This is no final fantasy

Culture | Today's hits are tomorrow's silly nostalgia

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1999," Dec. 18, 1999

Long attention spans
Perhaps the hottest video game of the year has a contradictory name: Final Fantasy VIII. It dominates sales in a way that only Pokémon can match. The complicated game with lots of fancy graphics follows the adventures of a teenage lone-wolf military cadet named Squall Leonhart. Through four CD-Roms, the game boasts action, fantasy, and romance as our hero carries on. It also boasts Dolby Surround Sound, better facial expressions, and more realistic movements than earlier video games. All it lacks is originality. Final Fantasy VIII, like its predecessors and endless other hit games, is another cross between Dungeons & Dragons, B action movies, and Japanese animation. While trudging away for dozens of hours (literally!) trying to get from start to finish, players run up against some very familiar plot points: a wicked sorceress, collectible magic spells, an evil empire, and endless combat. The $50 game is less an adventure than a collection of puzzles. The characters are young, so a teenager sitting alone behind a Playstation console is supposed to imagine himself as the hero. Veterans can share pointers and war stories in the school cafeteria. Without an inventive story, Final Fantasy VIII becomes a visually stunning yet mechanistic celebration of special effects, a mind-numbing and time-consuming prelude to Final Fantasy IX, X, XI, and on and on. Who says today's young people--who are willing to spend 50 hours to play a game--have short attention spans? The anti-housewife
Martha Stewart's big Y2K New Year's plans are ruined. She wanted to watch the millennium's first sunrise from atop Cadillac Mountain. Then she found out about the treacherous hike and gave up the idea, telling her magazine readers that the trail was "too icy, steep and circuitous." So much for the photo op. At her current rate, this is a rare failure for the queen of crafts. In just a few years, Martha Stewart has turned cute household tasks into a massive empire. The umbrella company that oversees her projects went public this fall, thrusting her into the ranks of the most powerful women in America. The retail products that bear her name are expected to ring up over $1 billion in annual sales this year. Ms. Stewart has survived corporate power struggles with Time-Warner, a tell-all biography, and a lawsuit against the National Enquirer. She's on TV, in the newsstand, and on the rack at K-Mart. People who want a bedspread, a recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds, or a use for rye grass turn to her. This fall Ms. Stewart crossed the line from household fashion to fashionable politics by helping Hillary Clinton's senatorial bid with an appearance at a Connecticut fundraiser. Some would call Martha Stewart the postmodern anti-housewife, the woman who can make an apple brown betty while riding the stock market at the same time. But for another example of a woman who can take care of both domestic life and business, see chapter 31 of Proverbs. The last network hit?
Is that your final answer?" This is the catch phrase of the season as the hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? heads for a regular spot on ABC's prime-time schedule. In November, a second limited run scored an average of 24.2 million viewers every night for 18 days. In the era of cable, satellite, and the Net, such numbers don't come around often. The show, a note-for-note clone of the British original, is an example of terrific pacing. As contestants fight their way through a series of questions, the camera keeps rolling and the whole thing is re-edited for television. Questions start very easy and get harder. Yet the show's astounding success could be the canary in the coal mine that precedes a radical change in network TV. Fifty years ago, a similar success preceded the end of old-time radio. The same ABC launched a prime-time game show called Stop the Music, which involved host Bert Parks quizzing randomly selected people drawn from phone books. Ratings were so high that old standbys Fred Allen and Edgar Bergen were driven off the air, the equivalent of bumping off Friends and Frazier today. But fads don't last. Stop the Music came and went in three years, but radio was never the same with TV on the rise. Allen and Bergen never became big TV stars and their medium fizzled. The networks tried all sorts of gimmicks, but finally left radio to the DJs by the late 1950s. What will happen to prime time once the Millionaire craze runs out?

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