Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 132 / AUGUST 1991 / PAGE 98

Great games that come real cheap. (computer games)
by Orson Scott Card

Last month I wrote about playing around online, and I recommended Prodigy as a family online service. However, if you're hoping to find some neat shareware games by using your neat new modem, Prodigy will be no help at all--it doesn't allow uploading or downloading of software.

There is software to be found on the full-service networks like Delphi, GEnie, and--above all--CompuServe. Some of it is freeware--stuff you can download and use without paying for anything more than the connect time that it takes to download it. But most of its is shareware--software that you can try out for free but which you must (or at least ought to) pay for if you're going to use it over the long haul.

For instance, the game that Kristine and I are totally addicted to right now is a nifty little Windows-based backgammon game from Graphics Software Labs (7906 Moonmist Circle, Huntington Beach, California 92648). Like most shareware products, the free tryout version has some built-in annoyances designed to goad you into paying the registration fee (in this case a mere $15) to get the latest version. But it's fully playable as is. You'll find your computer a worthy, challenging opponent.

Still, th game isn't always a genius about using doubling, so you can get the upper hand. I'm ahead right now, by more than 150 games. Why? Because I'm dang good, that's why. And because I must have played 500 games since I downloaded it to my computer last week!

Some of the shareware that you find online isn't really up to professional grade. For instance, I downloaded Blackout (Zarkware, 2243 East Thompson Street, Springfield, Missouri 65804) from CompuServe. The game's author made no bones about the fact that it was a pretty simple little game. I found it dumb, but fun enough to play a few dozen times, so I registered it for a mere $12--the author did not have an inflated idea of its value!

Another game has become something of a cult hit on CompuServe. While there are several shareware mah-jongg games available online, Nels Anderson's version has a huge following. Why? Because along with his game he includes a great little tile editor that allows you to design your own set of playing pieces. Designing you own tile sets is one of the most popular options in the game. A lot of enterprising tile makers have uploaded their tile sets (uploading is free on CompuServe) so others can enjoy the fruits of their labors. That makes Andersons's Mah Jongg into a kind of communal experience. I'm tempted to make a tile set of my own to upload.

I had never played mah-jongg in my life, by the way, until buying Microsoft's Windows Entertainment Pack, which includes a version of mah-jongg that I'm sad to say is a bit more smooth-playing than Anderson's game. But Anderson's game doesn't require Windows. And the WEP version doesn't let you design your own tile sets.

Speaking of WEP, it also includes, besides a ho-hum Tetris, the most diabolically addictive game I've seen lately: Minesweeper. If you've got Windows and you have enough cast-iron self-control to get you real work done before you play, then this game is worth the entire price of WEP ($39.95). But be sure to read the instructions--the game is almost unplayable unless you learn some tricks, and you can't save games in progress.

Sometimes the best prizes you find online aren't, strictly speaking, games at all. I'm not talking about the serious shareware programs, either, though I've picked up a free DOS text editor and a first-rate (but not free) Windows program editor online. What I'm talking about is a strange little program called Babble (Korenthal Associates; 76004,2605 on CompuServe; 212-242-1790).

Written by Jim Korenthal, Babble is more of a DOS toy than a game. Feed it any ASCII text file, and it analyzes it and plays it back to you in a strange babbled form.

At first glance there's nothing remotely useful about this program--but you can't stop reading the babble, if only for the sheer weirdness of it.

The program comes with a fistful of prebabbled files that you combine for even stranger results. Text from Shakespeare, "Leave It to Beaver," and TV Guide, combined with a few choice insults, results in stuff like: "What light from grade-B Wally, you blithering soft upon her cheek." Pure poetry. You can soup it up even more with special effects and ethnic accents ranging from Elmer Fudd's voice to a Texas drawl.

It's most fun, though, when you analyze your own files. It's almost restful, after you finish a term paper or a report or a memo or (in my case) a story, to save it also as an ASCII file and then load it into Babble for analysis. What comes back at you is your own language, in your own style, but now insane. And yet, sometimes out of the madness come wonderful combinations that have given me insights that change the shape of the story.

Imagine this scenario, if you would: When your boss sends you a particularly obnoxious memo, you can babble it and pass the nonsense version around to your coworkers. As long as you don't lose your job, it makes Babble wll worth the price!