Your rocket lands on Mars, and it's your job to explore an abandoned city. This CD-ROM inspired by Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles picks up where the classic sci-fi novel sets down. Players investigate the mysterious and beautifully rendered Martian landscape and visit an eerie estate that yields a secret library brimming with banned books (not unlike the library in Myst). The tomes reveal, among other things, codes that will help you deactivate a force field around the city jail. In addition to the game, the CD contains video clips of Bradbury discussing such subjects as his childhood dreams and the possibility of a manned voyage to Mars. While Chronicles may not have mass, Myst-like appeal, its unearthly pleasures are still compelling enough to keep gamers coming back for Mars. (CD-ROM for PC & Mac, Simon & Schuster Interactive, $49.95)
Although the online audience is still only a tiny fraction of TV viewership, everyone from Peter Jennings to the Cartoon Network is trying to hook the digerati. America Online's Oprah
Online! is one of the more successful efforts: Colorful graphics make it pretty, and service features (a helpline, live chat sessions devoted to the day's topic, and an update on past guests) make it a useful adjunct to the show. Subscribers who long for their 15 minutes of fame can pitch themselves as potential guests. One woman wrote: "I am having an affair on AOL.... It has improved my sex life 100%. All your inhibitions go away when you are typing." A popular section lets users suggest show topics. Some recent entries: Taking Care of Disabled Mates, Abusive Nannies, and Bosses Who Should Be Fired. But it was a mother who had the most startling proposal: Help! I have a Normal Family! The only major drawback is the time it takes to download Oprah
graphics the first time you enter the area. At 2400 bps, a common modem speed, it's 28 minutes—a long wait even for the most ardent fan.
Throttle-up your Spitfire, nose into the sky and, before you know it, eight enemy aircraft swarm in to attack. Fighter Duel is the most realistic flight-fight CD-ROM yet. The cockpit control panel features 10 gauges, including a directional gyro and an altimeter. With a modem, cyber-aces can battle a second player in another city. Scrupulously researched, Duel lets armchair dogfighters choose from 13 historically accurate World War II planes and pick a skill level from first-time flyer to hardened top gun. The challenge is to outfly all the bogies while living within the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen aircraft. Try a low-speed turn in a high-performance F4U Corsair, for example, and you'll become one with the planet very quickly. (CD-ROM for PC, Philips and Jaegger Interactive Media, $49.99)