- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2008

VTech’s Disney Create-A-Story early reading system ($49.99 requires two AA batteries) is another product in the growing stable of edutainment systems that places the power of reading in young hands.

While an electronic reader can never take the place of sitting with a parent to explore a new book, it is a great assistant that can be carried into the car or taken to the family couch for some early independent action.

This interactive story system uses books, a tethered pen and cartridges for children 3 years old and older to become engaged in adventures, and lets their natural curiosity have them playing word games, clicking on hot spots and learning new skills that will build their reading proficiency.

It’s a much clunkier operation than LeapFrog’s Tag Reading System (a wireless pen and online downloads with the books), but has the advantage of attaching to a television screen for enhanced interaction.

Of course, at the core of every successful reading tool are stories that inspire. In this package, readers receive two styles of books based on Winnie the Pooh mythology - the Read-A-Story “Tigger’s Shadow of a Doubt” and the “My Friends Tigger & Pooh” Create-A-Story.

In Read-A-Story, the tale places super-sleuths Tigger, Pooh and Darby in the middle of the great mystery of the disappearance of Tigger’s shadow. This narrative allows for a variety of discovery-style games.

Challenges progress as the pages are turned. Common game themes are finding words using “Sleuthing Sounds” for vowel, consonant and syllable recognition.

A standout is “Word Maker” where children swap out the beginning letter to change three-letter words. For example, transforming “tan” to “ran” or “map” to “tap.” Another favorite is “Like, Not Alike” where children find a word that’s the opposite of one on the screen, such as “fast” and “slow.”

In Create-A-Story mode, the VTech system becomes a much richer experience when connected to a computer or television monitor with the enclosed AV cables. It’s a simple maneuver, but will require parental assistance. (Neither book mode must be connected to the television, both can be used as a stand-alone reading system.)

In the Create mode, owners can assemble five simple stories, some continuing the Read-A-Story theme of being a super sleuth.

For example, the first story option has the child choose a place, friends, the objects and actions. Children also select one of four scenarios from four story arc sections and click the “Play My Story” button to hear the results.

Another, “My Very Own Story,” teaches the concept that every tale has a beginning, middle and end, a great lesson that leads to enhanced comprehension skills in later reading.

The standout in this group, “Create A Story Together,” allows two players to each choose a friend, an activity, “what happened” and the reaction.

Other obvious benefits from either book mode are language and vocabulary development as children, with the touch of the pen-stylus, simply listen to narrated stories, while following along with the words in the book.

My major complaint about the system is the miserable, pixilated graphics displayed when it is connected to televisions with larger screens. VTech must develop toward today’s technology.

The other complaint centers on narration. In the Read-A-Story, the storyteller does little to change his voice to match the character, which makes the audio track a bit flat. In Create-A-Story mode, there seems to be more vocal inflections.

Additional VTech Disney Create-A-Story book releases ($19.99 for each pack and a cartridge) include “Disney Princess: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty,” “Finding Nemo,” “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and “Cars.”

Game Bytes

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

mSpace Chimps (for Xbox 360, Brash Entertainment, $49.99)- This average computer-animated movie, not surprisingly has translated into a run-of-the-mill third-person action adventure. Based on 20th Century Fox’s current box office bomb, the game drops a single player into an alien world where he switches between control of two chimps, each with unique capabilities.

Ham gets the muscle in the game (big punches) while Luna hooks up with technology (butterfly wings and a critter on her wrist that shoots goo) as they traverse a repetitive group of environmental obstacle courses, from jumping on rock formations to crossing roaring waterways to scooting across walls.

Catering to a targeted demographic of about 7 years old, developers offer decent-quality cut scenes mixed with a pixel-puttering design more fit for an Xbox rather than its more powerful successor. Also, with little back story, only fans of the film will care why they are fighting an onslaught of Whoville-type creatures as they escape hostile terrain.

Half-hearted cooperative and versus modes are relegated to a few arcade-style shooting games guaranteed to cause thumb cramping, but clearly this overpriced journey is only for the most stalwart of movie fans.

I’ll admit I’m spoiled. Compared to the production values and creativity seen in games such as Kung Fu Panda and Wall-E, and that’s not saying a lot, Space Chimps is mediocre monkey business.

mNancy Drew: The Mystery of the Clue Bender Society (for DS, Majesco, $19.99) - The famed female sleuth’s second outing on Nintendo’s sensitive hand-held system is another third-person mystery enhanced with minigames.

Nancy finds herself competing for membership in a secret club represented by the world’s greatest detectives. Her ultimate assignment involves finding a book with secrets that could destroy the world.

Obviously developed for the younger casual gaming gal, the adventure is a series of logical explorations, character interactions and puzzles compiled in a nine-chapter story.

Clues are easily found, even marked with exclamation points, as the player walks and drives Nancy (she also gets a snowmobile and a boat) in and around the Voltaire Mansion.

It’s often an eye-exhausting experience - players walk Nancy around and around until she stumbles upon triggers to continue the story.

A mix of sound puzzles, cryptographs, mechanical conundrums and pattern brainteasers are planted throughout.

The DS touch screen comes into play throughout to manage a suspect dossier, use a fingerprint scanalyzer, and warehouse and retrieve evidence.

Nancy’s cartoony design and comic book presentation is a plus, complete with dialogue bubbles, and might even turn players onto the Papercutz series of graphic novels based on her adventures.

Her Interactive already has done a tremendous job of bringing the famed sleuth to computers in a popular PC series of games. The nicely priced Majesco line needs more puzzle variety and increased difficulty to enhance the young detective’s virtual life.

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 jszad kowski@washingtontimes.com.