- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

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.

Fisher Price’s 5-year-old band of action-figure superstars, the Rescue Heroes, have gone from their humble 6-inch-tall plastic toy beginnings to becoming pop-culture, multimedia icons through appearances in cartoons, books, a Web site and video games.

The team’s latest adventure comes through Play TV: Rescue Heroes, a stand-alone interactive control unit that turns an ordinary television into a virtual world of dangers that allows children to take part in activities to help mankind.

After parents put four C batteries into the bright yellow-and-blue rectangular command center and plug it into the audio/video input jacks of a TV or VCR, the action can begin.

Geared toward children 4 and older, six on-screen scenarios set in a forest, a city and at sea combine with junior’s manual movement of buttons, gears and wheels to perform such on-screen maneuvers as putting out house fires with a water cannon; saving baby whales using a rope; rescuing passengers from a sinking ship; and driving a firetruck, helicopter and hydrofoil.

Red lights flash on each command item to show the player which to press, pull or turn during activities. A real Rescue Hero can be placed in a slot in the front of the center, and Ariel Flyer, Billy Blazes and Gil Gripper offer on-screen audio and visual encouragement during the harrowing rescues.

Unfortunately, parents may have a hard time swallowing the price, considering that the graphics are comparable to those of a Game Boy Color title at best and also recognizing that the command center has no way of being upgraded to play new games.

Play TV: Rescue Heroes, Radica, $49.95, stand-alone unit requiring 4 C batteries.

In a world that only the king of the disaster films, Irwin Allen, could appreciate, Fisher-Price’s action-figure stars also are called upon to clean up three environments ravaged by Mother Nature in Rescue Heroes: Mission Select.

The 3-D CD-ROM action game claims to teach children 5 to 7 years old about safety and teamwork, but shrewd parents will see immediately that the adventures are really just a dynamic way for younger consumers to interact with as many licensed characters and vehicles as possible.

When considering the wide range of garbage filtered to junior on a daily basis, I can deal with a marketing concept that actually highlights the hard, lifesaving work of firemen, policemen, emergency medical technicians, rangers and rescue divers.

After signing in, junior is greeted by narrator Warren Waters, who offers the player the chance to make a difference in a city ravaged by storms, an area being consumed by a volcano or a seaside town almost destroyed by a flood.

A single player must take control of characters from the Rescue Heroes universe and, using simple keyboard commands or a mouse, move them around, collect items and perform a ludicrous number of tasks to restore order.

In just a short list, Billy Blazes must put out raging apartment building fires with his familiar backpack water cannon, rescue people and zoo animals by delivering them to proper medical personnel with the help of the patented Quick Response Helicopter, clear debris using a police cruiser, shut down a subterranean gas leak, reconnect pipes to get hydrants working for the firetruck, deal with downed electrical lines and feed a giraffe so it returns to the zoo. Man, this guy wears a lot of hats.

That same type of frenetic action applies when diver Gil Gripper deals with dangerous waters using a hydrofoil and Nemo the rescue dolphin, as well as when Hal E. Copter must fight molten mayhem with a dirt bike, truck and helicopter backpack.

About the only problem the gaming generation may have with the title is its brevity. Efficient rescuers probably can finish the game in less than 90 minutes.

It appears Vivendi might have realized this shortcoming, so a second disc has been added, a DVD presenting three Rescue Heroes cartoon adventures. The 20-minute episodes, “Electrical Storm,” “Tidal Wave” and “Peril on the Peaks,” perfectly complement the game and, along with Radica’s Play TV unit, should keep junior giddy while interacting with his favorite heroes.

Rescue Heroes: Mission Select, Vivendi Universal Games $19.99, hybrid for PC or Macintosh systems.

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Ted Turner’s $90 million history lesson comes to the digital world through a double-sided DVD that does an excellent job of deconstructing a large portion of the Civil War for the high school student. Directed by Ron Maxwell, Gods and Generals traces the bloodiest of America’s conflicts from Gen. Robert E. Lee refusing President Lincoln’s request to take command of the Union Army to the death of Stonewall Jackson.

High school students in an American history class will most appreciate the epic along with interesting bonus features and should allow at least five hours, including bathroom breaks, to get through the visual class.

After watching 219 minutes of the Civil War unfolding, determined viewers can get more of a historical perspective in a commentary track from the director, Col. Keith Gibson, executive director of the Virginia Military Institute Museum; and James Robertson Jr., professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Featurettes on Stonewall Jackson and a behind-the-scenes look at the Fredericksburg battle also will enlighten. When the DVD is viewed on a PC, the Gods and Generals Web site is quickly accessible to provide a time line of events, biographical videos of key players in the conflict, maps and even background on surgery on soldiers in the 1860s. Supposedly, even more DVD- and PC-exclusive learning content exists, including an interactive quiz, but I gave up after about an hour of fishing.

“Gods and Generals” by Warner Home Video, $19.98, for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers.

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 (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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