If you haven't seen CD-ROM director Theresa Duncan's earlier work, you'll think that her new release, "Smartypants," is far and away the best disk ever for young girls.
It is, except for her earlier CD-ROM "Chop Suey," which is even better.
Either one would make a great gift for girls in the 7 to 12 age group, and no doubt a lot of computer-savvy boys would like them too. Outside of some of the more technically spectacular fighting games, there are few CD-ROMs for the younger set that are as cool as Duncan's. Actually, there are few CD-ROMs this cool, period.
The wildly heralded "Chop Suey," released in 1995 and still available, was a wonderful alternative to the usual storybook CD-ROMs that tried their darndest to imitate print books.
"Chop Suey" went beyond the linear format to allow a child to wander freely through its small town setting, clicking on objects and buildings to create a digital journey. The stars were two girls, and "Chop Suey" was a welcome alternative to the silly, even patronizing CD-ROMs then targeted toward girls.
"Smartypants" is similar in that it is also centered around the adventures of a young girl, it also takes place in a small-town type of setting and the competition is still lame. Duncan's hero this time is Mimi Smartypants, a 9-year-old who loves to read, as we find out in a beautiful opening sequence that depicts Mimi in the fall and winter seasons (the spectacular art direction is by Jeremy Blake).
Come summer, Mimi is off to visit Aunt Olive and Olive's roommate, Rose, in the burbs. From an overhead view, you can choose to go to any of several places--the school, the Pancake Hut, the Dollar Dream discount emporium, the Pix movie theater, etc. As in "Chop Suey," there is nary a chain store nor mall in sight.
Click on the house and you can enter the root cellar, where semi-animated vegetables can be found around a card table playing poker. Up above the garage, where Olive makes jewelry from found objects, you can try your hand at making a necklace (you can print out the results). In the theater you can watch authentic clips from 1930s cartoons and at summer school (taught by nuns from Our Lady of Impossible Sorrow), Mimi takes part in an avant-garde production.
Duncan's writing--there is narration throughout the CD-ROM--is sharp and funny, and Blake's illustrations are great fun. Together, they create a perfect, summer vacation spot.
Perfect to a fault. What "Chop Suey" had over this new CD-ROM was that it depicted a place with a bit of an edge to it. Not really menacing, but deeper in character and more redolent of small-town life.
The people of "Chop Suey" had a sense of melancholy mixed with private joys--a teenage boy who sat alone in his room playing the guitar, a middle-aged singer reduced to gigs in motel lounges, a woman dancing romantically with a gas station attendant in her Chinese lantern-lit backyard.
And although the narrator of "Smartypants" does a nice job, there is probably no one as good a match for Duncan's writing as David Sedaris, the writer and radio essayist whose readings were one of the highlights of "Chop Suey."
You can't go far wrong with either of Duncan's CD-ROMs, but "Chop Suey" is the one that resonates in your memory long after the computer is turned off.
"Smartypants" is available by mail order only (call toll free,  476-2789). Macintosh and Windows versions are both priced at $34.95.
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