VIDEO GAMES / Sound and vision: CD-i technology promises to outclass old cartridge-based software. Rupert Goodwins waits to be suitably impressed

It looks like a video recorder, but a small plastic mushroom sprouts from the remote control. It hooks into the TV, but swallows and disgorges CDs instead of video cassettes. It lets you play with Mario but it plays Sharon Stone as well. This strange chimera is CD-i, the home entertainment concept that Philips hope will be clasped to the joystick-calloused bosoms of the nations of the world.

CD-i plays CDs, as its name suggests. But in the years since CD was invented, new ways have been found to cram not just sound but moving pictures and immensely complicated video games on to the silver beermat. Philips' CD-i players can decode and display both of these formats and also interactive video.

The 180 available CD movies are mostly standard middle-of-the-road Saturday night pizza fodder such as Top Gun, Fatal Attraction and Wayne's World. The pictures are of a similar quality to VHS, as is the sound, but you can skip from scene to scene instantly while traipsing across tracks with an audio CD. The big drawback is that a video CD can only hold 70 minutes of film, so most features occupy two CDs and need a swift swap halfway through.

There is no magic in the CD format that prevents the games from being the usual mix of good, bad and plain awful software. Fortunately, there's a good selection of stuff that one suspects is not going to last long on its playability but is nicely intricate and gorgeously festooned with film clips.

One such is Voyeur, an expensively produced collaboration between Philips and Propaganda Films, home of all things Lynchian. This is reminiscent of an American mini-saga, with family feuds, improbable hairstyles, dark secrets and more than a modicum of kinky sex. You play a private eye, holed up across the way from the family mansion: your job, to peer through the windows using your video camera and capture evidence with which to put the villain away. It takes some time to play, and since multiple strands of the plot unfold simultaneously in different places it'll take a good few playings before you can sort the wheat from the fish.

Another is 7th Guest (left), which has been a genuine hit on the IBM PC but is now re-upholstered and resprayed even more beautifully for CD-i. This is a web of deliciously rendered computer graphics portraying a surreal gothic environment in which are studded various brain-numbing logic puzzles. It is exceptionally pretty and, if you like that sort of challenge, has the potential to captivate for a long time.

And then there's the undefinable. The music scene, with its bright-eyed lust for all things new and glittering, has grabbed interactive CD video with both claws. The Worlds Of . . . , a compilation CD, has music video clips from The Sultans of Ping, nattily interwoven with a Tokyo Underground game that is really much more fun than seems likely.

There's not much doubt that CD-based games of one sort or another will supplant the cartridge consoles. A videotape placed alongside a CD looks clumsy, Eighties technology, but that alone is not enough to guarantee the success of the medium. It depends on the software; the potential is there for some really mind-blasting games, even if most of the titles don't quite make that grade yet.

CD-i 210 available from Philips at pounds 399.99. CD-i 210 Box D with digital video cartridge pounds 499.99. Voyeur pounds 39.99, 7th Guest, pounds 49.99

(Photograph omitted)

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