Creatures
PUBLISHER: Mindscape
DEVELOPER: Cyberlife Technology

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS: P60, 16MB RAM, Win3.1/95
CATEGORY: Real-Time Strategy

Review by: Jim Brumbaugh
Published: July 16, 1997

Life is a precious commodity. When new life is created, it must be cared for, nurtured, and taught to understand right from wrong. As it grows older, it may reproduce and create offspring. It should be kept as healthy as possible, until such time as it grows old and dies. If caring for another living thing sounds interesting, but you don't feel as though you have the time or the money to create a new, sentient being of your own, then Mindscape's Creatures will let you experiment with "life" while keeping your schedule and your checkbook in tact.

Creatures is a product which allows the user to create artificial life on his PC. I deliberately use the terms "product" and "user" as opposed to "game" and "player" respectively for good reason. You see, Creatures is not as much of a "game" as it is a simulated "experience". There is no real beginning and no true ending, and there is no goal aside from conceiving as many generations of creatures as the user can possibly breed.

It all begins in the Hatchery, where the user selects one of the six included eggs for the purpose of hatching it. After selecting the egg, it is wisest to place it in the Incubator in order that it is encouraged to hatch quickly. After a few moments, the inside of the egg begins to stir and a new creature is hatched shortly thereafter. This creature is called a Norn, and it is now the user's responsibility to raise it properly.

The first task is for the user is to teach his creature everything there is to know in the world of Albia, the mythical setting for this product. He can begin by guiding his new hatchling up to the Computer, which is only one level above the Incubator. This can be accomplished by enticing the hatchling toward the elevator with the use of a toy, or merely by encouraging the newborn to follow the cursor-hand, which is the way the youngster envisions his virtual parent. Pressing the left mouse button will push the index finger of the cursor-hand and will activate objects, and once the hatchling is loaded in the elevator, pressing the elevator button will begin the steady climb to the next floor. The creature can be attracted out of the elevator by pressing a button on the Computer. The Computer contains fourteen words, each one representing a core concept in the product. Words like "Stop," "Sleep," "Yes" and "Drop" are just a few examples. The computer will play the word and display an image of the represented action. The Norn will respond with a typed word in a thought balloon, as well as with a spoken word in the Norn native language. After a few tries at each word, the baby Norn understands the concept and repeats every word correctly.

Training is based upon reward and punishment, and the words "Yes" and "No" help to provide reinforcement. The user can also use the cursor-hand to scratch the nose of a Norn to accentuate a job well done, or can similarly slap the backside of one that is not paying attention.

Life is a precious commodity. When new life is created, it must be cared for, nurtured, and taught to understand right from wrong. As it grows older, it may reproduce and create offspring. It should be kept as healthy as possible, until such time as it grows old and dies. If caring for another living thing sounds interesting, but you don't feel as though you have the time or the money to create a new, sentient being of your own, then Mindscape's Creatures will let you experiment with "life" while keeping your schedule and your checkbook in tact.

Creatures is a product which allows the user to create artificial life on his PC. I deliberately use the terms "product" and "user" as opposed to "game" and "player" respectively for good reason. You see, Creatures is not as much of a "game" as it is a simulated "experience". There is no real beginning and no true ending, and there is no goal aside from conceiving as many generations of creatures as the user can possibly breed.

It all begins in the Hatchery, where the user selects one of the six included eggs for the purpose of hatching it. After selecting the egg, it is wisest to place it in the Incubator in order that it is encouraged to hatch quickly. After a few moments, the inside of the egg begins to stir and a new creature is hatched shortly thereafter. This creature is called a Norn, and it is now the user's responsibility to raise it properly.

The first task is for the user is to teach his creature everything there is to know in the world of Albia, the mythical setting for this product. He can begin by guiding his new hatchling up to the Computer, which is only one level above the Incubator. This can be accomplished by enticing the hatchling toward the elevator with the use of a toy, or merely by encouraging the newborn to follow the cursor-hand, which is the way the youngster envisions his virtual parent. Pressing the left mouse button will push the index finger of the cursor-hand and will activate objects, and once the hatchling is loaded in the elevator, pressing the elevator button will begin the steady climb to the next floor. The creature can be attracted out of the elevator by pressing a button on the Computer. The Computer contains fourteen words, each one representing a core concept in the product. Words like "Stop," "Sleep," "Yes" and "Drop" are just a few examples. The computer will play the word and display an image of the represented action. The Norn will respond with a typed word in a thought balloon, as well as with a spoken word in the Norn native language. After a few tries at each word, the baby Norn understands the concept and repeats every word correctly.

Training is based upon reward and punishment, and the words "Yes" and "No" help to provide reinforcement. The user can also use the cursor-hand to scratch the nose of a Norn to accentuate a job well done, or can similarly slap the backside of one that is not paying attention.

Graphics:4 Stars The graphics are gorgeous, and although the Creatures documentation suggests running in 640x480 resolution, there is absolutely no reason for this product to run in a resolution that low. I ran in 1024x768x16-bit color, and I resized the Albia map window so that it filled the entire screen. The screenshots on the next page will give you some idea of the huge amount of area that I was able to display at one time, which is a helpful thing to do. Since the map extends off both edges of the screen, it is sometimes impossible to get to a certain area of the map unless a Norn is actually present in that area. So, the more area the user can show on his map, the more map he will be able to access. There is a convenient set of bookmarks which can be set and saved, so that once the player has visited a specific location on the map, he can mark it and go back to it without having to have a creature there. I find the creatures of Creatures to be a rather unattractive bunch, which detracts somewhat from my satisfaction with the graphics. I read that the creatures are supposed to be a cross between a dog, a cat and a deer, but to me, they look more like Ren and Stimpy meets Mickey Mouse on crack!

Interface:4 Stars Although the interface was usable, I was not always happy with amount of typing I was forced to do. This is the primary method of communicating with the Norns, and I quickly discovered that limiting each creature to a two- or three-letter name was quite advantageous, as it cut down on the amount of typing required. There is a drop-down box which retains the last several typed commands, but I found that it took almost as much time to access that box as it did to simply retype commands. The menu system in Creatures is highly user-friendly, and the applets open with tabs across the top to guide the user into making the proper selection. Even though some of the icons are not instantly recognizable as to the function they represent, popup help appears on every button in the menu area of the screen. Not only does the game install in a snap, the Win95 applets are also very easy to install. One major complaint that I have is that the game only has one saved game slot, which is written when the user exits the title. There were times when I wish I could have saved a game before I tried something new, or just before the Grendel wandered into my territory and I was unable to stop him. In Creatures, you play without the ability to restore from selected previous positions, which is rather unfortunate since it is the simulated "life" that pays for the user's mistakes.

Gameplay:4 Stars The main reason that Gameplay rates only four stars is due to the fact that I could not get these little buggers to do what I told them to do. Trying to teach them to eat was a definite challenge, and when I would try to transport them on a cart or in the suspended basket to another part of the map, some creature would invariably change the direction of the vehicle. Since the Grendel is such a danger to the Norns, I think there needs to be a way to discourage the Grendel from coming around. Perhaps I am too used to other titles in which I can set traps and mines, but there were times I really wish I could have shocked the Grendel into running the other way. Twice he infected my Norn population with a disease, and once, he managed to wipe out six of my little creatures. Either the Norns need to have the ability to be taught to stay away from the Grendel, or the player needs to be given some type of a "weapon" to use in Norn-defense. Although the manual has only a little useful information, there are extensive on-line help files which will help to guide the player through the rough spots. There is also an introductory "tutorial" full-motion video presentation, which will introduce the player to the basics of the simulation.

Sound FX:4.5 Stars Eventually, I became annoyed that the Norns had their own language. Since the words in their word balloons were English, I would have liked it better had the Norns also spoken English, when possible. Although a different set of nonsense syllables was used for each different word, I think it would have been interesting to actually hear the thoughts of these creatures in English. One nice touch to the Sound FX is the fact that they are spatially sensitive, and as a speaking creature moves off to one side of the screen, so does his voice. Even though the FX are all 8-bit WAV files, the manner in which they are used by the software is quite realistic.

Musical Score:3 Stars There was really very little score in this title, and what little I noticed generally stayed in the background with a spacey, ethereal tone. Since there is so much chatter constantly going on between the Norns, there is not much time to even observe whether or not a musical score is playing.

Intelligence:3 Stars The intelligence of the Norns bothered me at times, because I would find that a word which was spelled incorrectly was being passed down from generation to generation. In addition, training a Norn to recognize an object can sometimes be a very difficult task. First his attention must be gained, and then it must be drawn to the object being named, and finally, the player must then begin typing furiously. If there are other Norns around, they can begin saying different words and confuse the one that the player is trying to teach. It is also possible to name something in error, because the Norn will equate whatever it is looking at with the word that the player is typing. If the Norn is looking at a ball and the player reinforces the word "food" enough times, that's how the Norn will interpret this object. He may also train the other Norns to recognize the object using the word he has learned, and soon, this improper descriptor will be an infestation throughout the player's Norn family. I also had difficulty controlling diseases, as I mentioned earlier. Finally, there were many instances in which I would clearly tell a Norn what I wanted him to do, only to have him ignore me. I would give him a little slap on the rump, and before long, he would run the other way whenever the cursor-hand wandered into his vicinity. In summary, controlling these creatures is not a simple task. I would have felt a little more rewarded had this been a little easier to do.

Overall:4 Stars For someone who is interested in applying Genetics, DNA and Chemistry to their gaming experience, Creatures is an outstanding title. For any game player who is questioning his level of interest in these subjects, make certain that you purchase Creatures with your eyes open. I predict that the nature of this title will lead to many die-hard players producing and distributing their own applets, creating a kind of continual, unlimited support mechanism for this product. This sort of game cries out for the release of a strategy guide, and although I have no idea if one is planned or not, I would certainly find it to be interesting reading. With a few improvements to controlling the creatures of this world, Creatures is something that I could conceivably have running in the Win95 background for months to come.


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