Don't count CD-ROMs out yet. True, only a few years ago, CD-ROMs were the great hope of the computer industry. Then Web mania struck, and the shiny disks lost some of their luster. But still, there are several unusual and challenging CD-ROMs that should not be missed. Indeed, the following are a collection of visually rich titles that go well beyond the creativity of the traditional shoot-'em-up game. As a Macintosh owner, I included only titles available for both Mac and PC platforms.
SegaSoft's Obsidian is ingenious and one of the best realized CD-ROMs I've seen. The game takes you through five beautifully rendered worlds, each with its own set of physical laws. In the first world--a funny bureaucratic nightmare of clerks to be placated and forms to be authorized--the player literally climbs the walls in search of the necessary paperwork. Floors become walls, and walls become ceilings as your orientation in the labyrinth shifts. The game features the kind of logic problems schoolkids hate. Here, though, they are made fun and even magical.
ART FORM. Another noteworthy game comes from English musician Peter Gabriel. Eve is a collaboration between Gabriel and artists Helen Chadwick, Yayoi Kusama, Cathy de Monchaux, and Nils-Udo that tries to expand the visual and conceptual parameters of the CD-ROM as an independent art form.
Expelled from paradise, you arrive in a world of mud. As you gather artwork and fragments of Peter Gabriel songs, the landscape shifts from Japanese rock garden to English countryside to industrial grime and, finally, to either apocalyptic wasteland or paradise regained.
There is, however, a snake in the garden. Throughout the game you are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time listening to Gabriel's thoughts on relationships--about the equivalent of a good day of Oprah. "What I need is not always what I want," Gabriel tells us with painful sincerity, then drops the other shoe with: "What I want is not always what I need."
To increase the resemblance to a daytime talk show, Gabriel has invited along a panel of "experts," from psychologists to clerics, who utter banalities such as: "Men are often unclear in the way they communicate." But exasperating as it is, Eve creates a visually engrossing environment, by turns lovely and frightening.
While Pulse Entertainment's Bad Mojo is equally well rendered, the setting is decidedly more grotesque. Here, you play a shady character living over a bar who is mysteriously transformed into a roach. Your mission, if you can hold down your lunch, is to pick up clues about your past by crawling around the building's less-than-tidy environs. What makes the game memorable is the tremendous ingenuity that went into creating a roach-eye view of the world.
LABOR OF LOVE. The landscape is more pleasing in Jordan Mechner's The Last Express, which offers a detailed recreation of a legendary train, the pre-World War I Orient Express. Mechner, in what was obviously a labor of love, tracked down the one remaining car from the original Express for use as a model.
A leisurely and complicated game, The Last Express often requires you to listen to and observe the intrigues of the other characters rather than, say, shooting them outright, as you wander the train searching for clues to your best friend's murder. It is sometimes necessary to linger in the dining or the smoking car, eavesdropping on other passengers in order to better plot your next move.
There are so many fragmentary conversations occurring simultaneously on different parts of the train that it is impossible to hear them all in one game. Action addicts should probably look elsewhere, because The Last Express reveals itself slowly. Those who stay with it, though, will be rewarded with both a meticulous historical reconstruction and a nuanced narrative.
These games offer a variety of virtual experiences not found elsewhere--including the Net. So whether you want to befriend a cockroach or emote with Peter Gabriel, just pop in a CD-ROM disk.