- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

In a world of ultraviolent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is infinitely more important than the flexing of the cerebrum, there must be a place for children and their parents to interact and actually learn something from that overpriced multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word cool.

My Style for Preschoolers (Lego, $19.95) offers a lot of fun, but the learning process may be too structured for the very young. The program gets off to a promising start by offering more than 20 activities in four learning environments the Math Farm, Language Playground, Art Tree Fort and Music Jungle.

This Lego universe comes beautifully rendered within a 360-degree navigational screen that mimics the bright colors and blocky look of the popular Lego Duplo blocks.

Children can choose one of five buddies. The tallest of the group is G. Howdy Cheers, a giraffe with a flair for poetry. Looky T. Munkles, a brown monkey, helps children learn with shapes and sizes, while a musical panda, Sing-Sing, helps children visualize notes and music. The logical elephant, Digit, helps children with counting and number recognition, and Buck, a spotted pony, uses touch and movement to solve a variety of problems.

Each character's skills combine with the four environments to create different activities. For example, when Sing-Sing is put in the Language Playground, the child sees a picture and is asked to click on the letter that starts the word.

When the child picks the right letter for the picture D for dog, for example Sing-Sing rewards him or her with a quick song, reinforcing letter sounds and early spelling skills.

Game play might be fun for the 5- to 6-year-old crowd with the hand-eye coordination needed to manipulate the mouse and also with the ability to react quickly as instructions are called out. Children without letter and color-recognition skills might become frustrated quickly.

As a "lap-ware" program for 2- to 4-year-olds, the program lacks the interactive component necessary for small hands. Mom or Dad will need to manipulate the mouse and narrate the game play as the child watches.

The biggest disappointment of Lego My Style is its lack of encouragement when a child does not follow the verbal instructions. A perfect example can be found when playing paint-by-number with Digit on Art Island.

The goal is to click on the number of the paint that corresponds with the number on the picture. If the child matches the numbers correctly, a verbal "good job" reward is given, but if the child wants to create a green duck with a red bill instead of a yellow duck with orange bill, Digit does not provide any encouragement for that creativity.

In addition, if a child doesn't get the right answer, the program does not offer clues. For example, the paint jars could light up, providing a visual clue to matching the colors and numbers.

Lego's My Style has all the look of a great learning title, but it never matches the brilliance of Knowledge Adventure's Adiboo series or Jump Start's Baby.

My Style for Preschoolers (Lego, $19.99). Hybrid for Macintosh and Windows systems.

With the Outdoor Trekker (VTech, $99.99), children age 7 and older get their very own laptop computer with a full keyboard and touch-pad mouse rugged enough to take on almost any family outing.

This stand-alone unit combines a black-and-white 2-by-5-inch LCD display (which can be backlit) with the flexibility to connect a printer or install cartridge upgrades. It comes with headphones, strap and a ridiculous amount of activities and helpers.

The well-prepared Boy Scout could use it for immediate access to an address book, simple word processor, clock, alarm, basic map-making program, foreign currency converter, unit conversion calculator, language (French, Spanish and German) translator and even FM radio.

This many options could give the average adult an organizational boost, and the Trekker also comes with an avalanche of games with an educational spin.

Keeping the outdoor-survival theme in mind, the Trekker's 64 adventure-oriented activities range from a multiple-choice quiz on sea animals to a fill-in-the-blank game testing knowledge of recycling and pollution to a fact-finding exercise about natural disasters.

Although Trekker offers a great way to master computer skills and enhance school studies, I think the screen display is a problem.

Will a 10-year-old be satisfied with a black-and-white pixilated presentation after seeing his dad's sleek laptop or, worse, after enjoying a video game on a 32-inch television?

If yes is the answer, this electronic learning device offers enough extras to make it worth the investment.

Outdoor Trekker (VTech, $99.99) stand-alone unit requires four AA batteries.

Double delight

These two multimedia entertainment items may be just the ticket to hours of enjoyment.

• MSR: Metropolitan Street Racer, by Sega (for Dreamcast, $39.99.) Game players can become more fully immersed in racing simulations as gaming consoles add processing power. Sega's new game dazzles at all levels; the vehicles look as slick as they maneuver.

London, San Francisco and Tokyo provide the perfectly re-created backdrop for drivers to explore 250 routes as they earn valuable "kudos" for skill, speed and style.

The player is blasted by region-specific radio stations and realistic weather conditions as he or she races in 40 types of luxury cars from familiar manufacturers such as Alpha Romeo, Mercedes and Toyota. My tip with this winner of a title is to spend more time concentrating on the road and less time looking at the stunning scenery.

• Dinosaur by Buena Vista Home Entertainment (for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, $39.99) Disney's blockbusting opus in the land before time has evolved into a two-disc DVD set loaded with more extras than you can shake a pterodactyl at.

The animated CGI (computer-generated imagery) classic-in-the-making introduces viewers to cuddly and ferocious creatures attempting to survive 65 million years ago through a classic Disney story portraying the life of an alienated iguanodon.

The displaced Aladar is adopted by a family of lemurs, and after a destructive meteor shower must take his new family and join a herd of dinosaurs looking for new nesting grounds. He battles fear, prejudice, carnivores and elders to ultimately find love and save the herbivores.

Children popping the disc into a computer will have access to a "Dinopedia" offering real facts about all of the main characters, a memory game called Aladar's Challenge, an assemble-a-dinosaur challenge, desktop images that can be downloaded and a complete dinosaur evolution chart.

A second disc offers a 178-minute blueprint for the creation of the movie. This prehistoric extravaganza includes early animation tests, deleted scenes, dinosaur designs, a 3-D workbook, final film comparisons and promotional materials.

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia "edutainment." Calls, letters or faxes about a particular column or suggestions for future columns are always welcome. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (joseph@twtmail.com).

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