ROMper ROOM: Didj customizes learning

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Touted as the first customizable educational gaming system, Leapfrog’s handheld Didj ($89.99, requires four AA batteries) is a logical maturation of the company’s preschool product, the Leapster.

The paperback-sized, Game-Boy-Advance-style unit uses computer connectivity to embellish content and cartridge-based games while offering a prettier, more sophisticated experience for children 6 to 10 years old.

Before tackling play specifics, first and foremost, the Didj solves my biggest complaint about all educational gaming systems: The graphics always stink. Here, instead of 8-bit, LED purgatory, the player graduates to between 16 and 24 bits of clarity (depending on the game action) pumped to a 3.2-inch LCD TFT screen offering a 16.7 million color palette and 320 by 240 resolution. It’s not PlayStation Portable quality, but it’s a big improvement.

After the player sets up a profile on the Didj, name and age will do, parents can use the included CD to install a Leapfrog Learning Path access point to their PC or Mac and attach the unit via the included USB cable. This is a key part of the Didj as parents can not only monitor junior’s progress online, but the player also can download items to the unit.

Most urgent for new owners — and my 8-year-old tester — is creating bulbous-headed avatars (Didjis) using the computer interface. The painless process has plenty of options to configure (down to facial features and a sound bite) and owners can load up to 10 new buddies.

Next, as a player successfully conquers a game and answers educational questions, he receives the system’s award currency, called “bitz.” With the virtual cash, he can buy game-enhancing Micromods online.

Most important, learning is customized with Learning Path assistance. The student uses menus to quickly check off and download such skill fodder as weekly spelling lists, equations and numbers to concentrate on for specific problem solving.

The Didj comes with a game — Jetpack Heroes — already onboard, and the player can use his favorite Didji during the side-scrolling adventure.

As the space jockey hero flies around, he solves math equations to free Energy Bunnies, using a blaster to defeat some nasty aliens. Oddly, the bunnies often are trapped in energy spheres and if a player gives the wrong answer to, say a division problem, a bunny is incinerated - maybe a bit too much for a kids’ game?

Micromods available in Jetpack Heroes include changing the background of levels.

In the world of handheld gaming, the Didj might be an ideal addition, if not for a little product called the Nintendo DS. Unfortunately, the Didj is technologically behind its more powerful, and nearly equally priced, competitor. If one removes the educational angle, the Didj can’t play in Nintendo’s world.

It has no wireless computer connection, no touch screen (even the Leapster has one), can’t share or communicate with another Didj (imagine how cool that would have been as students solve problems together) and, perhaps the biggest problem, no interaction with a Wii-style entertainment console.

If Nintendo decides to focus a bit more on learning titles, I can’t see how Leapfrog’s Didj can survive.

Despite my doom and gloom, the Didj is a temporary breath of fresh air in the electronic edutainment market. Its games look good and are challenging while its learning elements really will test and improve a player’s skills.

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