For all the charming oddballs inhabiting "Hades Challenge," the one that players spend the most time with is the most annoying. And it isn't even a real character at all. It's a little sundial--the Mt. Olympus version of the hourglass that tells computer users to hang on--and it pops up everywhere in this animated spinoff of the Disney film "Hercules."
So what should be a fairly zippy jaunt through the Disney-fied sights of the ancient world. . .
. . . instead . . .
. . . feels . . .
. . . like . . .
. . . this.
Every scene change and dialogue sequence seem to take forever to load, even on a Pentium II with a fast CD and loads of RAM. That can't be a good thing in a game intended to occupy kids (ages 7 to 12) with gnat-like attention spans.
Of course, the game's big problem stems from its greatest strength: a richly detailed animated world that moves and changes as players explore.
Virtually every piece of every scene allows some kind of interaction--from making a king's guard grunt to engaging townsfolk in conversation. This kind of depth outweighs--barely--the sluggish load times.
Disney's penchant for detail shines in "Hades Challenge." Everything is as it should be. Outside the island hideaway of the Gorgon Medusa, for instance, the eyes of statues follow the cursor as players move it. It's a creepy reminder of the Gorgon's power to turn humans to stone.
The game dispatches players on a variety of missions, each containing a number of smaller games. So although the game plays like a strategy adventure for kids, it offers puzzles and quizzes along the way. That variety keeps play lively. Participants need to dig deep to find all the information they need.
"Hades Challenge" requires either a Windows 95 PC running at least a Pentium 90 with 16 megabytes of RAM or a 100 megahertz Macintosh Power PC with 24 mb of RAM.
The puzzles are easy enough for kids. Younger players may need some supervision and help, which offers parents and kids a chance to play together in an environment free of gore and all but the most sanitized violence.
And the long load times give kids and parents plenty of time for other activities. Talking, maybe.
My first pet was a goldfish. He died within 24 hours, and my father laid him to rest in the garbage disposal before breakfast.
I've gotten better with animals since then, but my experience with "Monster Rancher" was nonetheless dismal.
The point of this "virtual monster breeder" is to create and raise creatures and then pit them against one another in a fighting tournament.
Cross the popular Tamagotchi with a virtual cockfight and you get the idea.
Players start with a wad of cash and a perky assistant named Holly. They either purchase monsters in town or "create" them at a shrine--perhaps the coolest feature of the game.
Monsters take shape when players slip any music CD or computer CD-ROM into the PlayStation, which reads the data and randomly generates a creature from a mix of five types.
An Oingo Boingo CD got me a pink and yellow monster that looked a little like a lion. Bach got me a dinosaur that was part plant. And the Beatles gave birth to a monster that looked vaguely like a blue wolf with wings.
Then, as with raising a real pet, the work begins. Animals must be fed, trained and even loaned out to make money for the ranch. Keeping a monster disciplined is important because the big money comes from winning fights.
Fight sequences are turn-based, and players direct their monsters with a variety of moves. Winners earn big bucks and losers cost plenty in hospital bills. Without the fighting, "Monster Rancher" would be a great game for kids. As it is, the game displays less violence than most.
Still, the point is not to raise a loving monster, but a vicious, disciplined fighter. These are probably not the kinds of skills parents want to have their kids practicing on the family dog.
What promise. Early versions of "Rascal" looked like it was going to set a new standard for PlayStation. Although the family-friendly game is beautiful and engaging, it's nearly impossible to control.
"Rascal's" three-dimensional world looks great and contains critical game elements, such as interesting level design and persistent enemies.
But getting through even the most basic levels is a frustrating experience that makes the game not much fun at all.
Designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, Rascal is a teenage hero on a mission to rescue his scientist dad from the clutches of Chronon, the Evil Time Overlord. Armed with a bubble gun, Rascal sets off through time in search of his kidnapped pop.
The problem: Camera angles hide critical information from players.
Trying to shoot a bad guy is tough enough, but it's almost impossible when he can't be seen. That goes double for jumping over ledges. The awkward perspectives make for tough going.
What promise. What a letdown.