SMART GAMES, WITH HEART

The secret of Chop Suey was simple. "It didn't look like anything else, and it didn't sound like anything else," says Theresa Duncan, 29, whose 1995 creation became one of the most acclaimed children's CD-ROM games ever. "And," she emphasizes, "it wasn't dumb."

Neither are Duncan's follow-up releases. Last year's Smarty, about a bookish 9-year-old's small-town exploits, and the new Zero Zero, about a Parisian girl exploring her city in 1899, prove that there is intelligent, even literary, life in the kiddie-games universe. "Our model isn't Bill Gates," says Duncan, a Michigan native and current New Yorker who collects antique children's books. "It's Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss." Proud of her independence, the onetime comparative-lit major sells her discs by phone (1-888-4SMARTY). Collaborators include illustrator-boyfriend Jeremy Blake, an avant-garde artist who, Duncan says, took "a crash course in cute," and NPR humorist David Sedaris, who narrated Chop Suey's tale of twin girls and their kitschy hometown. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY named the disc CD-ROM of the Year. Her whimsical storybooks, Duncan says, aren't "the fastest or the most expensive. But you can tell there's a personality behind them."

SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY

It's no surprise that South Park, the endearingly offensive cartoon on cable's Comedy Central about potty-mouthed grade-schoolers, has become a big hit on the Net. What is surprising is how entertaining its Web site (www.comedycentral.com/south-park) is. Games include goofy takeoffs on Tetris and Pac-Man (chubby Cart-man is chased by aliens while gobbling Cheesy Poofs). Fans can see a video of "The Spirit of Christmas," the animated battle between Jesus and Santa Claus that launched the South Park creators' careers when it became a bootleg hit last year (George Clooney made 100 copies for friends). The snazziest gimmick is a chat area in which users become roving toons. If Beavis and Butt-head surfed the Web, this site would be their first bookmark.

TUNES R US

It doesn't take long to track down a Spice Girls CD. But if you're more interested in probing the back catalogs of Beck, Beethoven or Billie Holiday, head for the Web. Online music stores, the latest Net industry to catch hold with consumers, boast discount prices, album info, audio clips and plenty of range. "Traditional stores don't have enough selection and aren't good at giving advice," says Jason Olim, president of sales leader CDnow (www.cdnow.com). "We carry everything and give great advice."

At Music Boulevard (www.musicblvd.com), jazz makes up about 17 percent of sales and classical music 13 percent—far more than the 3 percent each racks up at the chains. Music Boulevard and CDnow are dueling for supremacy, but other sites, such as Tunes Network and Tower Records, are also in the fray. Most sell major releases for a bargain $11-99 to $13.99, plus shipping. Music lovers are the big winners here—as are Beethoven and Billie.