GAMING & GRAPHICS
Vol.33 No.2 May 1999
Everything Old is New Again: Remaking Computer Games
Richard Rouse III
Several months ago, it was with a great deal of horror that I learned that "coming soon" was a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, one of my favorite movies by one of my favorite directors, and a film that is universally agreed to be a masterpiece. Why would anyone do such a thing? What hope would anyone have of bettering or even approaching the brilliance of the 1960 original? Why would they even bother to try? Beyond just seeming like a bad idea for the likelihood of inferiority to the original, remaking the film seemed to somehow be a disturbing proposition, that seemed in some way insulting to the existence of the original -- surely motivated primarily by commercial considerations
It was with some confusion that I learned that director Gus Van Sant -- whose work I had thus far enjoyed very much -- including My Own Private Idaho and To Die For -- was directing the remake, a project which he had personally wanted to undertake. What was this seemingly talented filmmaker doing working on such wretched stuff? From the fabulous commercial success of his previous picture -- Good Will Hunting -- it seemed he was unlikely to be in a financial bind and desperate for work, so why would he undertake such a dubious project? Not only was Psycho being remade, but also it was to be a shot-for-shot remake. While not exactly a unique concept (many foreign films had been remade in Hollywood over the years using this technique), it's something you hardly ever hear filmmakers owning up to -- how original can he or she be if they are refilming another's work? When one of my favorite film critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, blasted the film with both barrels giving it a "Worthless" rating, my worst fears were confirmed, and I stayed away from the remake.
The irony of all this is that I was Lead Designer on the recent remake of the computer game, Centipede. One of my favorite computer games of all time, the original Centipede as designed by Ed Logg and Donna Bailey is just as much an undisputed masterpiece in the computer game industry as Psycho is in the film industry. Though not exactly a project I'd been hoping to work on for year, when the opportunity came up to work on Centipede I jumped at the chance. Why was it that I viewed remaking Centipede as acceptable, while Psycho was such an apparently bad idea? Subsequent reflection on this paradox made me think of the different way I perceived a "classic" film and a "classic" computer game, and the worthiness of remaking either in terms of my perception of their mediums as a whole.
I should first clarify that I often find myself taking exception to computer game and movie analogies when they're used in the computer game industry. As an art form, I see computer games and movies as dissimilar as computer games and music. However, both are extremely commercial art forms; art forms whose content -- or at least the widely seen content -- is in no small part determined by economic conditions (to put it simply -- which projects get funded and which projects get canceled or together ignored is largely determined by financial considerations). As such, making comparisons between films and computer games in commercial terms is, I think, a bit more justified. Both industries feature systems where the creation of a commercially viable product is an extraordinarily expensive proposition, requiring extensive funding, and subsequent distillation of artistic vision is often a direct result.
The Compulsion to Remake
Rosenbaum recently cut to the heart of the matter of remakes in the film industry in one of his movie reviews (a review of one independent filmmaker's endeavor to remake an obscure 1960s documentary, Shulie). He questions: "What is it about American culture that compels the film industry to do remakes? The compulsion has been growing over the past two decades... Since the '80s we've been inundated with more cultural objects than ever before, but we have less and less sense of what to do with them. It's easy to explain the Hollywood remake syndrome as unimaginative cost accounting: it made money before, why not do it again? Then there's the expanding youth market, which encourages unimaginative cost accountants to figure that former hits can be recycled for younger generations -- one of the justifications offered by Gus Van Sant for his forthcoming remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho."
The points that Rosenbaum makes explaining Hollywood's current compulsion to remake at every turn are even more pertinent in the computer game industry. Though I'm only guessing, I'd say that 75 percent of all commercial games released in the past year -- at least those that were sold through standard retail channels -- were either a sequel or remake, or were in some way based on a licensed property. As such, marketing directors become concerned that every title must have some way to "pop" off the shelf at buyers, and those without some sort of a name brand -- be it the name of a previous hit game or the face of a famous sports star -- find themselves apparently at a disadvantage. Further complicating matters is the fact that computer game sequels tend to make more money than the original work upon which they are based. I've heard several different game industry executives explain that, while in the movie business sequels tend to make 75 percent of the gross of the movie they're a sequel to, in the computer game world sequels tend to make 125 percent the gross of their predecessor. And so the incentive to churn out an endless chain of sequels and remakes becomes too much for many gaming business folks to resist.
Furthermore, the "expanding youth market" Rosenbaum refers to is even more prevalent in the world of interactive entertainment. Computer games have long been stigmatized as a "kids product" and certainly a larger portion of the gaming market is made of under-18 -year-olds than the same age group is a portion of the film-going public. And so it makes sense to sell games to kids that have already been successfully sold to kids 15 years ago, shilling as new and exciting the games that are merely retreads of yesterday's hits.
Of course the biggest trouble of all may be the computer gaming industry's own inferiority complex. Today, next to no one will argue with the assertion that films are art -- not even the most uncreative executive at the highest level of the most commercial film studio. But in the world of computer games, many of the programmers don't even perceive their work as art, let alone the producers and marketeers. Recently, I was hard at work on a project, with a number of programmers and producers standing around. I quipped that, of course, none of us were doing this for the money, really, that there were easier ways to make as much if not more money, suggesting that we were doing this for the love of games, for the art of it all. I was taken aback when nearly all present looked at me dumbfounded, saying that if they did know a better way to make money they'd be doing that instead, and "what on earth was I talking about"! Of course I had encountered this mind-set before, yet it never fails to surprise me the number of people in our industry who don't even stop to consider if there's any art in what they're creating.
Why not go for the simplest way to make the most money, to sell the most units? If there's no art to it, why not be a businessman through and through? Why even try to come up with something new and original? When an old retread is much more likely to move the product than the much more risky proposition of something no one's ever seen before, why bother trying something fresh? It seems an obvious conclusion that it is commerce, not creativity, which drives game executives to constantly fund the retooling of past successes.
All of this isn't to say that creating a remake or sequel cannot be a valid and successfully artistic endeavor. It seems that Super Mario 64, as designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, is a shining example of how a game based heavily on a preceding one can be an invigorating piece of art that stands on its own, working with the qualities of its predecessor and refining them into something new and exciting. Even in the extreme case of the new Psycho, which was a "shot-for-shot" remake of Hitchcock's original -- using nearly exactly the same script, stagings and camera set-ups -- the resulting work isn't inherently flawed, as long as the reasons for the remake were not merely a fast grab for some cash. As Rosenbaum said in his review of the remade Psycho: "Theoretically a nearly shot-by-shot, line-by-line remake of any movie could produce something marvelous, fresh and revelatory, at least if an artist had a viable artistic program to go with it."
Figures 1a and 1b: Centipede (1980) and Centipede (1998). Many players who see the new Centipede and who have played the original are instantly reminded of the classic since the mushrooms and insects look relatively similar. A lot was added to the game, however.
Figures 2a and 2b: Frogger (1982) and Frogger (1997). The new Frogger does one of the best jobs of visually reminding the player of its predecessor, especially on the first few levels. After those, however, the game moves into a wide variety of completely new environments.
Figures 3a and 3b: Battlezone (1980) and Battlezone (1998). A fan favorite among hard-core gaming enthusiasts, the new Battlezone doesn’t bear much visual resemblance to its predecessor, but the sparse nature of the original’s graphics made replicating them a challenge.
Figures 4a and 4b: Sinistar (1983) and Sinistar Unleashed (anticipated in 1999). From the screen-shot on the bottom, a game player wouldn’t realize they were playing a remake of the original Sinistar. But Sinistar Unleashed is still in development, so the resemblance may yet be made stronger.
Figures 5a and 5b: Tempest (1981) and Tempest 2000 (1994). The graphical inspiration is obvious, but Jeff Minter’s Tempest 2000 took the surreal look of Dave Theurer’s Tempest to new levels of drugged-out, hallucinatory visuals.
In terms of computer games, then, what sort of qualities would one look for in a remake to determine if it had successfully avoided becoming a "piece of dead meat"? Speaking as a designer, the central object of concern for me working on a remake would be the gameplay of the original game. Figuring out how exactly that gameplay functioned and how the different aspects of the game came together to create a stimulating experience are concepts one must first grasp in order to understand what can succeed in a remake.
Often remakes are referred to as "modernizations" of the originals, with the decision to modernize more a business choice than an artistic prerogative. Publishers want games which will "fit in" today's marketplace, and which will at once remind gamers of the games they played long ago, while maintaining some sort of familiarity with the other games currently being released. These "other games" being released today are extraordinarily different from the arcade games of the early '80s -- in their means of delivery alone, the games could not be more dissimilar. The old games were sold to the consumer quarter by quarter; if the player wanted to keep playing, they had to keep putting money in the machine. The remakes are -- for the most part -- aimed at the home market, be it PC or console, and as such are sold to their purchasers only once. Home gamers, it would seem, want a game that they can finish, something that they can play for a while and then put on the shelf, having without question "beaten" it. (Arguments could be made that this is not necessarily what all home gamers want, but certainly the businessmen have decided conclusively this is the sort of game people will want).
Classic arcade games -- such as Centipede, Battlezone, Frogger and Sinistar -- were very much an artistic form of computer entertainment, a form with a very definite set of rules, just as Haiku has a very specific set of parameters which regulate whether or not a given poem conforms or not. For instance, all classic arcade games offered the potential for infinite play. Indeed winning the game was impossible; the game continued until the player lost all his lives. Most classic games offered this concept of lives, where the player could fail or "die" a certain number of times before their game was up. They adhered to a simple, easy to pick up control scheme; after a minute of play, anyone could fully understand the controls.
Obvious as they may seem, it is easy for game players to become confused as to what the rules of the form are. One reviewer of the new Centipede, for instance, questioned in his review, "what would a shooter be without powerups?" (Editor's note: Powerups are typically special enhanced weapons that the player can pick up as the game progresses; these can be temporary or permanent.) It is true that the new version of Centipede has powerups. However, the original Centipede has no powerups, and is in many ways a definitive "shooter." Even once these rules of the classic arcade game form are determined, the commercial demands of the marketplace -- be they real or as created by the financiers -- demand that one cannot release that form of game and hope to make any money with it. The designer who endeavors to make a successful remake must consider how to get the gameplay mechanics of the classic game to work in a game environment which breaks many of the rules which allowed that gameplay to work in the first place.
Maintaining some continuity with a classic game's audio and visual stylings will also often prove difficult in the process of a modernized remake. Computer technology having advanced the way it has, the more minimalist graphics found in games created 15 years ago would be found unacceptable to modern producers. Even more troubling is the recent trend toward fully 3D games, which invariably lead project managers to decree that all games must be 3D, even if such a decision isn't particularly conducive to maintaining the graphical appearance of the original, perhaps even proving detrimental to the gameplay.
(As an aside, a particularly glaring demonstration of this is the recently released fully 3D game based on the South Park cartoon show. The show features art of a very cheap-looking and certainly 2D nature, something one would think developers would want to preserve in a computer version. But, apparently, this did not occur to the creators of the game who seem so thoroughly locked in the 3D mind-set that the thought of anything else is out of the question.)
Needless to say, maintaining the look of a minimalist 2D game in invariably low-polygon 3D art presents challenges that may be all but insurmountable. Often graphic artists manage to maintain the game's original logo and general look-and-feel in the new game's menu system and title art. The in-game graphics for the new Centipede, for instance, bare little relation to the appearance of the original game. The design for the Centipede itself is based more on the hand-drawn art that appeared on the side of the stand-up arcade version of Centipede than the art that actually appeared in the game itself. But by maintaining the segmented nature and movement patterns of the original Centipede's behavior, some visual similarities -- perhaps better described as echoes -- are maintained. And by replicating or limiting the modifications to the AI of the original creatures, visual rhymes are created in the playfields in Centipede. Though all the creatures look quite different from their counterparts in the classic, by moving in similar patterns the visuals in the game tend to remind the player of the original.
Some Recent Examples
The classic arcade games remade recently have been, in my opinion, successful to varying degrees. The new Frogger is probably the most commercially successful of the lot, appealing to a very mainstream audience who may remember playing the simple jumping game years ago, or who may just like the whimsical, non-violent and simple gameplay. The game does a good job of maintaining the core gameplay of the original, while expanding the environments that gameplay can function into a number of different worlds, far beyond the scope of the original. Even the visual appearance of the classic is brought to mind in the graphics of the new game, particularly in the early levels that most resemble the classic gameplay. This visual similarity exists despite the fact that these new graphics are in low-polygon 3D. It would appear that the game succeeds as a remake, maintaining the core gameplay while enhancing it in fresh new ways.
But as a game it seems that Frogger fails. Many of the more "hard-core" game players have tended to dislike the new Frogger intensely. It is mainly marred by imprecise controls and a too-small viewing area (the game maintains the overhead camera of the original -- a very good thing -- but zooms the camera in to such an extent that players don't get a large enough view of the world they're hopping through, thus making the navigation of those environments more difficult than it should be). With sometimes overly complex and confusing environments (what area can I safely jump to?), the game provides frustration to the more experienced game player. Of course, how can a work be a success as a remake and a failure as a game? Some would argue it can't.
Nearly the exact opposite problem plagues the remake of Battlezone, which I would suggest succeeds expertly as a game, while failing miserably as a remake. Carey Chico, lead artist on the remake of Battlezone (a game originally designed by Ed Rotberg), wrote an essay describing its creation for Computer Graphics 32(2) May 1998. In it he describes his initial reaction to the Battlezone assignment: "'What?!' I responded. 'You want to remake an old vector graphics tank battle game?' To be honest, I wasn't particularly happy with the concept, never having been thrilled at taking what someone else has done, and trying to one-up it." Chico didn't find the prospect of working on a remake very appealing at first, but soon changed his mind: "So when it came for us to decide on the Battlezone license, everything came down to concept. Did our idea fit within the Battlezone universe? Did our game have the innovation needed to be connected with such a well-respected game? Our answer was 'yes.' We were set on creating what was to be, at the time, a new hybrid of gaming: taking the fast pace and visually engrossing world of action games and combining this with the intelligence and sophistication of a real-time strategy game."
Unfortunately the original Battlezone had nothing whatsoever to do with strategy gaming, instead fitting very much into the classic arcade game form, despite the fact that it was in vector 3D. From Chico's article it would appear that the Battlezone team had in mind a game that it wanted to create -- a real-time strategy and action hybrid. They then decided -- when it was suggested that a licensed remake would help the game stand out on the shelves -- that they would make their new hybrid game, regardless of how unsuited it would be to classic Battlezone. What results is a game that's quite stimulating to play (and which was universally praised by the hard-core gamers of the press) but which in the end bears very little semblance to the game it purports to be remaking. There's nothing very "arcady" about the remade Battlezone as designed by George Collins with Jens Andersen and Will Stahl. The elegant simplicity of the original title has been replaced by an impressively complex near-simulation, a game which may break new ground in gameplay but which fails to recall the original Battlezone.
A remake of Noah Falstein's Sinistar is currently in development, under the title Sinistar Unleashed. Though one must reserve judgment until the final game is available to play, a recent preview in Next Generation magazine brings up some potential problems with this particular remake. "Retrofitting may be the best word to describe what GameFX has done with Out of the Void, the name Sinistar Unleashed was called when we originally previewed it 20 issues ago..." Starting with an existing game, developer GameFX hopes to transform it into something close enough to Sinistar that they can sell it under that name in good conscience. But is their own artistic agenda to remake Sinistar, then, or to release the game they were working on before the notion of remaking the classic game ever came up? Next Generation continues: "Of course, as the danger ramps up, players will gain access to new ships. And will any of them look like the ship from the original Sinistar? 'No' was [designer Walter] Wright's surprising answer. 'Rather than trying to take Sinistar and put it into 3D,' he explains, 'we tried to develop the idea of the original Sinistar as a contemporary one, given the tools we've got.' While GameFX should be commended for expanding the Sinistar universe, it seems they they've dismissed all of the visual inspiration of the original... As GameFX's ship is exactly the same as it was when the game was called Out of The Void, Next Generation can't help but to point out to its readers that the team seems to be somewhat attached to the former project."
The fault here may of course not be GameFX's, but may be that of a publisher who decided to force a license on an existing game, the one GameFX is so reluctant to let go of. This situation may lead to results similar to the new Battlezone's problem: a great game but a poor remake. When remaking a game and selling it under the title of an old favorite, the developer has a responsibility to make their game a remake the original game, not simply rename their own game after the classic in order to boost sales. In all fairness, though, we will have to look at the final incarnation of Sinistar Unleashed before we decide how successful a tribute it is.
Classic Game Replication
One tactic that some developers are taking in remaking classic games is to include the actual classic game, or a very close replica of it, along with the modernized version. This was the tactic taken by Jeff Minter's Tempest 2000, a remake of Dave Theurer's Tempest game from the golden age of Atari. (Editor's note: Jeff Minter authored "Computer Gaming's New World" in the Artist's View column, Computer Graphics 31(1) February 1997.) Included with Tempest 2000 was an exact replica of the original Tempest, or at least the intention was for it to be exact, along with a new "modernized" version. (Interestingly, it appears that Minter was allowed by his publisher to create an updating that was very much in the form of a classic arcade game; it didn't have to conform to any of the traditional modern home game's rules, nor did it look much like any of the games that were coming out at the same time. This was one of the first commercially released classic arcade game remakes to come out, and this might explain why it was allowed to stay true to the form of the game it was remaking; the 'suits' hadn't yet figured out that their focus groups wanted remakes to look as much like other modern games as possible.) Unfortunately I haven't played Tempest 2000 very much, so I cannot speak to how well the original game is recreated in the "exact" replica.
The new Centipede includes a classic replica as well, something the publisher wanted to have to firmly root the game in its history. Unfortunately the classic game recreation found in Centipede has been almost universally dismissed by those playing it, many preferring to go straight for the modernized game. The classic recreation found in the PC version of Centipede features game mechanics which strive to be identical to the classic Centipede, while rendering all of the art in 3D and inclining the playfield 45 degrees in order to firmly establish in the viewer's eye that this recreation has "new and improved" 3D graphics. One can easily tell by this strikingly different graphical style that this isn't the original game.
For the Sony PlayStation version of the new Centipede, however, the decision was made to take the recreation of the classic game one step farther, and actually use the same graphics as the classic, rendered in 2D. For the PlayStation version the game looks nearly exactly like the original, yet the gameplay is not precisely the same. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the release schedule involved and the general impossibility of precisely determining insect behaviors based on observation alone, this classic recreation will never exactly replicate the original Centipede. As a result, I think, this replica has a deleterious effect on the entire enterprise. For here we have a game masquerading as the original, which to the untrained observer will look exactly like the original Centipede, and to those who have never played the original may actually conclude that this is the original. However, it is not as finely tuned as the original was, and as a result new players of the game who mistakenly think this is the real classic Centipede will be left with a false impression of it.
Here, then, is a game which has a direct parallel to the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho which so disturbed me, something which seeks to popularize a classic for a "new generation" but which presents something flawed and inferior, with nothing original or new to say. Though the inclusion of this classic Centipede recreation to be sold with the modernized version of Centipede posed interesting technical challenges in its creation, it is easy to get lost in such work, not really thinking of whether the game is going to be relevant to anyone. The entire proposition of creating a new work of art solely to "popularize a classic" seems absurd to me. Why not just allow them to play the actual, authentic original? Gus Van Sant gave the following reasons for remaking Psycho as he did: "I felt that, sure, there were film students, cinephiles, and people in the business who were familiar with Psycho, but that there was also a whole generation of moviegoers who probably hadn't seen it. I thought this was a way of popularizing a classic, a way I'd never seen done before. It was like staging a contemporary production of a classic play while remaining true to the original." Rosenbaum, in his review of Psycho, is quick to point out that "To ensure that Hitchcock's classic gets popularized Universal stopped distributing it on video and laser disc a month ago." What's so repulsive to me in this whole proposition is that, to a new generation of viewers, this recreation that doesn't come close to the vibrancy of original will be the Psycho they know, that since they've seen this newer version they won't need to hunt down the original in a revival theater. Here the remake attempts to replace the original, to take its place in history, which seems a decidedly amoral action. In the end, without bringing something new to the table, an attempt at a precise recreation of a classic to show off to modern audiences seems to be only so much artistic self-indulgence.
Emulation is the Answer
The recent flood of emulators in the gaming community -- mostly available free on the Internet -- represent a better way to reexperience classic games from 15 years ago. These programs successfully simulate old arcade or console hardware, allowing long out-of-use games to be played on modern computers. Some emulators have even been released commercially, bundled with scads of games from the past, functioning exactly as they did before. Game Week, a trade magazine dealing with the business side of gaming and in which readers will find nary an artistic thought, inclination or tendency, talked of the current "retro-gaming" trend in a recent issue. "This isn't another 'retro-gaming' fad where 2600s and NES [games] are dug out of the closet; rather it is all new software that is based on classic games." The article speaks derisively of the rereleasing under emulation of classic games, but it seems that this is a far more effective, authentic and, in an industry which seems to quickly forget about games from a few years ago, this is a fabulous way to replay past games, to analyze and study past works. Looking at what works have come before is something artists in all mediums do, and without these emulators this revisiting of games gone by is all but impossible. By including the classic game under emulation, modern remakes can allow the user to experience both the original as it was meant to be experienced, and then play the remake it inspired.
I think an important part of doing a remake is to never deny the existence of the original, to never pretend that you are in some way replacing that work. Something that may not seem as all that big a deal but which I think is symptomatic of a larger problem is the naming of recently released computer game remakes. Frogger, Battlezone and Centipede all shared their name with the original games, despite the fact that they are all completely different gaming experiences. When a movie is remade the plot and characters are usually kept the same, and so it may make sense that the name is retained as well. Psycho in its remade form, whether it be superior or inferior to the original work, still earns the right to be called Psycho. Battlezone, Frogger and Centipede all bear some relationship to the original (the latter two more than Battlezone, I would argue) but introduce so much new material, in addition to the fact that they are home consumer products instead of arcade machines, that they really should be named something unique. Yet in all three cases the publishers have opted to not name then something on the order of "Centipede Returns" but instead just copy the name of the originals. To me, this indicates that these works are meant to replace the older, now all but inaccessible works. Tempest 2000 and the forthcoming Sinistar Unleashed both opted to modify their titles to indicate their new form, which better communicates that they desire to supplement, not supplant, the original works. This seems a more honest approach to the whole remaking process.
Of course not all remakes even use the name of the game they are remaking. Eugene Jarvis, designer of the classic Robotron 2084, has referred to Smash TV -- a game he worked on some five years later -- as the spiritual successor to the original Robotron. Similarly, Interplay recently released Fallout, a game obviously inspired by their game of some 10 years earlier, Wasteland, a title which they no longer had the rights to. In both these cases, then, we see a driving artistic vision leading the way to a remake, where commerce seems to be less of a concern, since the name of the game being remade isn't even used, and hence no "branding" has occurred. These games were remade because someone felt they could do something new and interesting with the concept, not because they could easily cash in on nostalgia.
So what were my motivations in working on Centipede? Why had I jumped at the chance to remake a classic, when the thought of someone remaking Psycho horrified me so much? I must confess that in part I realized that a remake of Centipede was sure to get lots of mainstream attention, would be "noticed" so to speak, and it seems that nearly all artists, on some level, want to be noticed. But I also saw the opportunity to take the arcade gameplay of Centipede and make it function in a new sort of interactive environment, using modern norms of game design. The arcade style of gameplay -- with multiple lives, a high score, a "one-hit-one-death" combat system, simple controls and a nearly never ending swarm of enemies to overcome -- is a mechanism not very prevalent in today's gaming environment, and as such Centipede could again be seen as something fresh and interesting. By combining the gameplay style of the original with a new artistic program, the new Centipede could be a game that could stand on its own, while allowing the player to remember the old classic. Whether or not the new Centipede succeeded at this is something for others to decide. On reflection upon remakes, I no longer see the recreation of Psycho as a necessarily flawed endeavor or failure; one would have to judge the film itself to decide that for sure. And in turn the remaking of such a great game as Centipede seems not such an inherently flawed proposition!
Richard Rouse III|
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|Richard Rouse III is actually still working at Leaping Lizard Software on the PlayStation version of the remade Centipede, which they assure him will be all done by next Christmas. The PC version of Centipede made it out for last Christmas, and the credits for that game list Richard as Lead Designer and AI Programmer. Previously he released Odyssey -- The Legend of Nemesis and Damage Incorporated under the Paranoid Productions banner. He really hopes to get away from doing any sort of remakes for a good long time to come, perhaps concentrating instead on his career as a film buff. You can read Jonathan Rosenbaum's film reviews on the Web at http://www.chireader.com. Your feedback to this column is encouraged at the address on the left.|