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Jaguar CD System
by Robert Jung
Atari Corp., for the Atari Jaguar
For those readers out there who have absolutely no idea what CDs have to do with video games, here's a quick summary: the Jaguar CD is a double-speed compact disc (CD) player for your Atari Jaguar game system. It attaches to the top of a Jaguar console, and allows you to play audio CDs, CD+Graphics (CD+G) CDs, and Jaguar video games in CD format. A pass-through cartridge slot allows you to play Jaguar cartridge games without removing the CD player.
The Jaguar CD hardware consists of the CD player and an AC power adapter. The only control on the unit is an eject button, to open the lid for removing and inserting discs. Installation is trivially simple -- just plug the Jaguar CD on top of your Jaguar console, then connect the power supply. Cartridge games can be plugged into the Jaguar CD's cartridge slot and be played as normal. If no cartridge is present, the Jaguar CD will search for a disc and try to play that.
The Jaguar CD package also includes four compact discs. BLUE LIGHTNING and VID GRID are Jaguar CD games, and are reviewed separately. The third disc is a short demonstration of MYST, a surrealistic adventure game. Finally, the TEMPEST 2000 SOUNDTRACK is an audio CD containing techno-rock music inspired by Atari's TEMPEST 2000 game cartridge. An international instruction manual completes the package.
As a whole, the Jaguar CD is a solid, if utilitarian, peripheral. For instance, the lid is not spring-driven; after pressing the eject button, you must manually lift the lid before you can insert or remove a disc. It's a minor quibble, but reflects the "keep it simple" design of the unit. The feel of the Jaguar CD is sturdy and firm. Aside from the common-sense precautions when handling any electronic device, there should be no reason to treat the player with special tenderness.
Sold separately from the Jaguar CD are the Memory Track cartridges. These are cartridges that, when plugged into the player's cartridge slot, allows settings and progress in Jaguar CD games to be saved. It's possible to play Jaguar CD games without a Memory Track cartridge -- a game will simply disable any "save settings" features if there is no cartridge present. For complex CD games, however, a Memory Track will soon become essential.
AUDIO CD PLAYER:
Like other video-game systems with CD players, the Jaguar CD allows you to play audio CDs. The Jaguar controller can be used to play/pause/stop tracks, move to the next or previous track, advance to a specific track, or do forward and reverse audio cue of the current track. Pressing the "A" button brings up additional controls for music volume, track/disc repeat, and programming or randomizing the order which tracks are played at. Over a hundred tracks can be programmed, and CD+G visual data can be shown if the disc is a CD+G disc.
There are two minor nits to the audio CD player. First, while the player shows how much time has elapsed on the current track, there's no way to display the time remaining. Second, changing discs is inelegant; when the eject button is pressed, the Jaguar resets itself, and you must put in a new disc and close the lid before the audio CD controls reappear. One side effect of this is that you can't play audio tracks of Jaguar CD games with the Jaguar CD player -- if there's a game disc inside when the lid is closed, the audio controls are bypassed and the game starts.
VIRTUAL LIGHT MACHINE:
The jewel of the Jaguar CD player is the VLM, or Virtual Light Machine. Written by Jeff Minter of TEMPEST 2000 fame, it is described as "bring[ing] your music to life in a brilliant sense-scorching light show experience. Pop in a music CD, sit back and watch as 65,000 colors warp, contort and distort to every beat, octave, and power chord." Jaded consumers may dismiss this as advertising hype; after all, other consoles like the 3DO Multiplayer also feature a light show when playing audio CDs, so what's the deal?
The deal is that VLM is not merely a gratuitous light show program, but a full-featured music sampler and graphics synthesizer. The visuals produced by VLM react to the music being played and vary widely -- some play on obvious features, like rhythm and volume, while others display self-animated elements while subtly blending notes and harmonics for color and shape and speed. You can change between the 81 effects at any time with the Jaguar controller, or simply set the audio CD player to "VLM random" for unpredictable results.
Words are simply inadequate to describe what VLM can do: it explodes pastels into showers of neon, weaves tempos into complex crystalline figures, blends harmonics into rivers of light, and spins tunnels of whispered color and vibrant sounds. The result is a mesmerizing, often hypnotic, audio-visual cornucopia that seems to have a mind of its own. I've seen VLM casually throw out coordinated symphonies which rival professional computer animation efforts like Miramar's "Mind's Eye" video series.
VLM actively encourages experimentation and interaction. Some effects work better with different types of music; for instance, I personally think bank 5-2 is best with slow, soft music, while 4-6 is great for rock, and 1-3 is a good general-purpose effect. It's fun to play with VLM and match your favorite discs with the visuals which capture its spirit. Some banks even have user-controlled elements, allowing you even more interaction.
It is hard to stay impassive about VLM because it brings home what was formerly the realm of high-end bars and dance clubs. It has to be seen to be believed, preferably with your favorite music playing. Devoted audiophiles have been reported to buy a Jaguar and a Jaguar CD just for VLM alone, and I can't say I blame them. Dismissing VLM as "merely a light show" is akin to calling the Beatles "just another rock band" -- no, it is far, far more...
Is the Jaguar CD a must-buy peripheral? No; there are plenty of fun and enjoyable games on cartridge, so it's not absolutely necessary to buy the CD player. But if you're considering getting one anyway, you won't go wrong with it, as this is a solid, hassle-free unit at an attractive price. The Virtual Light Machine is simply phenomenal; anyone with even a minor interest in music or graphics will be captivated by its mesmerizing and stunning effects, and the ability to control the show adds to the fun. While it's not absolutely necessary to buy the Jaguar CD, it is certainly a worthy addition to your Jaguar game system.
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