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CD-ROMs Make Learning History Fun, Interactive

Sometime between the Bronze Age and the Age of the CD-ROM, I slogged through fifth grade. Back then, we learned history from a textbook - the one with the colorful conquistadors on the front. Unfortunately, as every fifth-grader knew, the textbook was far too heavy to be interesting.

Today, thanks to CD-ROMs, history is multimedia. It's interactive. It's fun.

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I know this because for several weeks, I've stayed up late playing Louis Cat Orze. Louis is a CD-ROM tabby with an adorable quasi-French accent. He takes players back in time to 17th-century France, where we meet a princess, the young Duke of Burgundy, and many historical figures at Versailles palace.

As players solve the mysterious disappearance of a precious necklace, they learn about court life under Louis XIV. The multimedia adventure doesn't offer the social and political sweep of a good history book, but it gives a far better feel for the way things were. Louis shows how people dressed, what they ate, and, if needed, helps us escape from the dreaded Bastille. Adults will like it as much as 10-year-olds.

Before Louis Cat Orze, I tried Oregon Trail II. Players follow the 19th-century trail to stake their claim out West. To get there, they have to stock their wagons, cross treacherous rivers, and watch out for hidden dangers.

To get advice on avoiding these traps, players talk to settlers they meet along the way and read their frontier guide. I would have liked a little less emphasis on the diseases the settlers encountered, but I might be prejudiced: On my first trip West, I died of thirst in a California desert.

If you prefer contemporary political history, try Reelect JFK. The game starts with the premise that President Kennedy survived the Dallas shooting and is running for reelection. Players take on the role of Kennedy as he campaigns, investigates the assassination plot, and, oh yes, deals with that little matter in Vietnam.

Reelect JFK is bolder than the other two programs in its subject matter and use of technology. There are so many variables in presidential life that I found the simulation a little restrictive in the choices it offered me. Also, the program uses a lot of full-motion video, which is jerky even on my souped-up computers. Still, if you like political intrigue, this could be your game.

You'll certainly need a powerful computer to run these CD-ROMs: at least a 486-class machine running Windows 3.1 or a Macintosh LC III equipped with System 7.1, eight megabytes of random-access memory, and a double-speed CD-ROM drive. (Readers should note that Louis Cat Orze runs only on Windows machines. Buyers of Oregon Trail II should make sure they get version 1.2 to avoid sluggish game play.)

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Because these are historical simulations, designed for authenticity, a few scenes may offend certain players. Oregon Trail forces some players to shoot game to stay alive. Louis Cat Orze shows characters attending church but mentally plotting out their next move at Versailles. At one point, to illustrate how many layers of clothes were worn in that era, Louis invites players to partially undress one of the king's daughters. No bad pictures here, but it's a little suggestive in the context of an interact ive children's adventure.

This software category is so new, it's hard to know what to call it. Louis Cat Orze resembles a novel: Once players solve the mystery, they probably won't go back to it. Oregon Trail plays like a game. There are enough levels of difficulty and variables that players who like their first trek will want to try again and again.

Expect more history adventures on CD-ROM: a trek through Mayan ruins, a Watergate-era simulation, and maybe an American trip for my favorite quasi-French cat.

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