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CYBURBIA

THE GOODS : In This Tank, It's You Who Sinks or Swims

March 10, 1995|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Dr. Frankenstein had had a computer, he would have loved "Aquazone." Throw the switch, Igor, it's time to make life on the computer screen.

This software program from Japan--just recently made available in the United States for about $50--allows you to create a simulated aquarium on your Macintosh home computer.

We're not talking pretty pictures on a screen saver--this is an aquarium that lives in real time, demanding vigilance if the fish are to thrive and procreate. You've got to feed them, take care of them when they get sick, keep the water at the right temperature and, on occasion, dispose of your "failures."

"Aquazone" isn't a game, it's a commitment.

You start with a simple model of an aquarium on your screen, equipped with a bubbler, heater, thermometer and light. From the 75-page manual and on-screen help windows, you learn your first task is to set the thermostat to bring the water to an ideal temperature for the fish you'll add later.

You add a couple of different solutions to try to get the water chemically balanced and then comes the fun part--interior decorating!

Your first choice is from different colors of gravel (I chose a tasteful, understated shade of dark gray). Then come the plants necessary for oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange and to add a bit of greenery to the drab aquascape.

Next are the accessories--I opted for a miniature of Rodan's "Thinker" to add a splash of culture and also a little pagoda. For a more Don-the-Beachcomber look, you can go for the Moai statue and petrified wood pieces.

Now comes the moment you've been waiting for! Quick, Igor, add the fish!!!

You can choose from 40 neon tetras and leopard catfish of various sizes and ages. The trick is to include enough fish to make it interesting, but not so many that your ecosystem gets unbalanced.

All the fish come with Japanese names, but you can change them to whatever you like.

The fish come into the tank with a splash, and soon, in my aquarium, little Midori, Yasuko and Tomoko were happily swimming around with Janice, Alice, Steve, Mary Jo and others.

Because these fish exist, digitally speaking, in real time, every day they grow a day older. And here's the really scary part: Even when your computer is off, "Aquazone" continues to operate off the computer's internal clock. So if you don't activate the program for a week, your fish will still become a week older.

At any point, when the aquarium is on your screen you can check the stats on an individual fish--age, health, hunger.

Speaking of hunger, you have to figure out what, when and how much you're going to feed your fish (again, you have to turn to the manual). Luckily, there is an automatic food dispenser.

If you do everything right, your fish will flourish. Some might mate, adding little bundles of digital joy to your "Aquazone" display.

So much for the fun part.

There I was, enjoying my simulated friends, when suddenly a bit of ominous music came through the computer speakers and a message appeared: "Yasuko is sick." The little guy had tail rot.

I grabbed the manual, which suggested I create a second, smaller aquarium to be used as a hospital tank.

I transported Yasuko there and added chemicals. After 30 minutes, I returned him to the fold. According to the manual, he should be placed in the hospital tank for a treatment once a day for the next week.

I cared about Yasuko, I really did. But I had a lot of meetings the next day. And the next.

And after all, Yasuko does not exist. He's just a digitally rendered mass of computer code.

So why, then, was I dreading the moment when I finally got around to clicking my mouse on the "Aquazone" icon?

The aquarium appeared, but there was no ominous music! Yasuko was hanging in there!

Quickly, I quit the program and dumped it out of my hard drive.

I just couldn't take the responsibility.

* Cyburbia's Internet address is Colker@news.latimes.com.

More on Cyberspace

* What are your favorite computer programs? Join or start a discussion in the TimesLink on-line service. Sign on and "jump" to keyword "TimesLink BB." Select either "Computers/Info Hwy" or "Games" as a topic.

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