- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

A friendly group of animated animals teaches children the finer points of life in Jumpstart Advanced Preschool World (Knowledge Adventure for PCs with a minimum Pentium III processor using XP or Vista operating systems, $29.99).

The ambitious effort, contained in a four-disc CD-ROM set, offers 60 activities and exposure to 25 skill sets as children 3 to 5 years old move around a cheery, dynamic three-dimensional land.

This free-roaming environment consists of three locations - the Neighborhood, Preschool Town and Craft Corner - with each offering a distinctive module of fun. Action includes talking to characters, resource collection (using a backpack), playing games and accepting missions. It’s similar to a typical role-playing game, though not as complicated.

The player begins his journey greeted by a song from Frankie the Dog and the Jumpstart gang. He must next design his own avatar complete with choice of mouth, hairstyle, eyes, shoes and clothing.

A well-rounded introduction to parts of the town begins with help from Frankie, CJ the frog and Keisha the tiger. Much of the narrative provides lessons in following directions as the child maneuvers his avatar around the terrain by clicking and moving the mouse.

In the busy Neighborhood, the child can watch a video at the Movie House, play music on a jukebox, modify his house, try a giant water slide, plant and water flowers, take a photo of a character, record a story (microphone required), or go for a swim.

Of course, he also can get a jump-start on his education in the Learning House, which boasts eight games. The focus of the challenges is numbers one through 10, alphabet sequencing and letter-to-word association, which is explored using matching and click-and-drag-style puzzles.

Frankie and his pals help the player every step of the way and remind him about sharing, friendship, hygiene, eating habits and even exercise.

Colored pieces of three storybooks are earned for helping characters through a variety of tasks, such as cheering up Eleanor the elephant by finding items that fell out of her backpack or collecting seeds for Hopsalot the rabbit. Once a book is ready (a child can read along with the narrated story), a new part of the world is available (subsequently accessed again via a map).

Complete storybooks open up Preschool Town (which concentrates on slightly more difficult activities, such as filling a grocery list and driving a fire engine) and Craft Corner, a place with a simple-to-use art program to develop an original, ready-to-print masterpiece.

Very responsive controls and plenty of objectives for a child to accomplish will keep him busy. From a parent’s end, the disc installation was flawless. Better yet, parents have their own workspace to track progress and customize their child’s Jumpstart experience by adding personal photos highlighting holidays.

Age range:The box says ages 3 to 5, but only the sharpest of 3-year-olds will have any chance of understanding what is going on. The younger set will gladly sit in their parent’s lap and interact as the Jumpstart world opens up to them.

Game Bytes

Here’s an abbreviated look at some multimedia items for the entire family:

Dilbert: Cubicle Chaos (for cell phone from Namco, $2.99 to $5.99 for a monthly subscription) - Cartoonist Scott Adams‘ famed engineer takes more white-collar grief in an over-the-top, sarcasm-enriched, task-managing game.

As the unreasonable boss, the player controls the pointy-haired, useless entity that enlists the help of trusted consultant Dogbert to push his employees to the limit.

The tasks are fairly consistent and always timed. They involve using the cell phone’s numerical keypad to walk the boss around an office space and deliver projects or items from a conveyor belt to Dilbert and his other loafing brethren who reside in their cubicles.

A selection of missions that add more and more cubicles and project goals give players the chance to develop a deep resentment for loafers and take satisfaction in immediately shredding their finished work. Use of cattle prods to remind the daydreamers who is in charge is strongly encouraged by Dogbert.

The color presentation arrives in Adams’ familiar art style and his brand of humor remains true throughout, down to banishing an unsuccessful boss to Elbonia.

Parents will chuckle often and even younger players will find some of the silly animations worth a round of task delegation.

The best part of the addictive action is not the Whack a Wally bonus game (worthwhile for sure) but collecting comic tokens. These access original Dilbert cartoons that move across the screen in a traditional strip style.

Big Beach Sports (for Wii from THQ, $29.99) Sports enthusiasts will find a reasonable amount of fun in a virtual oceanside setting as they sweat playing some classic outdoor games.

It’s not a rousing endorsement, but the six challenges - volleyball, football, disc golf, bocce, cricket and soccer - are a smart enough mix to give up to four players, especially in tournament mode, a little exercise and entertainment.

Among the Wii-ized sports, volleyball is the best (the Wiimote is cradled in the hands to return a serve or swung overhead for a smash), football is most controller confusing (go long and keep going long), cricket is most unusual (my first exposure to the classic) and bocce (sand bowling meets shuffleboard) is most enjoyable.

Most interesting is the game’s ambitious character creator. This Mii-wanna-be offers a standard selection of clothing, skin tone, facial features and age choices, but adds a DS component to the genetic mix. That’s right. Players wirelessly download a software nugget to their DS hand-held and then can draw on their character’s face and upload the finished work back to the game.

One disturbing point that caught my eye during the action. I was able to produce an avatar that looked like Jimmy Buffett (scary enough) and the guy was wearing a Geico insurance T-shirt. I find it hard to believe a game with so little going for it in the development area required sponsor endorsements to cover costs. However, it’s a trend I bet is going to get worse.

Joseph Szadkowski’s ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.