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.
Of course, Leapfrog has put together a potent selection of licensed games ($29.99 each) that tap into familiar pop-culture universes. Here's a look at just a few:
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (for ages 6 to 9) - From a galaxy far, far away comes a Sand Crawler's worth of mathematical conundrums for padawans in the family.
Based on the new animated series, this predominantly side-scrolling adventure features four levels of action and plenty of problem-solving devoted to fractions, 2-D and 3-D geometric shapes, and number place values.
The player controls Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi as they attempt to stop the production of the Separatists super robot, the Ultra Droideka.
Between slicing and dicing an assortment of evil droids, the player might unlock deflector shields by correctly identifying a polygon or use his hero's glowing glove to point to "lesser than" or "greater than" symbols.
The Jedi have an impressive selection of combination moves, light saber attacks and use the power of the Force to battle enemies such as Jedi hunter Asajj Ventress.
Players may become frustrated with the save option as they must work through all levels of a mission before taking a break.
Accumulating bitz will lead to unlocking downloads, including screen background art and character celebrations.
Sonic the Hedgehog (for ages 7 to 10) -Sega's video game superstar stops by to teach tykes the finer point of spelling in this - you guessed it - side-scrolling platform challenge.
In a retro-style presentation - the Sega Genesis comes to mind - the player zooms, bounces and propels Sonic around colorful terrain and passageways to save his friends from Dr. Eggman and his robotic minions. Always in pursuit of golden rings, the hero also finds portals that translate into spelling tests that reward successful students with more rings.
It's four zones of frenetic fun and an exhausting review of contractions, plurals and the dreaded letter blends.
Micromods include new music, animal friends and Sonic animations.
Indiana Jones (for ages 7 to 10) - The best of the first bunch of Didj titles has a player control the famed explorer and sidekick Mutt Williams with plenty of math in the mind. Based on the recent Indy film, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the side-scrolling exploration and combat takes place in tombs, jungle terrain and even on top of trucks.
Problem-solving action involves answering addition, division, multiplication and subtraction equations to unlock treasure chests and secret passages.
Both characters are very animated and Indy's whip acts as an effective weapon and transportation device. A bit of extra knowledge can be found in a treasure area where topics such as Incan culture are discussed.
Micromods available for purchase with bitz include special whip and fighting moves along with a secret level.
Nicktoons: Android Invasion (for ages 7 to 10) - Problem-solving reaches animated heights as some of Nickelodeon's cartoon heroes try to stop Invader Zim from conquering Earth. Anytime my tester can control the likes of SpongeBob SquarePants or El Tigre, he is ready for virtual adventure - even if he has to solve math equations to do it.
Through five worlds loaded with platforming challenges, evil robots and extraterrestrials, the player navigates and answers basic addition, division, multiplication and subtraction problems to succeed.
Micromods include downloads of SpongBob's tornado attack and background art.
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.