With Coaster, you can take ride of your own design


November 15, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

The problem with entertainment software today is that most of it is too serious or too silly.

On one hand, I find it hard to sit down and relax with a game that comes with a 200-page manual and requires eight megabytes of memory, 15 megs of disk space and a degree in aeronautical engineering. On the other hand, I'd like something more stimulating than Return of the Street-Fighting Ninja Terror Part 3.

So I was delighted to find out that Disney Software has released to the general public an ingenious little program called Coaster.

Originally part of a special game package pre-loaded on some IBM computers, Coaster is now available in retail stores with a list price of $24.95. At a street price that's probably closer to $20, it's a great entertainment bargain -- if you're not subject to motion sickness.

The program quite simply lets you design, build and ride your own roller coaster, with a panel of coaster geeks on board to tell you how well you've done.

Why would you want to do this?

Well, the world is divided into three kinds of people -- them that like roller coasters, them that don't, and them that did but got too old for it (like me). If you're in the first or third category, you'll understand why Coaster is a scream. If you're not a coaster person, I'll have a column on double-entry accounting software in a couple of weeks to entertain you.

First the design. Coaster presents you with a 3-D view of a rectangular grid and a series of tools that allow you to construct your coaster piece by piece. Starting with the loading platform, you can add lifts, straight track, curved track, loops and corkscrews in a variety of lengths. You can adjust the elevation, pitch and bank of each piece of track. You can view your creation from any height or angle, and a preview window lets you ride a wire-frame version of your coaster to test your design in progress.

While Coaster's design generally adheres to the laws of physics and principles of engineering, you can get away with being a lawbreaker, or at least a twiddler. For example, you can choose high, normal or low friction and three different types of gravity (Earth, Moon or Jupiter). You can make some sections into braking tracks that will slow your coaster and others into accelerators.

You have your choice of using upstops (the wheels that run along the underside of the track, binding the car to the rails), or taking your chances with the laws of motion. If you really want to suspend reality, you can make a coaster that hangs in midair, with no supports.

With all these tools at your disposal, you can build a roller coaster that's as simple or complicated as you like. It's a lot harder than it looks to construct a ride that will please folks who think losing their lunch is an art form -- without sending them on a one-way ride to eternity.

Once you've completed your roller coaster, you can ride it in all its glory, complete with authentic roller coaster sounds (if you have a sound board). The view, of course, is from the front seat of the car -- a special car that allows you to be the pilot, accelerating and braking as you try to give your passengers the trip of their lives. If you're good enough, you'll get reaction from the riders. The ultimate accolade is, of course, a screeched "I'm gonna be sick."

The graphics aren't as slick as some simulations I've seen, but the ride will give you a good feel for your creation -- and make you a little queasy if you keep at it long enough.

Afterward, a panel of roller coaster experts (a demented grandma, a snotty 15-year-old, a spaced-out surfer and a dotty woman physicist) will score your performance and make individual comments. They're merciless. When Grandma tells you, "I've had warm baths that were more exciting," it's tough on the ego.

Serious students will enjoy a "signature" screen, which graphically tracks speed and vertical and horizontal G-forces of your ride second by second, so you can compare the characteristics of your design with others. To help you along, the program comes with 14 different pre-built coasters, including a replica of the famous Matterhorn.

The manual is clear and concise and provides a brief but informative history of roller coasters, which began as scenic railways in the late 1800s and reached their zenith in the 1920s when more than 1,500 were built nationwide. Most of those were torn down as the Depression and World War II battered the amusement park industry, but Coasters have made a comeback in theme parks, and there are now about 230 around the country.

Coaster's system requirements are remarkably modest by today's standards. The program comes on a single high-density floppy and requires only 1.1 megabytes of hard disk pace. It will run on any 80386 computer with 640K of memory and a 256-color VGA adapter, although full sound effects require an extra megabyte of expanded memory.

Like other good entertainment programs I've encountered, Coaster is easy to learn but difficult to master. And like Disney's best programs, such as the Animation Studio and Stunt Island, ** Coaster relies heavily on your creativity.

K? (Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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