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ROMper ROOM: Game becomes language coach

- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2008

Picking up My Chinese Coach (for Nintendo DS, Ubisoft, $29.99), I knew it would take more than a gamer's worth of finesse to beat this program. I actually would have to learn something.

No doubt, the Chinese language is difficult to master and this program strives to help the user. As a coach, it provides a three-tiered, lesson-structured approach that displays the word in English, Chinese "pinyin" form and character form.

Students learn by taking advantage of the DS' great interactivity, recording their voice to compare the spoken word, tracing the characters to learn stroke sequence and conquering 12 games designed to reinforce through repetition. For example, in the first lesson, the program begins with familiar conversational words and greetings then moves on to lessons that include colors, pronouns, nouns and verbs, always building toward conversational sentences.

Sitting down with my 9-year-old son, who has studied Mandarin for more than two years, we were able to progress through the early lessons quickly. However, it still took more than five hours to work through 11 lessons, beating the games before I felt comfortable with words and characters already very familiar to him. (By the way, the program is for teens and older.)

As you work on a word group lesson, the English word is side by side with the Chinese character. Clicking on the green characters activates an audio pronunciation of the Chinese word. Click on the Speak icon and you can record yourself saying the word, replay your pronunciation or play your pronunciation at the same time as the coach.

This is crucial as the language must be spoken in tones, or inflections. With the word "ma," for example, the coach explains that it has four different tones and meanings. My Chinese Coach ably teaches these tones through a system that includes listening to the word, speaking the word and finally comparing your pronunciation with the coach's pronunciation.

For the game fan, the selection is fun and challenging. For example, one tests tone-deciphering ability, one of the hardest aspects of learning to speak the language. With four tones listed, the user hears the word and has to select the corresponding "tone" or inflection.

The Fading Characters challenge is the most difficult and frustrating. After seeing a character quickly written on the screen, the player must trace over it, reproducing the same character from memory. One complaint: On the DS, the characters are often so small it is sometimes impossible to really see their defining strokes.

With lessons mastered, more games are unlocked. During our time, we also unlocked a flashcard game that has players listen to a word pronunciation and then choose the correct English translation, a great way to get the brain thinking in both languages.

Students can review and practice past lessons or visit the dictionary under the program's Reference section. The multimedia dictionary can be searched in English and customized to have only the words students have mastered appear on the screen.

My Chinese Coach delivers a surprisingly enlightening experience. However, difficulty levels are high and patience is mandatory amid the fun interactivity.

Game Bytes

• Rock Band 2 (for Xbox 360, MTV Games and Harmonix, Rated: Teen, $59.99) - The premier multiplayer music game for those who appreciate rock 'n' roll returns with its familiar brand of virtual fun.

As seen in its predecessor, a soloist or group of faux-musicians use instrument-shaped peripherals to "play" along with a selection of songs while trying to rise to stardom.

During the action, vertically scrolling notes on-screen must be matched by drummer and guitarists while singers must copy pitch and enunciation of vocal lines to succeed.

In its latest edition, creating avatars is a much more detailed event (more gear, tattoos, clothing and even a band logo art program), the action more user-friendly (a drum tutorial helps budding percussionists), and the World Tour is as extensive.

An online effort seamlessly integrates group members (in the same room and on Xbox Live) along with offering a Battle of the Bands for groups to compete for highest point totals.

Another new feature, the "No Fail" mode, gives the most rhythmically challenged and uncoordinated members of the group a chance to partake in the fun. The musical fumbler can make unlimited mistakes with no fear of being humiliated by the virtual crowd.

The driving force to any music game is the songs, and Rock Band 2 overwhelms. More than 80 basic tracks are included on the disc, and another 20 will be available as free downloads later this year. Additionally, players can upload most of the 50-plus tracks from last year's Rock Band disc for $4.99.

The core selection of artists remains impressive with hits from Smashing Pumpkins, Blondie, Bob Dylan, the Who, AC/DC, the Talking Heads, Jethro Tull, Dinosaur Jr., Billy Idol, Linkin Park and Squeeze.

Nothing warmed this old drummer's heart more than watching my offspring sing Cheap Trick's "Hello There" while simultaneously matching percussive licks. This type of bonding really makes the game special as parents and teens can introduce one another to a fantastic set of music covering decades of the rock genre.

Rock Band 2 is compatible with last year's bundle of peripheral instruments, but serious players will invest in the refreshed lineup, in particular, a wireless drum set with more responsive pads and a metal-plated kick pedal ($89.99). Even cooler, the downsized wireless Stratocaster ($69.99) features a faux-woodgrain finish and starburst faceplate, a five-tone-setting toggle switch and much better strum bar sensitivity.

The best bet might be to wait for the full bundle release (game, drums, guitar and mic) to be available in late October ($189.99). Unfortunately for MTV Games, it's just in time to compete with Activision's Guitar Hero: World Tour, a new group jam session game.

• 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.