1 MONTY PYTHON AND THE QUEST FOR THE HOLY GRAIL
[CD-ROM of the YEAR] (7th Level, CD-ROM for PC and Mac, $49.99) A fabulous hoot. Not because it dumps the 1975 film comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail onto a CD-ROM while adding a few interactive buttons, but because, under the direction of Python’s Eric Idle, Quest wholly reworks the movie into a multimedia game that pokes brutal, welcome fun at…multimedia games. Best of all, the game rewards aimless clicking with silly noises, a Knights-Who-Say-Ni Web browser, scenes inexplicably dubbed into Japanese, and Idle’s never-before-heard variations on his catchphrase ”Bring out your dead!” (”Ream out your head!”). By creating a CD-ROM that actually enhances its source material — and then shoots off in tatty new directions — Idle and the 7th Level gang have, perhaps, nailed multimedia’s own grail.
2 NINTENDO 64
($199.99 for the game console, $59.95-$69.95 each game) Even if you’re the type of person who considers videogames one step up from splatter films on culture’s Road to Hell, you may well be hypnotized by the fluidly immersive, alternate-world visuals of Nintendo’s revolutionary new 64-bit game system. Where a game like the original Super Mario Bros. was a flat, shooting-gallery-style thumb twitcher, playing Super Mario 64 feels like you’ve stuck your head down Alice’s rabbit hole into a 3-D wonder planet. Here’s a thought: In addition to game designers, why not set some artists and writers loose in this new medium?
(www.word.com/place/guyana) This year saw the launch of a billion websites, 99 percent of them holding little interest to anyone other than the creators’ moms. Guyana, a trip diary/art installation hosted by the webzine Word, is something different: a journey of external travel, inner disenchantment, and end-of-the-world beauty. Three American artists took a six-week boat trip up the Amazon basin. Their journals record how their expectations of Eden came up hard against the realities of Third World development. With words and art juxtaposed, and everything backed by an eerie musical score, Guyana points to a whole new era of Web-based storytelling.
4 MICROSOFT NETWORK
(www.msn.com) Whether you worship, scorn, love, or loathe Mr. Bill, there’s no denying that Microsoft’s recently relaunched online service raises the stakes for the entire World Wide Web — not to mention puts the fear of Gates into America Online, Netscape, and Apple (you can subscribe only if you use Windows 95). With elegant animation and soft-rock background music on nearly every screen, MSN is one lively surf — and its inaugural content isn’t half bad either.
5 BAD MOJO
(Pulse, CD-ROM for PC and Mac, $49.95) Between the film Joe’s Apartment and this gamy little game, cockroaches made a comeback in 1996 second only to Eddie Murphy’s. Like Myst as reimagined by a slumlord, Mojo turns you into a bug and sends you scampering from kitchen to bathroom to basement in an effort to reclaim your human form. Behind the squishy photorealism lie a dry wit and a finely tuned sense of doom. It’s damn hard, too: If Kafka had played this, Gregor Samsa might never have made it out of bed.
6 ADA ‘WEB
(www.adaweb.com) Is the Web a comfortable home for art? Can the Web be art? Yes and yes, say the fertile minds behind this virtual gallery, easily one of the most far-thinking sites on the Net. Revelatory graphic design leads you to a playful interactive exhibit by axiom manipulator Jenny Holzer, an online version of genre-busting artzine Purple Prose, and much more — expanding your head and the medium in equal measure.
(id software, CD-ROM for PC, $50) Just when you thought you had conquered your Doom addiction, the sick minds at id came up with a whole new excuse to blast hell-spawned ogres into patches of bloody pulp. With greater graphical depth than Doom and a creepy-crawly score courtesy of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, Quake delivers the most carnage you can revel in without having to deal with actual jail time. No wonder bored office workers across the country love it.
(www.switchboard.com) The most prosaic website imaginable — also the most useful and, potentially, most scary — switchboard is nothing more than the totality of this country’s phone books (white and yellow) available in one zippy online database. Once you get past the novelty value — go ahead, look up your prom date — you’ll notice how handy the thing is. Then you’ll start tingling over the privacy issues it raises. At least there’s a form on the site that allows you to unlist yourself.
9 ONLINE GAMING
It’s even money that next year’s big Internet story is going to be the explosion of networked gaming communities available via the Web. This year saw some of the contenders setting up shop: Meridian59 (www.meridian.3do. com) has already seen a number of virtual weddings; Mplayer (www. mplayer.com) enables you to play Quake with strangers while taunting them via a voice hookup; Castle Infinity (www. castleinfinity.com) is an online playpen for kids. The games are mere bait — it’s the visual community that’s something new.
10 THE CDA APPEAL
When the Communications Decency Act was enacted last February as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the cybercommunity despaired: The law threatened to dumb the Internet down by imposing broadcast-TV censorship standards on an entirely different medium. Fortunately, clearer minds prevailed — in particular, those of three judges who overturned the CDA as unconstitutional. Expect the Supreme Court to weigh in next; meanwhile, expect filtering software to address parents’ concerns more constructively than the CDA.
THE FIVE WORST
1 SMASHING PUMPKINS ONLINE CONCERT
Before live Net shows could find an audience, the arena had its very own Altamont. As the Pumpkins played Dublin’s Point Theatre May 11, fans at home listened to tinny sound, tried to access an overloaded chat room, and heard Billy Corgan try to calm the rampaging crowd as a 17-year-old was crushed to death.
(www.webstock96.com) Exhibit A in multimedia’s not-ready-for-prime-time status in Hollywood. Organized around actor Andrew Shue’s nonprofit organization DO Something, Webstock billed itself as a four-day online ”fair” that would mix celeb appearances with community-empowerment chat and info. Apparently, the ideals outstripped the technical know-how: The result was a Woodstock in which no one knew how to plug in the amps.
3 STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DIRECTOR’S CHAIR
Exhibit B in multimedia’s not-ready-for-prime-time status in Hollywood — the assumption being that if you put enough big names on the CD-ROM box (Jennifer Aniston, Quentin Tarantino), it’ll make for a good product. But rearranging segments shot by Spielberg into some semblance of order is an experience more Pavlovian than creative.
4 DEVO: ADVENTURES OF THE SMART PATROL
The flip side of Peter Gabriel’s upcoming, majestic Eve, here’s a CD-ROM from ’80s rockers encrusted with cliches, and not just the toothlessly campy sci-fi ones Devo are still flogging. Smart Patrol ossifies the conventions of in-your-face multimedia experiences (overbearing jargon, annoying complexity, diluted film noir). Whip it! — right out of your disc drive.
5 ELECTION ’96
Wait a minute — wasn’t this the year the Internet was going to revolutionize the electoral process, connecting constituents to politicians, providing in-depth online debate, and backing it up with a wired world of reference materials? So why was it the most substance-free election yet? Sites like CNN/TIME’s AllPolitics were groundbreaking one-stop resources. And Bob Dole did mention his home page (www.dolekemp96.org) during the second debate. Too bad most people ended up at the parody site (www.dole.org).
PITHIEST CD-ROM TITLES D, 9, M.A.X., ZPC
MOST PRUDENT CORPORATE FLIP-FLOP After licensing Woody Woodpecker as an Internet guide for its new Japanese Web browser, PANASONIC halted a worldwide marketing effort when a staffer revealed what the proposed slogan ”Touch Woody, the Internet Pecker” meant in English
MOST FRUSTRATING ONLINE NONEVENT On Aug. 8, AMERICA ONLINE went offline for 19 hours. The refrain ”The system is temporarily unavailable. Please try again in 45 minutes” will forever haunt AOL’s millions of subscribers
MOST OVERWORKED TREND Cloning MYST (see QIN, DROWNED GOD, TIMELAPSE)
BEST CD-ROM TITLE PYST, a parody of you know what
WORST CD-ROM TITLE PUTT-PUTT AND PEP’S DOG ON A STICK — a children’s game
MOST UN-PC GAME GENDER WARS, in which the goal is to eliminate all members of the opposite sex
WEIRDEST PROMOTIONAL TIE-IN The CHIVAS REGAL CAREER TOOLBOX, a CD-ROM to help you zero in on a new job when, presumably, you’re not blotto on fine blended Scotch
BEST BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD GAME TITLES CALLING ALL DORKS LITTLE THINGIES WEINER TAKES ALL
R.I.P. JAGUAR, 3DO, 32X, CD-I Darwin never played video-games, but you know what he’d say…
OW! COMPUSERVE pulled the plug on its 8-month-old family-friendly WOW! online service
WORST TV COMMERCIALs FOR A MULTIMEDIA PRODUCT Packard Bell’s surreal, dystopian visions of life in a big city. This is supposed to make us buy computers?