ATHENS 2004,


When it comes to the Olympics, not much has changed in the video game world. Twenty-some years ago Konami wore out the thumbs of gamers in arcades and at home with Track and Field -- the only way to win the title was with frenetic, repetitive button-mashing, one button press for each step in a race or other event.

Most of the 25 Olympics events depicted in Athens 2004 will put you at the same risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. The game also offers a similar sort of repetitiveness; a lot of its track and swimming events differ only in their distance. Sony has, however, added a few alternative control methods, the most interesting being the dance pad it sells for use with titles such as Konami's Dance Dance Revolution.

Athens 2004's Party Mode lets one to four players compete in 10 gymnastics and running events by jumping on the right buttons on the mat to make the athletes on the screen move on the screen. (Finally, a video game that counts as exercise!) The option of four-player competition adds some replay value to this title; too bad this doesn't include online gameplay.

At least Athens 2004 looks much better than earlier Olympics titles. Athletes move fluidly instead of like animated sticks, and the venues for weightlifting, swimming, gymnastics, equestrian, skeet-shooting and track-and-field contests all look right. In one respect, they're better than real life: The game shows the Aquatic Center with a roof, while cost and schedule overruns eliminated that amenity.

In other aspects, however, this game falls inexplicably and absurdly short of the genuine article: It lacks real athletes, national anthems, and even the Olympic theme song. -- John Gaudiosi

PlayStation 2, $40



Relational Technology

The first thing to remember about consumer home-remodeling software is that unless your project is tiny, you shouldn't expect to come away with drawings ready to show to the city or county permit office. They're best used to develop detailed ideas that you can take to your architect or contractor.

And for that, Home Designer is among the best of its kind. The developers resisted the temptation to load the program up with extraneous capabilities that look intriguing when touted on the box but don't get much use in practice; in so doing, they managed to keep things relatively simple and intuitive.

Home Designer's two-minute instructional video is highly worth a screening, and the 200-page manual is clear and easy to digest. But where this program shines is the way it allows you to plunge in without much advance reading.

Drawing a basic floor plan, displaying dimensions, is a straightforward, logical process, using an onscreen toolbar divided into "parent" icons (such as walls or doors) and "child" icons (subsets of those other items, such as curved walls or sliding doors). Although these components often come in standard sizes, one of Home Designer's best features is that you can grab any of these objects with your mouse and expand or shrink it, without being forced to go to a menu and to choose among specific sizes. Similarly, Home Designer lets you work in 2-D (a floor-plan view) or in 3-D, so you can look at an interior wall and add cabinets, appliances, windows, paint color and countertops.

The key is you can draw what you like and worry about details later -- exactly how we think most users will approach this program.

When you're ready to start writing checks, Home Designer can provide cost estimates for your jobs, but you'd be ill-advised to use any home-improvement program's figures for anything beyond rough guidance. Home Designer also leaves you to your own devices when it comes to finding a good builder; its value lies in the way it helps you get past the daydreaming stage of home design. -- Jonathan Krim

Win 98 or newer, $99




Interactive Learning

In the old days (think Windows 95) Broderbund was the leader in the emerging market for home remodeling and building software for consumers. Back then, I used its software to design and refine the floor plan of a major addition to our house before handing the results to a draftsman who drew the actual blueprints needed for a permit.

Then computers got more powerful, remodeling became a national pastime and the likes of Broderbund began cramming more and more functions into programs. The result today is Design Suite Deluxe 6, which for $100 comes in a box the size of the D.C. Yellow Pages and will let you craft a project down to the night light in the bathroom and the bushes in the yard.

But for most homeowners, this latest iteration suffers from feature overload. In trying to provide tools professionals can use while still appealing to the mainstream, Broderbund has made a program that's tough to digest.

Too much left- and right-clicking on the mouse is needed to do things like move objects around or change their size. Whereas older versions let you grab and drag a stairway, for example, to lengthen or shorten it, this software makes you go through menu steps.

Figuring how to work the camera function -- a common tool for viewing your project in either flat or 3-D views, drove me to the 400-page manual. At nearly every turn in drawing a hypothetical house plan, I had to stop and work to figure things out.

To compensate, the program provides "wizards" to walk you through the process of customizing its basic templates for floor plans, kitchens and bathrooms. These help, but soon enough you're cast back into Home Architect's regular interface, as cluttered and confusing as before.

Home Architect, like Home Designer, includes a cost-estimate tool that shouldn't be used for anything more than the roughest of guesstimates. -- J.K.

Win 98 SE or newer, $100

Athens 2004: Slower, lower, weaker than the real thing. Better Homes and Gardens Home Designer and 3D Home Architect attempt to improve the home improvement process.