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The Independent Culture
Once a pioneer among computer games, Asteroids has been reborn for the Nineties and has lost nothing but its simple charms

TO BE CONTINUED

If Mark Bernstein of the electronic publishers Eastgate Systems can have your attention for a moment, he will dispose of the canard that electronic media are natural allies of those who don't care to concentrate. Writing in Hypertext Now, which appears on the Eastgate website, Bernstein argues that "we are witnessing a flourishing renaissance of large narrative".

Novels, both literary and popular, often come in fat volumes; television series have been turned into epics; and the public also has an immense appetite for epic narratives in the form of histories of sports teams.

One cultural landmark Bernstein mentions is the 1955 publication of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Bernstein notes that WH Auden found it "entirely admirable", but Tolkien now enjoys a literary status comparable to Jeffrey Archer's. At the same time, the paradigm he established has become the basis of an immensely profitable and apparently limitless genre. Tolkienistic adventures are perhaps the most striking evidence that some quarters of new media require the longest attention spans known to popular culture.

Heretic II (Activision, Windows, pounds 40) is a perfect example. Like Tolkien's books, its narrative is created with wholesale borrowings from the world's mythologies, a method which can generate as complicated a tale and as many sequels as there's time to write. It belongs to the Quake genre, a relentless cascade of slashing enemies and puzzle solving. The player collects health and weapon resources while charging around a Byzantine complex of sinister buildings. But instead of seeing the game through the eyes of the protagonist, the player follows a step or two behind our pointy-eared hero, Corvus.

Games highlight both the achievements and the shortcomings of digital graphics. Heretic II is flawed by an inability to maintain scale - Corvus keeps finding himself in halls built for giants. Its great strength is its sets, cunningly labyrinthine. What pinned me to my seat was not the Sphere of Annihilation nor the Tome of Power, but the dark mood of 16th-century Middle Europe wonderfully evoked by the low eaves and mullioned windows of the first area of play.

I must confess that I only got as far as the second zone, a monumental palace with a strong Moorish flavour. Perhaps I'd have done better if I'd gone through the tutorial, mastered the special moves, learnt the properties of all the spells, and immersed myself in the mythology of Parthoris. But that is for the legions of hardcore gamers, and their indefinitely elastic attention spans.

PER ARDUA AD ASTEROIDS

Asteroids (Activision, Windows, Playstation, pounds 30) is a measure of 20 years of progress in electronic entertainment, as well as a celebration of it. The original version, which appeared in 1979, was one of the very first electronic arcade games. Its secret was its combination of minimal graphics (white dots, little outline figures) and movement that was simple but devilishly hard to follow. The tiny wedge representing the spaceship tumbled lazily around the screen, drifting off and reappearing in another quadrant; the illusion of outer space was surprising strong, considering how little went into it.

The next-generation Asteroids is identical in its basic dynamics (and for the sake of comparison, the "classic" original version is buried somewhere in the game). It differs only in the dimension that has driven the computer industry for 15 years now; the graphics that devour memory and send people out for a new machine each Christmas. Now the spaceship, the cosmos and the heavenly bodies are rendered in shimmering colour and textures, with glowing jets for the rocket and asteroids made of crystal panes. If you're old enough to remember the first time round, grip that joystick and let Asteroids remind you how your standard of living has grown. You've come a long way, space cadet.

Technotip

Save games as often as you ought to save your work files. Otherwise you'll probably waste more time retracing your footsteps than you ever would rewriting your memos.

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