Sherlock Holmes was always a little bit ahead of his time.
A century ago, the fictional British detective was solving crimes with virtuoso displays of deductive reasoning and scientific examination of evidence that didn't become standard police procedure for decades.
Now, appropriately, the sleuth of 221B Baker Street is leading computer game fanatics into the next generation of electronic entertainment.
Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective from ICOM Simulations Inc. of Wheeling, Ill., is the first computer game to make extensive use of full-motion video.
Released on a single CD-ROM, the game contains some 90 minutes of vignettes that guide amateur investigators in Holmes' footsteps along the way to solving three separate murder mysteries.
"London is not a beautiful city. Under the soot that covers its buildings is a teeming mass of 4 million souls trying to survive -- mostly off of each other," Holmes, clad in a dressing gown and clutching his pipe, tells players at the start of the game.
This isn't a computer-generated cartoon of Sherlock Holmes mouthing synthetic speech. It is an actor, videotaped in a studio, speaking in his own voice with a musical score in the background.
Once into the game, players can select and then watch different suspects or witnesses being questioned by Holmes and his ever-present assistant, Dr. John Watson. After interviewing enough of the local citizenry, the player goes to a courtroom and attempts to identify the guilty party. If the player is correct, Holmes returns to the screen with a detailed explanation of whodunit.
ICOM spent 2 1/2 years and $1 million creating Sherlock, more than five times the cost of a typical mystery-solving computer game relying on animation rather than video. A big part of the production budget went into hiring actors and actresses to fill 50 speaking roles, designing 70 costumes and building 25 Victorian-era sets.
Sherlock carries a list price of $69.95 but typically sells for about $50. It is available in five versions -- for IBM-compatible personal computers, the Apple Macintosh, the NEC Turbografx-16 game system, the Commodore CDTV system and the Fujitsu FM Towns system sold in Japan.
The game is on the cutting edge of multimedia, the loosely defined concept of blending video, sound, text and graphics through a single computer, and, like many first efforts, is far from perfect.
"It's a baby step in the right direction," said Diana Hawkins of Interactive Associates, a multimedia research firm in Portola Valley, Calif.
"It could be better, but it's a good first effort," added Nick Arnett of Multimedia Computing Corp., a Santa Clara, Calif., research firm.
ICOM is already halfway through work on a sequel to Sherlock that will take only seven months and cost only $500,000 to produce, largely because software designed for the original game can be used again.
What's making all this possible is the CD-ROM, short for compact disc-read only memory. CD-ROMs, identical in size and design to CDs used for music, can hold up to 680 megabytes of information -- equivalent to almost 1,000 low-density floppy disks.
Game developers need that capacity to store the huge amounts of digital information required for full-motion video and synchronized sound.
But only a handful of PC owners have a CD-ROM drive, so many developers are reluctant to invest in expensive titles such as Sherlock. Without compelling software, consumers have little reason to buy CD-ROM drives.