It's the time of the year when kids of all ages dream about new toys. But the greatest toy of all may be sitting on your desk right now.
It can put you in the cockpit of an F-15, let you manage an all-star baseball team, battle dragons and wizards, solve a murder mystery, explore a galaxy, drive in the Indianapolis 500, build a railroad, take command of a pirate ship, topple a government, star in your own cartoon series or create your own civilization.
The toy is your personal computer, and with the right software, it will keep you happily entertained at home or at work (when the boss isn't looking). In fact, a good computer game, at $30 to $70, is a great entertainment bargain, given the hours you and your kids will spend with it.
Today's computer games are a far cry from the shoot-em-ups of the early days. They're likely to be sophisticated simulations, puzzles or adventures, with dazzling high-resolution graphics, digitized video animation and realistic sound.
But beware. Many of today's games are real system hogs. The more sophisticated titles require at least a couple of megabytes of hard disk space and a high resolution color monitor (EGA or VGA). Also, many are designed for IBM-compatibles with 80286 or 80386 processors. They may not run well, if at all, on older, XT-class machines. So be careful when you buy.
The latest craze game software is sound -- lots of it.
Owners of Macintosh computers have had voice and music capabilities for years. Unfortunately, the speaker on IBM-compatibles is a dog, but advances in digital sound processing can produce some amazing results. A better investment yet is a sound board, such as an Ad Lib or Sound Blaster ($100 to $200), which will turn a buzz from the PC's speaker into the roar of a jet engine when it's hooked up to your home stereo system.
That said, here's a rundown of some of the best games we've seen this year, as well as some old favorites.
I'd like to thank my Entertainment Software Evaluation Team (my boys Ike and Ben), who volunteered countless hours to test these programs in the public interest. It was a tough job guys, but somebody had to do it.
In this column we'll concentrate on sports and flight software. Next time, we'll look at adventures, simulations and some stuff that doesn't fit into any category.
If you're interested in vicarious sports thrills, 1991 produced a bumper crop of simulations. Besides incorporating sound, many of the best sports games use digitized video animation techniques to produce stunningly realistic movement.
For fans who can't wait for spring training to begin, Earl Weaver Baseball II (Electronic Arts) gives you a chance to pit your managing skills against a human or computer opponent. You can manage a team of all-time all-stars or replay an entire season using real teams or your own teams (with add-on disks).
You can control the players on the field yourself, or just make the managerial decisions and watch your boys do their stuff, playing according to their statistical strengths and weaknesses. The on field animation is realistic, and Earl's always there with some pithy advice. If you work things right, you can probably get him into an argument with Jim Palmer.
While Earl was the kids' favorite, I was just as attracted to the broader-scale animation in Tony LaRussa's Ultimate Baseball from Strategic Simulations. LaRussa offers a wider variety of league play options (for example, the computer will play the other games in the background while you play the Game of the Week). But the program suffers from crude file management which makes it difficult to maintain multiple leagues.
Either one will keep baseball fans entertained through the long winter, but beware of the hook -- you'll be spending extra money on add-on disks for teams and managers.
Football simulations have always been a problem for game designers. It's just too hard to control 22 guys at once. But Mike Ditka Ultimate Football (Accolade) is easy enough for kids to master and sophisticated enough to keep real fans busy long after the Super Bowl is history.
You can play someone else or play against the computer, choosing an exhibition game, regular season play, or playoff rounds. You can choose any team in the league or construct your own team, player by player, using speed, skill and strength attributes at each position.
On the field, you can just call the plays or actually control the players, using the Shift key to decide which player you're going to be. Choose from eight offensive or defensive formations, with eight offensive plays in each formation. If you don't like what's available, you can design your own plays.
The graphics are stunning, and the action, viewable from a variety of camera angles, is cleverly handled.
Basketball fans should definitely check out The Dream Team 3 on 3 Challenge from Data East. The three big names associated with this one are Patrick Ewing, Joe Dumars and Dominique Wilkins, but they're secondary to the three-on-three action.