Prez CD-ROM: Zonker for President

While political junkies have to wait more than a year to find out who will win the White House, the digirati can peer into the future in just a couple of weeks when Novato-based Mindscape releases The Doonesbury Election Game: Campaign '96. This Windows CD-ROM is a silly-faced but deeply serious simulation of the battle for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The turn- based game lets you manage a general election campaign -- choosing among some 60 well-known political figures as your candidates. The game uses a wealth of real-world information that makes you feel as though you're in the midst of our nation's most important quadrennial political contest. The candidates -- from Richard Nixon to Hillary Clinton -- reflect their historical personalities with ratings for 11 personal attributes such as speaking ability, charisma, and credibility. They are also defined by their stances on 15 key issues. And voter attitudes on those issues are reflected in the 50 states and 450 cities represented in the game. The key to winning involves mastering the art of politics: deft handling of campaign logistics combined with skillful appeals for the electorate's heart. Under development for more than three years and costing some $1.5 million, The Doonesbury Election Game is the brainchild of Portland, Ore., writer and game designer Randy Chase. In 1992 Chase developed a similar election simulation that failed because his publisher went out of business. This time around Chase tried to insulate himself from the vagaries of the digitainment market by teaming up with comic strip-meister Garry Trudeau. Mindscape already had a licensing agreement with Trudeau to use his Doonesbury characters, so it seemed like a great idea to try to pump up the sales of Chase's complex simulation by wrapping it in the easy accessibility of Trudeau's ever popular comic strip. But the results are mixed at best. And the fault seems to be Trudeau's. Trudeau was more than a mere licensee; he was essentially the game's "creative director," says Mindscape spokesperson Adrienne Hankin. Trudeau had final approval on all elements of the game, created sketches for many of the 100-plus screens, and took a daily interest in the game's content. The problem is that the Trudeau-inspired look makes this wonderfully rich product feel inconsequential and hackneyed. Worse, Trudeau insisted that the interface, a simulation of a campaign manager's office, reflect the Doonesbury cartoon style. That meant the game's initial environment, an elegant 3-D room you could navigate, had to be scrapped. Instead, we're left with a static and outdated 2-D world. Not all the Trudeau elements are detriments, however. The product's use of 23 of the comic strip's characters adds to the fun. Functioning as advisers and staff, the 'toons help the player manage all aspects of the campaign, including advertising, polling, fund-raising, debates, dirty tricks, and the all-important stump events such as press conferences, rallies, and whistle-stops. What's more, the 'toons bring their Doonesbury quirks to the game. For example, hiring Boopsie, the quintessential blond bimbo, won't do much to boost your candidate's chances. On the other hand, Lacey Davenport, that sure voice of common sense, probably will. The game will also offer players some extra value. Mindscape and Trudeau are planning to sponsor a Doonesbury Town Hall on CompuServe. There players will get information about the real presidential election. Better yet, they will be able to download updates to the game that mirror changes in the actual campaign. If a scandal involving Pat Buchanan, for example, hits the news, Randy Chase can create a similar event for the game. In addition, Chase hopes to offer players two major upgrades, one after the New Hampshire primary and the other after the nominating conventions. That way he can expand the product with some of the 40 features that didn't make it into this version. Unfortunately, Trudeau's bothersome handiwork can't be upgraded out of the game. Doonesbury Election is a worthy effort that deserved a creative honcho who better understood the art of computer game design.

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