Now you can run a computer railroad

PERSONAL COMPUTERS

December 14, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS

Toy trains are not found under the Christmas tree as frequently as they once were, but some railroad buffs may be delighted this year to find a train set in their computers.

A new railroad simulation called A-Train, from the company that developed the popular Sim City program, allows would-be engineers and tycoons to construct railroads and railroad empires. The $69.95 program, available for DOS and Macintosh, will soon be released for Amiga computers.

Using A-Train, I built a railroad and made it run. However, there is much more to A-Train than laying track and selecting from among various freight and passenger trains.

The simulation requires the player to keep a close watch on the financial side of the business. There are detailed financial balance sheets for the railroad, taxes to pay, real estate to wheel and deal, city and suburban management issues to ponder and other considerations.

I ran my railroad on time, but I also ran it into bankruptcy. Luckily, a couple of clicks of the mouse button are all that is needed to extract a failed tycoon from bankruptcy and allow him or her to start over. At the other end of the line, a tycoon can retire victorious with a bank balance of $50 million and a thriving, ecologically sound community.

The manual is delightful, with numerous side tracks into locomotive lore and essays on train history. But the manual is necessary reading, too, given the complexity of the simulation.

There is something lost, to be sure, when trains are made of phosphors and when their chugging engines sound much like a spinning disk drive. There are no rattling collisions, or jumped tracks, or plaintive whistles.

However, the simulation does cycle through days and nights and through summer greenery and winter snow, and on the night of Dec. 24 a flying sleigh arcs over the city that the player has created.

An A-Train construction set, at $39.95, to let you build in other parts of the world, is available for DOS computers; Mac and Amiga versions are coming soon. "A-Train: The Official Strategy Guide," a book with playing tips, like how to embezzle from your own railroad, is also available, at $18.95, from Prima Publishing, phone (916) 786-0465.

A-Train is distributed by Maxis, which also makes Sim Earth and Sim Ant. Maxis can be reached at 2 Theatre Square, Suite 230, Orinda, Calif. 94563; phone (510) 254-9700.

*

Oddly enough, dinosaurs, or at least our knowledge of them, entered the world about the same time as railroads. Unlike that of trains, the popularity of the terrible lizards -- some perhaps more accurately described as terrible birds -- continues to grow. Children as well as adults can enjoy learning more about them through the personal computer.

Dinosaur Adventure ($49.95), which the authors say could have been named "Life Styles of the Large and Scaly," is the latest in the Adventure series of programs from Knowledge Adventure Inc.

More than 40 dinosaurs are profiled, including a Pteranodon that flies across the screen in something very close to full-motion video. The program also describes the Earth's climate and geology during the age of the dinosaurs. Kids will not care about the technology underlying Dinosaur Adventure, but computer enthusiasts may be impressed to know that the program incorporates several innovative data compression techniques.

Color images, sound and video animations eat up large amounts of disk storage, and thus are reserved primarily for systems equipped with CD-ROM drives, the optical disks that can store hundreds of megabytes of data.

Using data compression, however, Dinosaur Adventure fits into 5 megabytes of hard disk space. A color VGA monitor is required. A sound card, like a Soundblaster or Proaudio Spectrum board, is recommended but not necessary.

The program can be explored by keyboard commands or by using a mouse pointing device, which makes it simple enough for young children to operate alone. However, the most fun, and the best learning experience, is to be had when parents and children work together.

Knowledge Adventure Inc. publishes a series of programs, all highly recommended, that include Isaac Asimov's Science Adventure ($79.95), Space Adventure ($79.95) and Sports Adventure ($59.95), in addition to the original Knowledge Adventure ($79.95).

The company is at 4502 Dyer St., La Crescenta, Calif. 91214; phone (800) 542-4240.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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