- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

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.

Tickling the ivories has never been more fun than when the Piano Professor stops by to help. The 37-key, stand-alone minipiano and its companion CD-ROM cartoony adventure give the 5-year-old-and-older crowd a reason to hone skills and discover the merits of playing an instrument.

After plugging the piano into the computer (and letting it miraculously install itself on Windows 98 and older systems) and popping in the CD-ROM, the child sees an animated segment showing a classic conflict between mother and son as little Joey has zero interest in practicing his piano lessons.

However, after a mysterious light emanates from one of the keys, he is whisked away into Zauber World to meet some strange characters and have a pleasurable learning experience.

The world is broken into three areas: the Game Dome, Piano Room and Lesson Mode, each of which features a cast of colorful characters and plenty of musical opportunities.

A visit to the Lesson Mode leads to an introduction to 299-year-old Music Master Compi, who will lead the child through 10 graded lessons. The child will work on familiarity with musical nomenclature and proficiency on the keyboard.

Tutorials include identifying note names on the bass and treble staff by dragging them onto appropriate lines or spaces, recognizing the pitch of notes and understanding the key layout on a piano.

Children who complete all 10 lessons are awarded a toy, now found in Joey’s bedroom.

A stop by the Game Dome leads to four on-screen activities geared cleverly to refine concepts established in the Lesson Mode. Games will aggravate as well as challenge.

For instance, the player can release magically trapped bugs by using a flute to identify pitches as higher or lower. Another game has the player striking a correct keyboard note to drop a hammer on an unsuspecting mole that pops out of a hole next to the note’s letter equivalent.

A final jaunt over to the Piano Room unleashes a robust creative environment. Children can record their own compositions, freely play around the keyboard as it paints notes on the screen, choose different sounds for the instrument and listen to or learn 60 songs, including Christmas favorites.

The digital musical adventure should satisfy its target audience (with a few parental explanations), although it has a few stumbling blocks.

The child will be using a mouse as much as the minipiano keyboard as he or she looks around for challenges, which seems a bit odd because the point is to become one with the piano.

Please note: A mere 10 lessons will not a virtuoso make, and I found many of Master Compi’s challenges fairly difficult and lacking in cohesive instruction, especially when I was not performing the required lesson correctly.

Still, the Piano Professor did work flawlessly, and the limitless potential for song construction combined with engaging graphics makes it a potent cure for the piano-practice blues.

Piano Professor, Digital Blue, $39.99, stand-alone unit and CD-ROM compatible for PC Windows 95 and later systems.

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

Double delight

Here are two multimedia or entertainment items to try:

• Nicktoons Freeze Frame Frenzy by THQ. (For Game Boy Advance, $29.99.)

A character crossover of epic proportions greets younger children enamored with Nickelodeon cartoons and Nintendo’s hand-held entertainment system.

Jimmy Neutron discovers Nicktoons have been displaced to one another’s shows. The game demands that players visit various cartoon worlds; control SpongeBob SquarePants, Timmy Turner, Danny Phantom, Otto Rocket and Tommy Pickles; and photograph characters to make things right.

This involves players becoming side-scrolling paparazzi as they capture the misplaced cartoons on film to collect points and images for an album.

The out-of-the-ordinary challenge is not very difficult, but it’s welcome relief in a Game Boy landscape filled with jumping, running and constantly bashing stuff.

• The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie by THQ. (For Xbox, PlayStation 2 and GameCube, $39.99.)

SpongeBob’s recent foray onto the silver screen has also led to the release of an entertaining third-person action game mirroring his cinematic adventures.

The hilarious and often challenging title has children controlling SpongeBob, Nickelodeon’s popular poriferan, and witless sea star Patrick as they save Mr. Krabbs and all of Bikini Bottom from archenemy Plankton’s Plan Z.

A single player roams through six huge environments as he collects Goofy Goober tokens and manliness points to continue the adventure, acquire new powers and enhance abilities such as Patrick’s patented Tongue Swing.

Constant quips from the cast combined with ludicrous action and even controlling the daunting Patty Wagon make the game as enjoyably bizarre as its cartoon counterpart.

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