- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 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.

Children can sing, tap their toes and hone preschool skills with the Learn Through Music System. The stand-alone interactive unit combines repetition, rhythm and rhyming of musical sounds and lyrics to capture the attention of users as they interact with some of their favorite characters.

Shaped like a miniature video jukebox with a handle, the system requires cartridges that contain 15 illustrated pages. The pages scroll across a 4-by-5-inch touch-sensitive screen that contains 30 hot spots that illuminate to reinforce narrated activities. A small-hand-friendly working microphone encourages the child to sing a song.

Two modes of play are activated by pressing either a music note, which incorporates memorable songs and poems, or a question mark, which quizzes the child, who manually answers questions on what he or she has learned through the song.

The included cartridge, for example, revolves around the “Blue’s Clues” universe. The child joins Joe and his pooch as they explore colors through activities such as touching paint cans to mix hues, identifying objects by color and mimicking spoken sequences. Difficulty levels increase as pages change and go from simply touching primary color items to distinguishing between vermilion, chartreuse and aquamarine.

Cartridges available ($9.99 each) to keep the system fresh range from Elmo’s Scavenger Hunt from “Sesame Street” to Let’s Share the Day Together with Barney to — the best of the bunch — Dora’s Farm Adventure, which has the bilingual explorer looking for missing animals.

In Dora’s adventure, the Nick Jr. character spends a long day in the country as she, with the help of Boots the monkey and that crazy insect mariachi band, introduces children to a barn full of creatures, places where they might hang out and sounds characteristic to them while occasionally requesting that the participants pronounce words into the microphone.

Parents will love the scrollable book concept (so pages won’t be destroyed) and will find the simple play activation liberating, but they will see potential problems in the lack of volume control (although some later models of the production run have it), repetition of songs and backlighted screen. They also will need to keep a gallon of cleaner on hand to wipe the screen, which will become smudged quickly with fingerprints.

Affordable and addictive, the Learn Through Music System nevertheless is not comparable to the more robust LeapFrog’s My First LeapPad. However, it should be considered as a good gift for the 2- to 4-year-old entranced by music and specific branded characters.

Learn Through Music System, Fisher-Price, $29.99, stand-alone unit includes one cartridge and requires three C batteries.

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 (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

DOUBLE DELIGHT

HERE ARE TWO MULTIMEDIA OR ENTERTAINMENT ITEMS TO TRY:

• SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS: BATTLE FOR BIKINI BOTTOM BY THQ INC. FOR XBOX, PLAYSTATION 2 AND GAMECUBE, $39.99. THREE UNSUSPECTING HEROES FROM UNDER THE SEA MUST SAVE THEIR BELOVED SANDS AND THE WORLD FROM AN EVIL PIECE OF ALGA AND HIS ROBOTIC HORDES. THIS INTRIGUING PREMISE IMMERSES FANS IN NICKELODEON’S SOGGIEST UNIVERSE AS THEY CONTROL SPONGEBOB, HIS FRIEND PATRICK THE STARFISH AND GAL PAL SANDY CHEEKS IN A VERY SILLY THIRD-PERSON ADVENTURE.

PLAYERS MUST COLLECT AS MUCH SHINY JUNK AS POSSIBLE WHILE INTERACTING IN A PERFECT REPRESENTATION OF BIKINI BOTTOM WITH ITS INHABITANTS, COMPLETE WITH PLENTY OF WACKY DIALOGUE, EPISODE MEMORIES AND 10 HUGE 3-D ENVIRONMENTS. AS THEY PUSH BUTTONS, BUBBLE ABOUT AND BATTLE BOTS, CHARACTERS CAN GO TONGUE-BOARDING AND MAINTAIN EXTRA LIVES BY COLLECTING UNDERWEAR. THE GAME WILL ENTRANCE THE ENTIRE FAMILY, AND EVEN A 4-YEAR-OLD WILL HAVE THE SKILLS TO ENJOY THE ACTION.

• BeyBlade Arcade Challenge by Tiger Electronics, stand-alone unit requiring a television and four AA batteries, $49.99. My favorite board game growing up, Battle Tops, has gone from discs mounted on plastic tubes that were manually ripped into action with a string to high-tech spinning saucers maneuvered by interactive controllers to its latest version, playable on a television screen.

The BeyBlade phenomenon simply involves unleashing gyroscope-type devices into an arena and letting momentum declare a winner. Through the video-game version, players use a large controller and still get to use a rip cord to pull their tops into a whirling frenzy, but all the action takes place virtually.

Children can choose from 26 of their favorite BeyBlade characters on-screen after connecting the simple plug-and-play device and can enjoy five play modes, including survival and training and a two-player event requiring two launchers and connector cable (sold separately).

The pricey fun offers graphics way below the current gaming systems standards, and parents might be better off spending money on the latest lines of live-action BeyBlades or purchasing the GameCube or Game Boy Advance simulations.


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