For any high school student even thinking about college, one of the hurdles is getting past the stress-inducing SAT.
Whether it's called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Scholastic Assessment Test, SAT Reasoning Test or Dante's 10th circle of hell, this four-hour trial scores students based on their understanding of math, critical reading and writing. Of the avalanche of programs and study guides available, one of the latest tries to give the student a new perspective on the ordeal, one that taps into his core confidence levels, intelligence and enjoyment of casual gaming.
Test prep leader Kaplan and software developer Aspyr team up for FutureU ($39.99), a basic challenge that can be used to chart a course for success with the SAT.
After a simple installation on the computer (the hybrid disc is compatible with the latest Mac operating system and Windows Vista), a bright-eyed humanoid introduces himself and beckons students to join him. Before the fun begins, the cute little fellow can be customized with color, choice of eyes and T-shirt designs. The avatar doesn't do much but occasionally fly around the screen and offer some encouragement.
Next, the "X-Files"-style music kicks in and it's time to select from six games (a pair each for math, reading and writing) loaded with more than 1,000 questions that tackle skills and concepts rather than simply memorization.
It's an uncomfortable stroll down memory lane for old fogies like myself as I quickly became reacquainted with polynomials, modifiers, linear graphs and run-on sentences. Since math is my strong suit, I began with Connections, an exercise in decision-making as well as solving problems efficiently.
Players answer one of two questions during each of the five rounds and must deduce which they have the best chance of getting right (a helpful skill when taking the actual SAT).
I clicked on an answer devoted to a story problem and gears grind as a plate moved over my choice. Whether correct or incorrect, I always get a clear explanation.
Sounds reasonable, but the math questions will really tax one's brain with equations, prickly story problems and remembering how to figure out arithmetic means (yes, Google helped).
FutureU also really helps with vocabulary as seen in the game Glyph. Students combine the definitions of 75 common SAT word roots by assembling a larger word using two stones they drag into place, for example, "endermic" (absorbed through the skin) combines "en" (into) and "derm" (skin).
A big component of the SAT is making an educated guess in multiple-choice questions. The game Prediction helps as the student learns to deduce which response might fit into a set of answers before seeing the choices.
The player is shown a sentence with a few blank areas and must type in words that could fit in the passage. He then checks his words against the actual set of answers and must make a final decision based on his earlier typed response. It's a confidence builder and a way to sharpen critical reading skills.
Other games include Writer Wrong, which tackles the paragraph improvement portion of the SAT, and Ante Up Grade. Ante Up, with its simple quiz-show presentation, has the student answer sentence structure questions and applies a confidence level to the answer for more points.
All of the games relay their importance to the SAT and are played at a relaxing pace with no pressure, other than feeling dumb.
And just to remind students why they are at FutureU, they also can take a Quick Quiz with questions in the SAT format and even learn the fine art of skipping the most difficult questions.
For players looking for a slicker gaming experience, FutureU will be available for the Nintendo DS with hands-on functionality and the same level of learning.
Here's an abbreviated look at a multimedia item for the entire family:
• Drawn to Life: SpongeBob SquarePants Edition (for DS, THQ, $29.99) - In this 11th teaming of the popular Porifera with THQ, the action centers around the episode "Frankendoodle" as the player literally must create his hero and clean up the chaos caused by the evil DoodleBob.
Easily the most inspired SpongeBob game to date, the title has artistic expression take precedence over getting through the 20 or so side-scrolling missions. Not only does a player really draw the character he controls using the DS' touch screen as a canvas and stylus pen as art implement, but his masterpiece also comes to animated life to help rescue the denizens of Bikini Bottom.
With a decent selection of colors and options typical to a paint program, just creating the hero can be a time-consuming effort. Once he exists, the player can tap into powerful moves and get help from SpongeBob, Patrick and Squidward to convert DoodleBob's minions to good guys and erase graffiti.
The art challenges don't stop at assembling the character. A player eventually draws gadgets, vehicles, save points, a house, furnishings, bad guys and almost everything needed to customize his adventure, all enjoyed within SpongeBob's colorful world.
Better yet, youngsters are given a quick drawing lesson in extras mode where they tackle basic concepts such as facial expression and geometric figures as well as coloring the characters.
The adventure even includes collecting coins to buy upgrades and wireless multicard action for up to four players.
• Mystery Case Files: MillionHeir (for DS, Nintendo, $19.99) — The popular seek-and-solve series from Big Fish Games arrives on Nintendo's handheld system but will feel pretty familiar to youngsters in the family.
Let's call the action a pumped-up version of "I Spy" as solo players must find objects hidden in cluttered pictures tied to a mystery.
In this case, the detective solves the recent disappearance of Phil T. Rich by locating items (more than 1,000 are hidden) that help him unearth a dozen potential suspects and assemble information.
Action also includes working through some slider and jigsaw puzzles and manipulating or combining objects to meet mission requirements.
The DS' touch screen enables clicking on the items, managing resources, moving around the beautifully illustrated locations and controlling helpful tools such as a flashlight and mini X-ray machine. Even the handheld's microphone comes into play to blow away stuff to uncover a piece.
Toss in multiple difficulty levels (the easiest has no time limits and extra clues) and a great price along with a wireless multicard option for four players to enjoy scavenger hunts. The entire package makes for an addictive casual gaming experience that will appeal to multiple investigators in the family.
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.