Wednesday, July 2, 2003

McDonald’s Happy Meal toys continue to evolve from simple, character-licensed goodies to high-tech happenings seeking to appeal to today’s tots, who want more than a piece of articulated plastic to satisfy their multimedia appetites.

The company’s latest brainstorm brings the popular video-game element into the toy for the first time with the help of some familiar friends from Sega.

“McDonald’s is about fun and an entertaining experience for families, and we felt Sega was the perfect match for this Happy Meal promotion with its familiar characters that have been a part of the gaming world for over 20 years,” says Karlin Linhardt, senior director for children and family marketing at McDonald’s.

Collectors may remember that the last time Sega teamed with McDonald’s was for a 1994 promotion. Then children received molded plastic characters from the world of Sonic the Hedgehog, complete with launchers, windups and pull-back capabilities.

Since then, McDonald’s has upped the interactivity ante of its toys with items such as voice-activated dogs from the “102 Dalmatians” collection in 2000, an LCD Etch-a-Sketch from its “Toy Story 2” promotion in 2001 and, more recently, the “Finding Nemo” line, featuring creatures that light up and make sounds.

Through July 24, junior can become reacquainted with Sega through one of six hand-held Happy Meal games featuring the likes of AiAi the primate from Super Monkey Ball and Sonic and his pals Tails, Knuckles and Shadow.

The six rectangular units, sized for the small hands of 6- to 12-year-olds, use two buttons and a 1-inch LCD screen and have built-in software and batteries so they operate right from the package. Each device should last for 400 game plays — or until junior begs for another Happy Meal.

Surprisingly, the ability to offer this type of technology in a free toy has its roots in the current explosion of cellular communications.

“Actually, the refinements of cell-phone technology have worked to our advantage, along with our ability to refine the production process to make this promotion worth doing, Mr. Linhardt says.

Games fall into the avoiding, collecting or jumping varieties, with static color backgrounds and black-and-white action ranging from driving a race car to playing soccer to collecting rings to maneuvering around sidewalks with a skateboard to grabbing bananas.

As for the minigames’ potential popularity and collectibility, Rich Briggs, a senior product manager at Sega, says he knew the company was onto something during meetings at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3), a trade show where video-game companies tout their hottest properties for the year.

“We had samples of the products at E3 in our retail and press meetings, and we learned very quickly that you do not hand them out at the beginning of the meetings because everyone was playing and not paying attention to our presentations,” Mr. Briggs says.

“We even saw some of them listed on EBay the next day after just giving out the premiums at the show.”

• • •

Those who want to finely hone their brainpower need only stop by the Web site ( to get, supposedly, a nine-point IQ boost just for playing some games.

A study by the Delos Institute, a research facility associated with the University of Texas, backs up the claim and also says the visit will reduce anxiety and increase cognitive efficiency.

By purchasing a membership — $7.95 for one month, $19.95 for four months or $39.95 for a full year — those in need of cranial calisthenics will be provided a full course of mental gymnastics. Of course, as the cerebrum expands, there is the potential for an expansion of the waistline, as well, if the user sits in front of a computer for hours at a time solving puzzles.

The site features nine interactive exercises lasting one to three minutes each and requiring the user to respond quickly to a series of random stimuli, make decisions and remember letter sequences. Each exercise, which measures reaction time in thousandths of a second, allows users to track their own results and compete with other members.

Despite the site’s claims of increased brainpower, I still think the best way to stimulate the noggin might be by interacting with a family member through a board game, taking a course at a local college, playing a team sport or maybe even doing something as absurd as reading a book.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message (jszadkowski@

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