- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 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.

Homework just got a whole lot more exciting for elementary school children with JumpStart Study Helpers. Now available for mathematics and spelling, each CD-ROM program allows children or educators to incorporate weekly school problems into gaming environments to practice the sometimes boring task of interacting with numbers and words.

Using JumpStart’s mascot, the ebullient pooch Frankie and arcade-style action, the two titles feature three games each and come loaded with a wide range of problems for the player as well as a constantly updating progress report for the parent.

First, Math Blaster hones addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, decimal, fraction and percentage skills by reaching back into video-game history for a trifecta of fun. Taking place in a space-themed environment, the games, which have 800 problems ready to do, are a bit hard but can be set to multiple difficulty levels.

The most exciting, Asteroid Smash, has the player shoot the correct chunks of numbered space rocks to solve the equation displayed at the bottom of the screen. In Galactic Pinball, the player controls a bouncing orb as it ricochets off bumpers, is sucked into black holes or encounters space monsters as the ball is maneuvered toward numbered areas to lock on to correct answers to more equations.

The most challenging of the three, DigiHog Drop, requires the player to line up chunky, numbered extraterrestrials in Tetris-like rows to complete horizontal equations. If junior has a pressing assignment or an upcoming test, he also can input equations very quickly by hand through a four-step editor.

The second title, Spelling Bee, concentrates on long and short vowels, blends, compounds, word families and listening skills while taking place in waterscapes with 1,700 preprogrammed words at a child’s disposal.

Games range from a seahorse race in which riders must suck in letters on fish to complete words missing a letter, a Fish Frenzy that has Frankie catching aquatic creatures sporting correctly spelled words, and a permutation of Asteroid Smash featuring crabs that aggressively swim toward the player.

The more robust editor to this program requires users to type in a word, spell it correctly, give three incorrect versions and even tweak the speech filter to get the word to sound clearer, if necessary. I would suggest turning up the volume when playing Spelling Bee so the narrator can be heard accurately, a critical point to the games.

Overall, the JumpStart Study Helpers do a fine job of reinforcing concepts using colorful friends, and they offer enough programming flexibility to stay useful for several years.

JumpStart Study Helpers’ Math Blaster and Spelling Bee, Knowledge Adventure, $19.99 each, cross-compatible for PC and Macintosh systems.

Three to see

Here are three multimedia or entertainment items to try:

— ISpy: A Mumble Monster Mystery and Other Stories, by HBO Video for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment systems, $19.99. Jean Marzollo and Walter Wicks 10-year-old book series that challenges viewers observation and logic skills continues to be an award-winning series for HBO Family and now it has been transferred to the digital video realm with a few surprises. Three picture-riddle tales come to life, perfectly mirroring the authors lifelike page presentations, as Spyler, the tennis-ball-headed character, and his faithful pooch, CeCe, spend a lot of time looking for stuff.

Children will love the Bob the Builder stop-motion animation style and will look carefully for objects along with the onscreen characters through 90 minutes of eye-straining interactivity. When popped into the computer, the DVD also offers the Oops Hoops game, which has the player drag like items into circles that occasionally overlap (i.e., a Granny Smith apple would go in a circle containing green things and also could fit into the circle filled with fruit) as they work through six variations and, an unnecessary link to the HBO site (inexplicably not the HBO Family site) highlighting a “Sex in the City” quiz whoops.

— Bulls-Eye Ball, by Tiger Electronics, stand-alone product requiring 3 AA batteries, $19.99. This perfect time waster for the family game room or office desk pays a skewered homage to Skee Ball as a single player bounces metal balls off a minitrampoline and tries to sink them in holes embedded in three concentric rings to score points.

The board game reaches new, chatty heights as a narrator eliminates the need for paper and pencil while explaining the three primary challenges, keeps score, announces times and retains high scores as lights flash and frenetic music assaults the ears during the action. Players can choose from 30 Second Blitz, score as many points as possible in half a minute; 25-Point Rush, score 25 points or more in the least amount of time; and Bulls-Eye Ace, score as many bulls-eyes as possible before 10 misses. The game will keep parents addicted and should keep junior away from a computer screen for a limited amount of time.

— Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, by TDK Mediactive for Gameboy Advance, $19.99. The melody to “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Pirates Lifes for Me” has been hurting my noggin for three days and is driving me mad thanks to this swashbuckling game loosely based on the current Disney film and developed for Nintendos popular hand-held system.

Sure, I enjoyed taking on the role of Jack Sparrow and battling Capt. Barnossa and his ruthless band of the undead within 20 missions presented mostly in three-quarter over-the-top perspective. I also loved roaming the lands to dig up treasure and sword-fight with British regulars and even commanding a ship to engage in high-seas battles. The sweeping story involves a bit of button-mashing to defeat opponents, but the inventory-based title still works well for the younger child who is just beginning to understand the potential of the role-playing game.

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, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail ([email protected]).

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