- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

In a world of too often violent video games, where thumb dexterity is infinitely more important than the flexing of the cerebrum, there’s a place for children and their parents to actually learn something from that multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word-cool.

A cute rodent gives children entrance to a colorful world as they hone one of the most important skills of their lives in Mia Reading: The Bugaboo Bugs (Kutoka, $24.99).

Geared toward 5- to 9-year-olds, this colorful title is packed into a PC and Mac compatible DVD and mixes a nearly Pixar level of 3-D animation with interactive learning exercises.

In the story, a large clan of pests named the Bugaboos overruns Mia the Mouse’s Victorian abode. She must figure out a peaceful way of evicting the insects or face the wrath of the exterminator, who will also take care of her and her family.

The player directs Mia around three-dimensional environments with the mouse pointer, clicks on hot spots, talks to characters, goes on scavenger hunts, collects sparklies (the currency), solves puzzles and can play educational mini-games.

The too-cute action is pretty methodical, standard role-playing. Sounds and dialogue from friends such as the French rat Romaine, an egghead named Marty or the Queen of the Bugaboos are sure to put a warm smile on the younger crowd’s faces.

Punctuation, spelling, verb tense, sentence structure and comprehension are just some of the skill sets tackled in the activities that cover curriculums from kindergarten to third-grade. Twelve activities, each with four difficulty levels, are woven into the tale.

For example, after talking to Marty, Mia must find a short list of items so he can build a communications system. To get a piece of steel wool, she must challenge the slightly dopey rat Nopompon to the best two out of three games of tic-tac-toe phonics.

When set at the advanced (third) difficulty level, the challenge involves moving only illustrated pieces that end in a certain letter onto the board. It’s a clever way to play and sneak in some learning.

The child is clearly directed on what tasks he needs to accomplish during the entire Mia adventure while encouragement and instructions are given for any wrong answers.

Nice features for added replayability are the ability to save multiple games and either choose to take part in the adventure or get right to the educational activities. Parents also can check a child’s progress when on the activities screen.

The latest Mia title is great, but it might appeal more to girls than boys, who probably would rather control one of the rats.

Game Bytes

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

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (for Nintendo DS, Disney Interactive Studios, $29.99) An ambitious effort based on the latest movie takes a player into the world of Narnia to role play with the choice of 18 characters from C.S. Lewis’ famed stories.

Three-dozen levels are mixed between the adventures of Prince Caspian and the Pevensie children as they walk around environments, find new teammates and look for a fight.

The highlight of the action is the actual battles, set as turn-based events. Players click on an opponent and use their stylus pen on the DS touch screen to mirror six types of battle moves to deliver blows and reduce an enemy’s health meter.

Game highlights include reading parts of the story by flipping the DS sideways, blowing into the hand-held to signal a retreat (the DS acts as a horn) and being able to forge new powers from collected ingredients.

The game is too easy for experienced gamers, but is the perfect fit for younger fans of the films.

Additionally, this is the first title to utilize the online community DGamer, guaranteed kid-friendly and safe by Disney Interactive. Children find a wireless hot spot (such as McDonald’s restaurants, not necessarily the best choice) and they can connect with fellow players to chat, gift items they unlock in the game and view leader boards.

Mario Kart Wii (for Wii, Nintendo, $49.99) Video game racing takes on an entirely new dimension when drivers actually hold a steering wheel. Such is the case in this obvious peripheral for Nintendo’s magical multi-sensored console. Players enjoy the latest addition to a classic franchise and race within the colorful courses on the Mushroom Kingdom circuit.

Using famed characters from the Nintendo universe or their own Mii as an avatar, players maneuver around challenging terrain and obstacle-filled roads to take home the checkered flag.

Hilarious powerups and weapons are run over and used during the races, including Bloopers that spray ink on a windshield to mess up visibility and Mega Mushrooms that increase the size of the vehicle.

The wheel holds the Wiimote in its center and steering takes a bit of getting used to, especially when in action-packed moments.

Four drivers in the same room or up to 12 folks online can compete in one of the better Wii experiences currently available.

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