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THE PALM BEACH POST SATURDAY, DECEMBER 6. 1997 SO; NC A software shopper's AixlTHfcN! Wbo mi brci in ffce bouse? Wb. thecal! 'Have no (ear of ihu men. Swl the Cai m e H. l1 - M SL W 1 f7 Fi tJ Ld L-"Li ..- n 4, Cat in the Hat For the little elves (not old enough for Diablo) B Learning to Read with Winnie the Pooh (Disney Interactive, $35): Who could give youngsters a more gentle introduction to reading than the crew from the Hundred Acre Wood? Pooh and company teach eager readers the alphabet, how to spell simple words and how to follow directions. It's a simple and delightful effort, with three levels of difficulty to challenge kids as they learn. For kids 3 to 6. B Jump Start Learning Series (Knowledge Adventure, $30 each): A first-rate series of nearly 20 educational CD-ROMs for toddlers through fifth-graders. Individual titles are available by grade level, and each includes lessons and learning games in subjects typical for the corresponding year in school. Reader Rabbit's Kindergarten (The Learning Company, $30): Kids join Reader Rabbit and Mat the Mouse at Camp Happy Trails in this spinoff from the classic Reader Rabbit series of educational CD-ROMs. Fun, colorful games in a summer camp setting teach 6wi Instant addiction Diablo (Blizzard, $40): Journey into the dungeons beneath the town of Tristram as a warrior, sorcerer or rogue to find and slay Diablo, the ultimate evil. This engrossing RPG is simple and extremely addicting. The dungeon maps change with each new game, so playing options are unlimited. B Heroes of Might & Magic II and Price of Loyalty Expansion Pack (New World Computing, $35): Lead armies of ogres, dragons, elves and the like to capture castles, find magic items and slay enemies in this turn-based strategy game set in a medieval world. Straightforward, intuitive game play plus dozens of scenarios and options ensure months of gaming fun. B X-Com Apocalypse (Micro-prose, $55): You'll spend months on this complicated and ultimately all-consuming game that combines war strategy with arcade action. You command a force of agents, biochemists, physicists and engineers assigned to protect a teeming metropolis from alien invasions. When the fighting starts, you'll love X-Gom's ability to switch between real-time and turn-based combat. B Links LS (Access, $35): For years Links has been the hands-down winner among golf sims, and it scored an ace with this year's version. Links LS has outstanding graphics, numerous player options and a good selection of courses. It's the closest you can get to playing golf without getting a sunburn. B Front Page Sports Golf (Sier-'ra, $50): While this game's graphics don't match Links LS, it does offer something unique: TrueSwing, which lets you swing the golf club by moving your mouse backward and forward. B Outlaws (LucasArts, $40): . From George Lucas comes a shoot-em-up with brains. You play a retired Old West marshal whose wife was killed and daughter kidnapped by a band of cutthroats. Your only : choice is to pick up your revolver a. kids 4-6 concepts such as matching, changing of the seasons, counting, near and far and manners. B Backyard Baseball (Humongous, $40): This clever, colorful baseball simulation is perfect for fans not old enough to master the complexities of adult sports games. Players manage a team of funny kid characters, who Starfleet Academy Soviet army, you protect the free world or assist Josef Stalin in his dream of worldwide Soviet rule in this landmark real-time military strategy game. Players who want realism rather than aliens from war games will find this irresistible. B Age of Empires (Microsoft, $55): Excellent simulation puts you in charge of one of 12 ancient civilizations, such as the Babylonians, Egyptians or Greeks. You control their rise from obscure tribe to world power by making all decisions from which gazelle to hunt in the Stone Age to which nation to overthrow in the Iron Age as history plays itself out in richly detailed, realistic graphics. B 7th Legion (Microprose, $45): Imagine that apocalypse on Earth seemed inevitable and only the rich and influential escaped from the doomed planet. Then, imagine that all the people left on Earth banded together, survived, and made Earth prosperous again. This real-time strategy game picks up when those who fled Earth return intent on ruling again and you are the only hope of fending them off. B Thunder Truck Rally (Psygno-sis, $50): The perfect combination for racing and destruction fans: big trucks, psycho drivers and grueling courses. Drive your way through obstacles and pummel your way through the competition to become the top driver on the Thunder Truck circuit. Or just go to the auditorium for car-crushing fun! ' B Hexen II (Activision, $50): This 3-D action game, which uses the Quake engine, allows you the choice of four character classes with which to hunt down and destroy Eidolon, the deadliest of the Serpent Riders that have overtaken your land. Fans of the original will not be disappointed. and rifle and hunt them down. Great fun for western fans. B Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 (Microsoft, $59): The king of flight sims, this game offers photo-realistic scenery, dozens of cities around the world to visit and a wide range of craft to fly, from a Sopwith Camel to a Boeing 737 and a Bell Jetranger helicopter. Wonderfully detailed instrument panels and landscapes and a realistic sound track bring you as close to flying as you can get without buying a airplane ticket. B Starfleet Academy (Interplay, $45): This is every Star Trek fan's dream: Enroll as a cadet in Starfleet Academy and fly simulated starship missions as the captain. While there is too much in-space fighting (a pain if you don't like flying games), this is a must for avid Star Trek fans. B Command and Conquer: Red Alert (Westwood Studios, $50): As an agent in the Allied forces or the Maybe not addicting, but they grow on you e i i 1 B Triple Play 98 (EA Sports, $45): All in all, this year's crop of baseball sims belongs in the minors. Triple Play 98, while having its share of flaws, can be an enjoyable game, but too much game-play is sacrificed on fancy graphics. B Pod (UbiSoft, $45): This racing game was one of the first to take advantage of MMX technology, and it's still one of the best. Surround sound and beautifully detailed environment make it fun to drive, not just race. B Mageslayer (GT Interactive, $40): The top-down perspective and different character classes make this Diablo wannabe worth trying, but the controls can be frustrating. This is aggravating in a third-person shooter, but the game itself is mildly addicting. B Hoyle Classic Board Games (Sierra, $30): Board games usually don't translate well to computer because a lot of the fun is in interacting with your opponent, and as an opponent, a computer is a dud. Hoyle Classic Board Games changes that by offering not only 10 favorite games including checkers, chess, Battling Ships (yes, it's just like Battleship), Yacht (Yahtzee) and Snakes & Ladders but 12 characters to play against, all with different personalities; You can control how mouthy they get, but in general they'll gloat when you stumble and whine when you win. play in sandlot parks and throw pitches such as the Big Freeze and the Crazy Ball. For kids 5 to 10. B Big Thinkers Kindergarten, Big Thinkers First Grade (Humongous, $30 each): Don't miss the first overtly educational titles from the makers of the classic Freddi Fish, Pajama Sam and Putt Putt adventure games. Comical hosts Ben and Becky Brightly entertain and play games that introduce little ones to early math concepts, time telling, spelling, measurement, letter recognition and more. B Barbie Magic Hair Styler (Mattel Media, $35): Choose Barbie or one of her friends, decide whether she's going on a date, to a party or to work, then bring her into your beauty parlor. Working from a picture of Barbie's head and shoulders, players cut Barbie's hair, curl it, color it, grow it, add highlighting, and apply makeup, jewelry, glasses and brace yourself, Dad tattoos. Afterward, watch a little movie of the full-size Barbie as she would appear after a trip to your salon. For kids 4 and up. B Fisher-Price Ready for School: Toddler (Davidson, $30): The best program around for introducing kids under 3 to the computer. Chunky, colorful Fisher-Price Little People characters show your child how to make pictures on the PC and play rudimentary games that teach counting, big and small, shapes and colors and more. B Rockett's New School (Purple Moon, $30): Here's that rarest of PC games, one aimed at girls too old for Barbie and too young to date. Based on decisions the player makes for her, Rockett Movado begins to figure out who the cool kids are, what she should wear and how she's accepted during her first day at a new school. The software is right on target in depicting girls, boys and teachers in a junior high setting. A sure hit for girls 9-12. B The Cat In the Hat (Living Books, $30): The CD-ROM version of the Seuss classic is faithful to the book and at least as much fun. The story unfolds on the computer screen in pages, each with text that changes color as words are read aloud to the child. Click on the objects depicted in the pages and they come to life a fisherman appears in a picture on the wall and throws a line to the fish in the bowl, lamps dance. For kids 3 to 7. B Disney's Magic Artist (Disney Interactive, $40): The leader in kids paint programs is built around a simple set of paint-and-draw tools that includes chalk, crayon, Magic Marker, pencil and paint each of which makes a realistic sound (the marker squeaks, the chalk shusshes, etc.). And, of course, there are plenty of sketches of Disney characters for kids ages 3 to 8 to work their own magic on. . B Chaos Island (DreamWorks Interactive, $40): Based on the movie The Lost World: Jurassic Park, this fun real-time strategy game plays like Command and Conquer for kids. Evil hunters are trying to take over The Lost World, and you're in charge of a band of scientists who must raise an army of fighting dinosaurs to save the day. For kids 9 and up. Sick Santas IUI1UI Hi JIJPI I V J" ij -:- . t Xt rr Tit f ri fi P. - 1 u Not a game, but still a lot of fun B The Print Shop Premier Edition 5.0 (Broderbund, $50): The latest edition of the best home print program lets you easily make high-quality invitations, signs, greeting cards, stationery and more. Easy to use yet versatile enough to let you be truly creative, the new edition comes with more than 23,000 graphics and 1,000 layouts. B Kai's Power Goo (Meta-tools, $50): Squeeze, stretch, pull, twist and otherwise mangle digital photos with this wacky photo editing program. Goo offers 18 brushes that create hilarious special effects and comes with a library of stock faces, but "touching up" your boss' mug or that old photo of Uncle Bart is where the real fun is. B The Complete National Geographic (National Geographic, $199): 108 years of National Geographic magazine, unabridged, from its first issue in 1888 through 1996, on a 30-disk set. The CD-ROMs contain every page of the publication, including National Geographies justifiably hallowed photographs and even the ads, and let you search by subject from any disk. B Naturally Speaking (Dragon, $149): Ever get tired of typing letters and memos? With this program, your computer does the typing, and you can talk at a normal pace. It's incredibly accurate, and you can train the program so it recognizes key words for different occupations (journalism, business, etc.). B Dungeon Keeper (Bullfrog, $50): In this twisted combination of Sim City and Warcraft, you're a fledgling super-evil bad guy with a yearning for power. You build a subterranean dungeon, recruit a band of monsters (who'll require a good beating every now and then), mine gold and torture your enemies in a quest to defeat the forces of good that rule in the above-ground world. Demented and fun. B Redneck Rampage (Interplay, $40): One of the most politically incorrect mass-market games, but that doesn't stop it from being more fun than a barrel full of frogs. Aliens have kidnapped Bessie the cow. You track her down, blasting away with your shotgun, drinking beer and eating pork rinds. B Theme Hospital (Bullfrog, $50): Fend off the Vomit Wave and cure a plague of Bloaty Head Disease as the director of a new hospital that you build from the ground up and manage to financial success. Frequently gross, but its simple game-play and humor make Theme Hospital entertaining. , B Blood Omen; Legacy of Kain (Activision, $50): An RPG with a twist: Instead of playing a valiant knight or sorcerer, you're a vampire seeking revenge on the people who killed you. You explore a huge world, swinging your sword and sucking blood to sustain your undead life. Loads of blood, lots of fun. Theme Hospital Reviews by Mark Dickenson, Dan Neal and Kerouac Smith t 'Gifts1 to give to people you don't really like j. out what's going on; if not, you'll just get so bored you'll go back to work. B Shadow Warrior (GT Interactive, $40): This Duke Nukem wannabe tries, to make up for a lack of interesting game-play with humor. Unfortunately, it fails. The hero, Lo Wang, is a ninja who has run afoul of his employers. Therefore, he must kill everything he sees. The intricate plot aside, Shadow Warrior lacks any redeeming value. B Ultima Online (Origin, $55): Too slow, too complicated, too boring. The Ultima series may contain some of the all-time best RPGs, but this online-only effort is an expensive failure. B Riven (Red Orb, $40): Beautiful but frustrating, Riven doesn't ask much: Just take a year or two off work and plod along through forests and rocky mountains, turning levers and pushing buttons. If you're lucky, you'll figure B Postal (Ripcord, $50): While it got a lot of hype, this bloodbath is a major disappointment. The characters are too small and the movement isn't smooth enough for a shoot-'em-up game. B Independence Day (Fox Interactive, $45): This movie rip-off is a flying shooter that forces players to shoot at targets above them, which is awkward at best. Action is too fast to enjoy. just shoot and hope you hit something. Riven A.