- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 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 Halloween edition of ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word cool.

Disney Interactive offers an early Halloween treat with Search for the Secret Keys. The spooky adventure takes children 5 and older into a haunted house to help rescue some cartoon legends from three prankster ghosts.

To extricate Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and Donald from the creaky mansion, a single player must help the apparitions Shakey, Quakey and Clyde with six main challenges that give an introduction to numbers, letters and music.

The fun begins as the Disney gang enters the mansion and gets stuck. Then, from a first-person perspective, the player uses the mouse to roam through the rooms, find secret passageways, and click on hot spots to begin the games and earn six keys to escape, all the while watching the animated characters independently reacting to the surroundings.

The player eventually will stumble upon a library to hone alphabet skills, a dining room full of armor to explore numbers and a bit of addition and subtraction, a bedroom with a grandfather clock for a word association challenge, a second-story picture gallery to brush up on object and letter recognition, a basement full of leaky pipes to help visual planning, and a sitting room with an old pipe organ to learn about instruments and song construction.

All of the action comes complete with scary sound effects, bloodcurdling music and plenty of cobwebs. Each area has multiple animations to be triggered, such as morphing pictures, changing chandeliers, giddy gargoyles and bear rugs that yawn.

A typical game features ghostly interaction and three difficulty levels the easiest level usually requiring eight variations be played in order to acquire a key. In "Scattered Volumes," for example, the player must place books with a letter on their spines in alphabetical order on the shelves.

A list of the full alphabet resides at the bottom of the screen for reference and if the child gets stuck, a ghost with a chalkboard will pop up to offer some encouragement and concrete help. As the game progresses to later levels, the player must understand multiple letter combinations and assigning images to the letters as in "Ap" for apple or "Ba" for bats.

Despite some slowdown between loading scenes, Disney Interactive has done an excellent job integrating animated sequences and actual game play. I expected the lack of ability to control characters to be a bit frustrating, but so many sequences seamlessly slip in that just watching the shenanigans on the screen became as compelling as some of the games.

Children will love the silly ghosts and the chance to enjoy Mickey and the gang moving around a classic horror movie environment.

As an added bonus, and offering nothing educational, the package also contains a full version of the game Pinball Panic, featuring the voices and some of the characters from "Monsters, Inc." One or two players control a silver orb on a standard table that represents the Scream Factory. Players can choose the scary mode (with five balls) or the horrifying mode (three balls) as they explore multiple levels of action, complete tasks to enter bonus boards and attempt to top slithery Randall's high score.

Search for the Secret Keys, Disney Interactive, $19.99, Hybrid for PC and Macintosh computer systems.

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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