A computer program that will make you smile

Personal Computers

December 29, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

COMPUTERS CAN make you ache. Computers can make you scream. But the moments when computers can actually make you smile are so few and far between that they deserve notice, particularly over the holidays.

Probably the funniest software of the year is the Simpsons Virtual Springfield (Windows and Macintosh, about $30, Fox Interactive). It compresses Homer Simpson's hometown onto a single "seedy ROM" meant to physically resemble one of the protagonist's beloved doughnuts. It comes with a manual that includes instructions for the rare Frinkiac 6200ZdQ computer ("Do not step on the cancel pedal during this process.") And it lets you wander at will through a low-life America that encompasses everything from specialty magazines like Tub Lover and Pillow Hog to cable's Messiah Watch Channel ("no sign here yet, but we're expecting him anytime").

Walk-through environments, from golf courses to post-apocalyptic deserts, are a nickel a dozen in the software world, but they never seem to reflect everyday reality. Making your way through the lovingly detailed cartoon landscape here gives you a spooky sense that you have often walked these streets before: boulevards with burger stands, litter, deserted train and bus stations, pockmarked parking lots and cyclone fences topped with razor wire.

A stroll along the deserted pavements of Virtual Springfield might be useful for architects and city planners with a sense of humor.

There seems to be a game here somewhere, complete with hidden items you are supposed to collect, and I never made it into the Stone Cutters' lodge for lack of a secret ring. But the designers have minimized obvious goals in the greater interest of exploring iconic spots like the Kwik-E-Mart within the bounds of software's usual navigational quirks.

You can visit the Aztec Theater. When I dropped in, the feature consisted solely of an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike alternately gunning down enemies and uttering jokes that are not funny. You can stop by the nuclear power plant and see whether Homer is awake. You can look in on Marge and the kids at the Simpson home.

And if you really crave fast-moving interactive entertainment, you can check out the Noiseland Arcade, whose games take only seconds to play yet perfectly distill their prototypes into their irreducibly mindless violent essence. Doh!

I Spy (Windows and Macintosh, about $30, Scholastic) is neither as hilarious nor as cynical, but it is the best program I have seen for younger children this year.

Much of the software meant for kids is loud and ugly, but I Spy has the cool elegance of its eponymous precursors, the popular series of photographic books by Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick.

The basic object is to solve verbal riddles by finding objects hidden in densely populated pictures, but the software adds new tricks, like a magnifying glass that helps pinpoint tiny items. In the three-dimensional Wood Block City, the player must change perspective to find items that may be hidden from view.

Oops Hoops! painlessly introduces set theory by posing puzzles that require that objects be sorted according to multiple characteristics. Balloon Popper involves completing on-screen Rube Goldberg devices from parts found on-screen and elsewhere in the program. In the Chalkboard section, connect-the-dot puzzles may have to be completed to reveal the objects you seek.

This version of I Spy helps children create puzzles of their own, display them on the screen, complete with their spoken narration, and print them on paper.

I wish the program offered a higher resolution than 640 by 480 pixels, more colors than 256 and even more puzzles. But though the box says it is for children 5 to 9, I Spy is one of the very few programs for young people that does not insult adults' artistic sensibilities or intelligence. Its cleverness made me smile.

As a music lover but a nonmusician, I am an easy mark for programs that promise to let me play brilliantly without actually having to learn much. The Axe does not quite keep that promise, but it comes closer than any other program I have tried. The program is for Windows 95 only and costs about $35 from Harmonix Music Systems at 888-538-4868.

Like Music Minus One disks, the program supplies backgrounds for your solo artistry. Volume 1 comes with 10 songs, ranging from Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" to the swing classic "In the Mood." It also gives you eight synthesized lead instruments, from trumpet to guitar, that can be controlled with a mouse or XTC joystick. By using both, you can play two instruments at once or jam with a friend.

The interface is blessedly simple. The cursor's horizontal position controls pitch, with higher notes to the right, lower notes to the left. The vertical position controls speed; higher means faster. The left mouse or joystick button fires notes as long as you hold it down. Holding down the right button lets you play a sustained note and "bend" it. Two keyboard controls offer variations, and you can save favorite performances and play them back.

Three free demonstration versions are available at www.theaxe.com

Note that the demos and the program require Microsoft's DirectX 5 software, which can be tricky to install, particularly on older systems. But once you get past that hurdle, the Axe may bring a smile to the face of someone who would love to get to Carnegie Hall but absolutely refuses to practice.

Pub Date: 12/29/97

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