- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

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.

Children literally can become what they read about as they play, imagine and learn with help from a dynamic multimedia package aptly tilted The Pretendables.

This role-playing extravaganza empowers children 3 to 6 years old to test career paths as they follow the adventures of imaginary friends via a 16-page illustrated book, move to the computer for some on-screen CD-ROM challenges and dress up for hands-on fun.

Offering interactive possibilities within six themed areas — Professional, Safety, Explorer, Public Service, Make Believe and Sports — Pretendable kits focus not only on raising creativity levels, but also on extending awareness of the people, places and things that are part of life.

Each kit covers a single profession, ranging from cowboy to pilot to veterinarian to police officer and even to basketball star (signing bonus not included).

In the case of the Explorer Egypt Pretendable, the child first reads about Eric and Ellie, a wide-eyed pair of junior archaeologists, as they visit the ancient land. The book uses thick cardboard pages (for easy turning) with large illustrations and rhyming to keep the child interested.

Once the reading is finished, parents can move children to a Windows-based computer as they work through a software program presenting the book’s art style with limited animation. The player helps Eric and Ellie cross the Nile, visit a pyramid and find the Pharaoh’s hidden treasure to uncover printable coloring pages.

Challenges on the CD-ROM include identifying words with pictures of items to pack on the trip, virtually connecting the dots to draw a Sphinx, paying for items while adding numbers, finding uppercase letters for the entire alphabet using a flashlight and translating hieroglyphics.

When the program is shut down, it automatically defaults to the company’s Web site for more educational content and a bit of marketing pablum.

Finally, the kit offers a flashlight, compass and cloth vest to help the child revisit some of Eric and Ellie’s discoveries.

The Firefighter Pretendable is even more robust, as it concentrates on practical fire safety and comes with a 4-inch-long fire engine with extendable ladder, plush Dalmatian puppy and firefighter jacket.

The Pretendables, with an affordable price point, are a great idea, but they could be amazing with a few simple additions. First, the company needs to include hats, especially in the police officer and firefighter packages. (Supposedly, this is being remedied in upcoming releases.)

Also, the CD-ROM lacks a bit of high-tech sparkle, such as talking characters, background music and the ability to save an adventure to return to later rather than starting again from the beginning. It also could use a bit of instructional guidance — computer compatibility isn’t even mentioned.

Pretendables from M.O.G. Kids Inc. (www.mogkids.com), $29.95 each, include a book, costume, accessories and CD-ROM.

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, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

Trio of multimedia treats

• Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat from Nintendo for GameCube, rated E, $54.99. Banana collecting becomes a rhythmic experience in a game combining a legendary gorilla, bountiful environments and a controller made for junior percussionists.

Using a pair of bongos and a cleverly hidden microphone, a single player maneuvers the legendary Donkey Kong through hostile kingdoms as he runs, swims, jumps, swings and stampedes around 40 areas.

Clapping and tapping lead to success as on-screen characters react to the player’s hand movements and drum strikes. The player executes moves such as punching a competing gorilla in the nose, flapping the wings of a Helibird to carry the ape to higher levels, pummeling gargantuan fruit, unleashing a sound wave to stun bats and throwing coconuts at pigs hidden in palm trees.

Jungle Beat does a marvelous job of honing hand-eye-coordination skills while being one of the slicker-looking, as well as more fun, family-friendly simulations out this year.

• Barbie Fairytopia, from Lions Gate Entertainment for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, rated G, $19.99. Mattel’s legendary fashion doll returns to the DVD medium as a determined mythical creature on a quest to save her flowering world.

Through a 75-minute computer-animated movie, girls learn of the plight of wingless fairy Elina, who goes in search of the guardian Azura after the evil Laverna curses her budding homeland.

In addition to the well-designed adventure, viewers get interactive menus introduced by Barbie; a set-top activity involving Elina’s favorite puff ball, Bibble, showing off its hottest disco, hip-hop and ballet dance moves; and a simple, but cute, Pixie matching game.

Parents also may wish to know, just in case their wallets are feeling a bit heavy, that Mattel offers a full line of Fairytopia toys (cleverly plugged in one of the DVD’s extras), including 12-inch-tall Barbie dolls ($15.99 each) that use fiber optics for an enlightening wing display.

• NBA Street V3 from Electronic Arts for GameCube, rated E, $49.99. Anyone who ever envisioned what it would be like for Wilt Chamberlain to challenge a short Italian plumber to a slam-dunk contest will appreciate EA’s latest extreme basketball game for the Nintendo system.

Outstanding player character models, a detailed court creator, dazzling trick shots and that spectacular slamming contest highlight this title, which offers 3-on-3 matchups that mix superstars and legends of the NBA.

Of course, gaming fans also will appreciate the ability to create their own player with 1,000 customizable assets, the lack of referees and the high-flying acrobatics that are required for victory with style.

However, controlling the cartoony antics of the trio of Nintendo legends — Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach — as they take on the likes of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming will bring a smile to the face of any family member.

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