- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2002

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

German author Nele Moost's famed black bird comes to children's computer screens in The Little Raven and Friends: The Tricycle Story. Brought to life using the cuddly and bright illustrations of Annet Rudolph, the interactive program pounds home the themes of sharing, responsibility and cooperation as toddlers play seven games.

Decision-making combined with cause and effect reigns supreme throughout this multimedia storybook as clicking on characters and items in the forest and answering numerous questions about doing the right thing will keep the plot moving along.

The adventure begins as Little Raven takes Eddie Bear's tricycle for a ride without his permission. Of course, disaster strikes when an unyielding tree gets in the way, smashing the prized possession into eight pieces, now scattered throughout the forest.

With only the front wheel in hand, Little Raven must talk to all of his friends and get help collecting the pieces. But before they can start visiting Little Raven's pals, players must make an important decision. Do they tell Eddie the truth or lie about the tragic event? Two bubbles appear above the bird's head, one reading "yes," the other, "no." The child chooses by clicking on a response.

A "yes" is greeted with a tearful bear resigned to forgive, if Little Raven reassembles the cycle. A "no" lands the bird in the "time-out cave" where he has time to rethink the decision. This pattern of play continues throughout as the sometimes-naughty Raven does not always want to help his friends in exchange for pieces and pays the price.

If the bird agrees to help the likes of Hare, Badger, Owl, Mouse and Mole, he usually ends up meeting a challenge, which includes memory games, finding a flag, pushing cheese through a maze or rounding up 3,592 beetles (Raven exaggerates a bit). Each game has two levels of difficulty and comes perfectly over-explained for the younger crowd.

For the linguist in the family, the program's narration can be switched from French to German to English with a click on a flag.

Overall, I have seen more engaging educational software, but none so skilled at reiterating the many levels of a friendship.

The Little Raven and Friends: The Tricycle Story, Tivola, $19.98, hybrid for PC or Macintosh systems.

The holographic map technology demonstrated in such films as "Treasure Planet" and "Star Wars Episode II, Attack of the Clones" comes to simplistic life in Star Theater 2, an educational, interactive experience geared toward grade-school students.

This portable, cantaloupe-sized planetarium comes mounted on a stick and uses a translucent dome and halogen light source to project about 100 constellations and their names onto the ceiling and walls.

The theater can either rest within a base on the floor of a very clean and white room, or, through the help of the glow-in-the-dark stars on the orb, be taken outdoors to try and align with the night sky. A rotating dial helps pinpoint the alignment with a combination of adjustments to the season, month and hour.

A handy, though cheap-looking, "meteor maker" doubles as a pointer to highlight phenomena or can use a couple of slides (tethered to the unit) of interstellar objects, such as Halley's comet, to have the student manually move them across the indoor sky.

As an added bonus, a 45-minute audio CD and 16-page booklet will relay the basics of astronomy, such as planetary positions and occurrences of meteor showers, to complete a really creative, educational package.

Star Theater 2, Uncle Milton, $29.99, stand-alone unit requiring two AA and one AAA batteries, for ages 8 years and older.

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia edutainment. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail ([email protected]).

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