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The Independent Culture
REVIEWERS are often supplied with cheat sheets to help them get through computer games before their machines become obsolete - a small mercy usually denied to paying customers who are at risk of being humiliated by their children. Thankfully, the European multi-media outfit Tivola have made an exception for Masters of the Elements (Windows and Mac, pounds 19.99). It's billed as suitable for players aged eight and upwards, though the idea that an eight-year-old might vault over this set of hurdles stirs up that nagging thought, "Whatever did happen to all those brain cells?"

Masters of the Elements draws players into an enigmatic world of magic and machinery, occupied by Masters who are rather like the Greek gods; wonderful but also rather like lesser mortals in their home lives. Your mission is to find a lost cat, but the game makes this seem like the stuff of which legends are made. The cat's owner is the Master of Chance, and its disappearance has disturbed the forces of nature: Time, Gravity, Electricity, Warmth and Light. Not only do players have to solve logical puzzles and work out tricks in their quest to make sense of the game; they need co- ordination and a steady hand as well. One of the obstacles is a simulation of the old fairground favourite in which you have to pass a loop along a bent wire without touching it. Another demands deft mousework to juggle three virtual skittles.

Tasks such as these might seem a touch mechanical, but the people at Ijsfontein Amsterdam, the studio which created this title, are masters of theatre. They use pixels the way an inspired set designer uses props and lights, complementing the logical puzzles with graceful paintings and cryptic stories that turn the game into poetry. The mental challenges and the intricacy of the imaginary world rival those of blockbuster game titles, but the artistic vision is on a higher plane altogether.

There's plenty of instructive fun to be had with Tivola's other summer release, Millie Metre and Her Adventures in the Giant's Belly (four to eight years, Windows and Mac, pounds 19.99, pictured above). This originates from Tivola's home territory, Germany, and confirms the prejudices of those who believe that the Germans have a peculiar fascination with the digestive process. Millie's mission is to descend through a giant's digestive tract, learning about nutrition on the way, in order to diagnose why poor Bulk is feeling off colour. The game follows the time-honoured tradition of depicting the body's organs as contraptions that rely heavily on pulleys, switches and comical functionaries. Once Millie has collected the clues for how to improve Bulk's diet, she is free to leave via the little doorway through which daylight shines. Tastefully handled, though parents should be advised that when Bulk breaks wind, the Anglo-Saxon term is used.

Italy is the source of creative content for a couple of titles published in this country by Ransom. Both feature a red creature called Thomas the Dragon, who is a bulbous softie. Tom Paint: Drawing with Thomas the Dragon (five to 11 years, Windows and Mac, pounds 19.99) provides all the features one expects from the many children's computer painting programs available. Although it can produce impressive results, I found the controls confusing and somewhat frustrating.

The Castle Under Siege (five to nine years, Windows and Mac, pounds 19.99) is an animated story about resisting a wicked baron's aggression, plus a couple of games. The illustrations stand comparison with the best children's books, but the animation format highlights a disadvantage of computer multimedia: it lacks the fluidity of television, obliging readers to proceed at the machine's pace, rather than their own. The hesitant effect does have its own charm, though - it brought to mind Oliver Postgate's gently creaky cartoons (Ivor the Engine). By way of a happy ending, the wicked baron's soldiers overthrow him in the wake of their defeat. That's the way it is in children's stories, and Nato strategy meetings.

You can contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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