Mapquest, PalmPilot, and more wowed our tech critic this year


1 RIVEN The interactive industry is obsessed with the latest, the fastest, the shiniest. So why are we choosing as 1997’s best a CD-ROM sequel that hews so closely to its 1993 forebear? Sure, Riven represents a technological advance on the original Myst — still the best-selling computer game of all time — but what’s most impressive is that it dares to stick with what worked the first time around. Only in this case, it’s more serene, more otherworldly — a bigger, better space in which to lose yourself.

Brothers Rand and Robyn Miller, along with production designer and Disney refugee Richard Vander Wende, may have built Riven with SGI workstations instead of the garage-bound Macs that hatched Myst, but the upgrade is noticeable mostly in the details — in the birds soaring in the distance and the natives scurrying into the woodwork. Even the fantasy-based narrative you slowly uncover in your rovings is a secondary pleasure. The most striking thing here is the generosity of the experience — the stubbly, old-world textures of the walls, the visual ingenuity of the puzzles, the leviathan secrets revealed by an underwater window. Riven is so richly imagined that it’s very nearly a vacation, and it’s soothing enough to qualify as therapy. Its grace shows up the multimedia industry’s twitch-game mentality for the shallow adolescent posturing it is, and points the way toward virtual realities to come.

2 VIRTUAL SPRINGFIELD One of the reasons The Simpsons is arguably the most consistently brilliant show on TV is that every corner of every frame seems packed with a gag. Project that wisenheimer-smorgasbord sensibility onto a CD-ROM, and you have the exhaustive, exhausting Virtual Springfield, the closest you’ll get to sticking your head inside the TV and poking through Mr. Burns’ desk (or Marge’s closet, or Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart). Astounding in its bottomless variety of places to go and things to click, it’s nirvana for Simpsons fetishists — and merely hilarious for everyone else.

3 MARS PATHFINDER LANDING The way boomers remember clustering around the TV when Neil Armstrong moonwalked and Gen-Xers recall the images of the Challenger explosion, today’s kids may one day see the Pathfinder mission as their defining cultural event — and the Internet as the medium that gave it to them. You could catch the footage of the Sagan Memorial Station wastelands on CNN — but how much richer the experience was on the Web, via the NASA, CNN, and MSNBC sites or any of the smaller fan pages that provided scientific perspective and unscientific awe. It was as signal an event for cyberspace as for real space: the week the world turned to the Net for the real deal.

4 PALMPILOT Remember the deserved derision visited upon the Apple Newton, the first real personal digital assistant? Even Mike Doonesbury would have to change his tune now that 3Com’s PDA has proved that a li’l dinky computer in your pocket really can replace address books, schedulers, notepads, E-mailboxes, Gameboys, and much more. The user-friendly genius of the PalmPilot is that anyone can customize software for it, and it easily synchs up with your PC or Mac, making it a snap to load up all the information you need to carry. The downside? The cultlike nature of its adherents: This may be the first PDA to inspire actual Public Displays of Affection.