with James Coburn, and Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster (Amazing Media/Interplay), with Tim Curry — seem perfectly cast to meld multimedia and movieland.

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