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'Spyro the Dragon' Is a Colorful, Nonviolent Adventure

November 09, 1998|AARON CURTISS

Despite the general impression that video games are child's play, few of the games are actually designed for kids. I have no children of my own, but if I did, I wouldn't let them within a mile of the kind of mindless pap that generally passes for family game fare.

Three recent titles, though, provide great entertainment without much violence and might even force a young gamehead to engage the gray matter. Any would make a perfect treat for parents who regulate their kids' time in front of the screen.

"Spyro the Dragon" is a beautiful three-dimensional adventure that puts players in command of a spunky dragon. His world has been put under a spell by Gnasty Gnorc, whose personality combines the "short temper of a gnome and the bad attitude of an orc."

Gnasty's spells turn the dragon treasure into Gnorc soldiers and the dragons themselves into crystallized statues. Only Spyro evades the spell. Players guide him through spectacular landscapes as he frees his friends and redeems their treasure.

"Spyro" is perhaps one of the most colorful Sony PlayStation games ever. Its cheery worlds are reminiscent of "Super Mario 64," but with a slightly spicy edge. Most of the dragons are crusty old guys who dispense advice as they are freed. Each world has its own types of dragons--artisans, peacekeepers, magic crafters--and simply exploring the towns and castles they create can be fun.

The most extreme violence occurs when Spyro aims a little fire at the butts of his enemies. But all of it is cartoonish, and most of the game involves finding frozen dragons and figuring out how to get to hard-to-reach places.

"Heart of Darkness" for PC and PlayStation is a more traditional side-scrolling action game, but it exudes a charm that even adults should find captivating. The young daydreamer Andy finds himself plopped into the dark world of his imagination.

Despite the title, the game does not explore the effects of degenerative madness. Rather, it allows kids to blast away at shadows and the kinds of freaky creeps that lurk at night in the closet and under the bed. It's not afraid to admit that kids have a dark side. And it lets them fry the denizens of it with a homemade laser.

Puzzles block progress and players rely on wits as well as reflexes to navigate nicely detailed caves and jungles. Visually, the game is a treat. Even during play, the motion and colors are captivating, and cinematic interludes allow the story to unfold.

I played on both a PC and the PlayStation and found the PlayStation version a little cleaner visually. However, control was easier on the PC. I used a Microsoft Sidewinder joypad, which allows for more intuitive button placement than the PlayStation controller.

Although I sit about 20 years outside the core demographic of "Rugrats Adventure Game," I can appreciate it from a distance. The characters grate, and their mangling of the English language quickly drove me nuts.

But the PC game demands that its 6-to-10-year-old players use logic to find their way out of a variety of life-or-death situations, such as how to escape from a playpen, snag a cookie or rescue a plastic dinosaur from the trash.

Game Boy Color

The kind folks at Nintendo gave me a sneak peek at the new Game Boy Color the other day. It's quite a little gem--well worth the $80 Nintendo expects to charge for the first Game Boy with a screen that adults can actually see.

Sure, the ability to play games in color is nice. The unit can display 56 colors on its liquid-crystal display. But they often seem washed-out--nowhere near the splash of color young eyes are used to seeing on Nintendo 64 or other set-top consoles.

No, the real beaut of the new screen is that it displays old black-and-white games in crisp lines that don't wash out with fast-paced motion or disappear when the light changes. That's a welcome improvement.

I brought along a couple of my favorite Game Boy titles--"Scrabble" and "Donkey Kong"--to the demonstration and was amazed at how crisply everything was displayed. On "Donkey Kong," the scaffolding was drawn in red and I never lost Mario. "Scrabble" was tack sharp, making the board much easier to read even in less-than-perfect light.

For cartridges with Super Game Boy compatibility, little snippets of color appear on the new screen. For instance, "Donkey Kong Land II" drew bananas in yellow and Diddy and Dixie Kong in brown. The big treat, though, was that I could actually see Diddy and Dixie move at top speed, something that was impossible on even the enhanced screen of Game Boy Pocket.

Game Boy Color uses a modified Pocket case, with a slight bulge in the back to accommodate the two AA batteries. An infrared port at the top of the unit eventually will allow players to link games without the hassle of a cord. One thing that was absent: the contrast control. Because the screen is so much better, players won't have to fiddle to adjust it to available light.

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