- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 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 take a leisurely journey across several continents to visit 40 cities with the help of Drive Across the Americas. The CD-ROM/Web-based adventure comes complete with a steering-wheel peripheral to immerse children 8 years old and older in some of the skills and responsibilities necessary to drive as well as provide a quick historical and geographical education of areas explored.

Parents begin the action by plugging the wheel into the computer's USB port, crossing their fingers to hope it works, and calibrating it. With success comes a large software download to the hard disk via the CD, and parents can tell junior to start his engine.

The wheel works with the mouse to offer an arcade challenge like a simple video game, combined with a clicking learning experience for the player.

After selecting from a mapped location Canada, United States, Mexico or Central or South America the driver can either maneuver using the steering wheel through a 3-D-rendered city to find landmarks, famous buildings and activities or simply view or read about different places via menu-driven screens.

Buttons around the surface of the steering wheel control acceleration and braking, while buttons on the column control the horn, going in reverse, changing perspectives and zooming in on the locator map found in the right-hand corner of the screen.

So, while traveling through the various cities, the player can cruise streets looking for areas of interest and engage in activities (designated by giant balloons) such as answering trivia questions or solving puzzles while avoiding accidents. These actions add to and maintain the player's point total. Once the total is high enough, the driver can trade in his weathered vehicle for a sportier model.

When the United States is selected, for example, the player can roam through the District, New York, San Francisco and Chicago. I selected the Windy City and drove around the John Hancock Tower, Shedd Aquarium and the Wrigley Building before stopping at the museum. The knowledge center pops up with a screenful of icons and offers some history of the city and Illinois, famous people born there and statistics. A multiple-choice trivia quiz then gave me the chance to acquire some valuable points.

Each city also has a power station so drivers can learn about electricity generation, a grocery store to learn about the economics of farming via some math problems, a gas station to buy souvenirs, a restaurant to play a "guess the ingredient" game, a warehouse to play a logic game and a garage to repair or buy a vehicle.

To further offer an air of realism or complication, depending on the player's frustration level, police officers will stop and ticket drivers, costing them points for doing stupid things such as consistently speeding, running a red light, running into buildings or bouncing off other vehicles. Fines can be lowered, however, if the player answers more trivia questions if only that were true in real life.

Additionally, a robust Internet component adds to the education as some of the cities click to another interface with multiple Web-site resources.

Drive Across the Americas, Oregon Scientific, $69.99, For PC system with a USB port.

Double delight

Here are two multimedia or entertainment items to try:

BattleBots: Beyond the BattleBox, by Majesco for GameBoy Advance, $29.99. Comedy Central's television series featuring remote-controlled robots has arrived for Nintendo's hand-held gaming system full of metallic crunching action. Up to four players can build their own customized mechanical menaces and compete against each other or 16 bots featured in the series in four weight divisions for a chance at winning the Golden Nut Trophy.

From assembling a bot, selecting power sources and repairing and upgrading, all nuances of robotic construction and care are available for players as they fight in familiar arenas. The arenas are loaded with hazards, including pulverizers, kill saws and vortexes for players to avoid while strategically pummeling opponents and looking for valuable power-ups to stay alive. Slick sounds, decent graphics and faithfulness to the TV show will thrill BattleBots connoisseurs in the family.

Activision Anthology, by Activision for PlayStation 2, $29.99. More for the father than his offspring, this wonderful collection takes players back to the 1980s to enjoy 45 nostalgic nuggets made for the Atari 2600 entertainment console. Simply playing some graphically challenged games might not thrill most gamers, but this museum of memories sticks the player in a bedroom setting, complete with a 20-inch television that sits on a desk. Cartridges, which appear with original box art and instructions (slightly altered to work with the PS2's controller), are selected from a rotating shelving unit.

Perhaps more exciting than the chance to relive bomb-snagging Kaboom, a primitive baseball simulation, and legends such as Pitfall, Spiderfighter and Atlantis is the amazing soundtrack featuring the bands Blondie, Soft Cell, Squeeze, Missing Persons and Wall of Voodoo. To make things a bit more interesting, the anthology rewards players who conquer the sometimes very complicated offerings with 14 enhanced modes that range from a rippling screen to a screen that rotates 360 degrees to one that zooms in and out.

This smartly priced title is a must for the family game library, if only to show junior how bad the good old days of gaming were.

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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