LeapFrog's hand-held educational gaming systems Leapster ($59.99) and Leapster L-Max ($79.99) have been learning game staples since 2003. In two new cartridges compatible with both systems, children tackle core math skills with help from easily identifiable characters true to their animated worlds in both sight and sound.
First, when I think about number-crunching, I don't equate it with the famed Porifera forever seen on the Nickelodeon cable channel. However, in SpongeBob SquarePants: Through the Wormhole ($17.99) children ages 5 to 8 do get to practice essential math and science skills. The title offers three skill levels and can be played as a one- or two-player arcade game when both friends have a controller.
Beginning with the earlier grade content, younger children learn shapes, counting and basic plant and animal parts. As skill increases, so does content, leading to the second level where children are exposed to addition and subtraction, along with some basic plant and animal life needs. In Level 3, the skills levels further increase.
Action is straightforward and involves collecting images from three moving conveyor belts to answer a question while a timer clicks away in the corner. The player must manipulate either SpongeBob or Patrick from belt to belt, being careful to avoid the wrong image.
The game is faithful to the SpongeBob world, but is not unlike a virtual worksheet. Basically a continuous series of problems, a child may see it more as schoolwork than fun.
Next, girls in prekindergarten through first grade will enjoy playing with Ariel and Belle in Disney Princess Worlds of Enchantment ($24.99). The title plays more like a video game with lots of manipulation challenges as young girls solve puzzles that teach counting, shapes, letters and word identification.
There are two areas of action, Belle's Library and Ariel's Cave and each has two games, with three levels each. While gaining skills, players also uncover and find objects. Lessons in phonics, upper- and lower-case letters, solving math problems, counting forward and backward, and recognizing even and odd numbers are just some of the edutainment opportunities.
While playing the games, children will unlock special codes to open downloads and printable pages at the Leapster World Web site (www.leapsterworld.com).
Overall, the Worlds of Enchantment offers a fun and challenging universe that will have little girls learning alongside the always gentle and encouraging Disney princesses.
When comparing the two Leapster titles, essentially for the same age range, it bears noting that the princess game is much more intelligently presented than SpongeBob's Wormhole. Both Ariel and Belle have better command over the language and they offer a more challenging series of games, though they are skewed for a slightly younger audience than the SpongeBob title.
I understand the SpongeBob cartoon is not known for being intelligent and it might be more attractive to young male players. I still found that the game play was repetitive and simplistic, even on the higher levels.
Hands down, the princesses, and the little girls, win this side-by-side comparison. I would like to see Leap Frog do a bit better for the boys.
Here's an abbreviated look at some multimedia items for the entire family:
Singstar (for PlayStation 3, Sony Computer Entertainment, $59.99 includes two microphones, rated T for teen) - To say my wife barely tolerates my gaming habit is an understatement. So I was shocked when she actually grabbed a microphone and decided to join me in Sony's latest American release for its karaoke franchise.
Admittedly tone deaf, she still managed to pull off a duet of REM's "Losing My Religion" with me. Her enthusiasm can be found in the ease of matching her voice to an ever-changing, tube-shaped pitch and rhythm meter and simply following the words while watching a selection of high-definition music videos.
The latest title offers 30 tracks from an eclectic group of artists ranging from the Rolling Stones ("Sympathy for the Devil") to the Pussycat Dolls ("Beep") to Beck ("Loser"). In addition to duets and passing the microphone, crooners also can go solo or compete against one another for high scores.
The song list tries to please everyone, and it will take buying and downloading more tracks from the Sony online store ($1.49 each) to beef up any specific genre to deliver the perfect karaoke night.
The social networking extra to the title includes recording a performance using the mics or even Sony's Eye video cameras (sold separately) and uploading parts of the effort to a community area.
The "T" rating is for some of the racier song material, but I found enough variety to give the entire family a reason to loosen up the vocal cords.
Aces of the Galaxy (for Xbox 360, Sierra Online, 800 Microsoft points or $10) - This Xbox Live Arcade game is a dazzling three-dimensional shooter taking a player into space to fight off an invasion of the lizardlike Skurgian Empire.
It's Space Invaders on steroids as the pilots choose from three types of ships and select a branching set of about two dozen missions in different parts of the galaxy to deliver serious damage to the swarming enemies.
The ability to scan for invisible Skurgians, three types of firepower (gotta love those cluster missiles), barrel rolls, and encounters with asteroids, stars and mine fields mix within a screen filled with colorful pyrotechnic explosions rivaling "Star Wars"-style battles.
Even better, a second player, in the same room or online, can join in to cooperatively take on the Empire with action even more frenetic. Not bad for 10 bucks.
• Send e-mail to Joseph Szadkowski at firstname.lastname@example.org.