- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2001

In a world of violent 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.
Scholastic's Magic School Bus: Whales & Dolphins Activity Center builds on the popularity of the book and television series by exploring science and, in this case, tapping into a child's curiosity about sea creatures.
Liz the Lizard joins the teacher, Ms. Frizzle, on a seagoing adventure. They meet a variety of sea mammals, ranging from the graceful blue whale to the playful white-sided dolphin.
The action begins after children create their own crew pass, choosing the features skin, hair, eyes, nose, mouth and ears that most closely resemble their own. Once the pass is completed, they can access the Magic School Bus, or boat, afloat in the Pacific Ocean.
From the boat's interactive cabin, children can choose from four multilevel skill games or two interactive science experiments, or they can create posters at the "Cetacean Station." During play, children will learn about some of the physical characteristics of whales and dolphins, their use of echolocation, their food sources and their survival outlook.
Along with Liz and Ms. Frizzle, the game has many charming characters, such as Petey, the playful porpoise and host of the trivia game Spout Off. Players test their knowledge by answering multiple-choice and true-or-false questions. They click on an oyster to reveal the questions' point value and difficulty level.
Many of the answers for Spout Off are found when players are visiting the Worldwide Whales Map. There children learn about the different whales that live around the world, such as the long-toothed narwhal whale that lives beneath the ice of the North Pole.
One nice aspect of this program is that it incorporates beautiful graphics showing marine life, underwater scenes and animal behavior as well as videos showing a humpback whale breaching extending its body out of the water dolphins leaping, beluga whales singing and porpoises "bow-riding" (skimming along waves created by the bow of a fast-moving ship).
Ms. Frizzle's bus-boat also has a "Periscope Whale Watcher" that allows children to view photos of nine different whales and dolphins. With this feature, I got to see the unique Boto River dolphin. This endangered South American species navigates through the fallen trees of the flooded Amazon River by twisting and turning.
As children navigate through the oceans learning about sea mammals, they earn stickers that can be used to create posters at "Cetacean Creation." The program provides four colorful backgrounds, and the posters, once completed, can be printed out. For users without a color printer, a black-and-white poster can be printed out and colored.
Magic School Bus Whales & Dolphins provides a surface look at these unique animals but still serves its purpose to educate and entertain. Teaching guides for this title and other Magic School Bus titles are available at www.microsoft.com/education.
Scholastic's Magic School Bus: Whales & Dolphins Activity Center (Microsoft, $19.95). Hybrid for Macintosh and Windows systems.

Parade familiar cartoon characters across cards, banners, calendars, party sets, decorations and almost anything one can imagine, including clothing, with Disney's Mickey and Friends Print Artist.
No matter what project is undertaken, this program provides the Disney-inspired elements needed to create something unique.
With more than 2,500 images, hundreds of character poses and outfits and more than 500 project templates, it may take a bit of time to find exactly what is wanted, but Sierra Home incorporates easy-to-use drag-and-drop technology, making it fun to search for images.
Helpful tool bars with easy-to-understand icons, such as the Graphics Grabber used to choose text and phrases can be repositioned to the user's preferences.
The tools work within a friendly interface that allows computer artists to position characters, change the color of any non-character graphics (do not even try messing with Mickey's hues) and adjust image sizes to fit the project.
Projects are presented with simple instructions and always begin with a materials-needed list. Once a user has created a few projects using the step-by-step instructions, it becomes easy to create his or her own projects from designing clock faces to making transfers for decorating household items such as dishes or planters.
The artist's final creation is limited only by the ability to print it on any piece of paper, vellum, gift bag, envelope, sticker, card, cloth transfer sheet or other medium that one's personal printer can handle.
Disney's Mickey and Friends Print Artist (Sierra Home, $29.99), for Windows operating systems.

Double delight

These multimedia entertainment items are geared for users 5 years old and older.
mDino Defender, by Knowledge Adventure (Hybrid for PC and Macintosh computer systems, $29.99)
Inspired by the new movie "Jurassic Park III," this engaging, side-scrolling adventure game involves one player attempting a dangerous dinosaur roundup. After a raging typhoon knocks down the protective fences, allowing behemoths such as the spinosaurus, pteradon and Tyrannosaurus rex to roam wild on Isla Sorna, a brave member of the Dino Defenders emergency team must restore order and prevent the creatures from destroying each other.
Armed with tranquilizer balls, distracting flares, dino call boxes and steel-mesh trapping and dressed in extraterrestrial-looking titanium armor, the player attacks six dangerous levels while exploring environments ranging from the InGen laboratories to underwater caverns.
In addition to simplified action for children 7 years and older, the game features printable dinosaur dossiers, jigsaw puzzles, a matching challenge, a link to an education Web site and virtual trading cards.
Lego Island II: The Brickster's Revenge, by Lego Media (For Sony PlayStation, $19.99) Those legendary building blocks get back together to form a 3-D challenge filled with adventure and featuring the exploits of Pepper, pizza delivery boy extraordinaire.
After our hero delivers a spicy pie to hardened criminal Brickster, locked up in the Lego jail, life gets ugly as the thug escapes by using superhot breath created by the pizza, steals the Infomaniacs' Constructopedia and unleashes an army of destructive robots.
Pepper must fight to collect the discarded Constructopedia pages, recapture Brickster and rebuild Lego Island. The protagonist converses with townsfolk (54 characters populate the environments) and uses a variety of vehicles from police choppers to skateboards when chasing Brickster and eliminating his henchmen.
As the plot progresses, 18 minigames, such as jousting within a medieval land, piloting a space shuttle, riding a dinosaur and making pizzas, all play into the mix, guaranteeing an added level of entertainment for the young ones. The combination of action, variety and price point makes this a Lego adventure worth enjoying.
ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia "edutainment." 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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