- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 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.

Some familiar fish stop by to help exercise a child’s noggin in Nemo’s Underwater World of Fun.

Based on the animated blockbuster by filmmaking powerhouses Disney and Pixar, this activity-rich adventure combines simple on-screen activities with a video gaming payoff that has the kindergarten demographic helping Nemo’s dad, Marlin, build his son a Super Swim challenge to hone the little guy’s water skills.

After the player selects a character to save his progress — I chose the puffy pink octopus Pearl — he finds himself in an awesome underwater environment, moving around with Nemo, Dora and Marlin as they run into friends and collect items to build the swimming course.

To acquire prizes such as sand dollars, pearls, conch shells, anchors and bottles that will help put Nemo in an aquatic test, the child must successfully complete five challenges that incorporate characters from the film and will hone memory and logic skills.

Games range from a simple shell game hosted by the hammerhead shark Anchor, in which Blenny the snail is hiding under one of three shells, to helping forgetful Dora remember a sequence of patterns created by a school of moonfish, to Nemo trying to feed Bruce the shark kelp balls by using his tail to paddle them toward Bruce’s great white mouth.

Once the player has earned five of the same item by completing at least one of the five levels in each game, he moves to the Super Swim, which resembles a timed side-scroller in which Nemo eventually must maneuver through five obstacle courses to collect singing scallops and power-ups while avoiding obstacles such as tangling kelp that might slow him down.

I was disappointed that the educational opportunities were nonexistent, although players could read along with the dialogue via captions. The developers could have at least offered some facts about the sea creatures. This Underwater World of Fun still stands out, however, for the gorgeous re-creation of Nemo’s film through 3-D-like imagery, clips from the movie and music, along with enough action to keep junior satisfyingly immersed in the computer.

Nemo’s Underwater World of Fun by THQ Inc., $19.99, hybrid for PC (Windows 98 or higher) or Macintosh (operating system X or higher) computers.

National Geographic is teaming up with Target to offer a collection of more than 40 educational toys geared toward the inquisitive 4- to 12-year-old scientists, explorers and nature lovers in the family.

Two products that might appeal to paleontology hobbyists use some traditional board-game play and clever gadgets for a look at some of Earth’s mightiest extinct beasts.

First, anyone familiar with the classic game Operation will enjoy the Dino Xcavator. Multiple players are greeted with a fossil site containing the unearthed remains of a Tyrannosaurus rex. After correctly answering a question from six flimsy cards that will last about 10 minutes in any house with a 5-year-old, the player wields a pair of tweezers, and the fun begins.

The game demands that the archaeologist remove 13 of the beast’s bones without touching the sides of the excavation area. Get too close and touch the metal sensor and players hear the mighty roar of the dinosaur, causing them to lose the bone, their nerve and their turn.

Second, the disappointing Dino X-Ray Xpedition kit comes with a patented X-ray scanner (a piece of cardboard with a plastic screen) and two two-sided illustrated prehistoric scenes — one of land with three predators and one of sea — illustrated by paleontological reconstructionist William Stout.

By pushing the scanner onto the scenes in a well-lit room, a child can view the bone structures of the beasts by passing the scanner over their bodies. The child also can use the other side of the card to perform a virtual excavation. I like the concept, but parents basically are paying $15 for two pieces of artwork that, although they can be put together to form a “dino-rama” perfect to sit on a shelf, offer little educational information.

Dino Xcavator, National Geographic, $14.95, stand-alone product requires two C batteries; Dino X-Ray Xpedition, National Geographic, $14.95, stand-alone product.

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).

DOUBLE DELIGHT

HERE ARE TWO MULTIMEDIA OR ENTERTAINMENT ITEMS TO TRY:

Space Channel 5 by THQ for Game Boy Advance SP, $19.99. One of my favorite games for Sega’s antique Dreamcast system has made its way to Nintendo’s popular hand-held unit — and older gamers will weep for the defunct entertainment console’s version.

Featuring ace reporter Ulala, who looks like a futuristic Spice Girl, the game has a player try to stop an alien invasion and rescue hypnotized civilians by matching the dance moves of the Morolians, an extraterrestrial species that barks out commands. Confined to a direction and eventually action response, the player matches movements by using the directional pad and the “a” or “b,” tapping in rhythm to the beat for Ulala to progress through 18 tech-tune-fueled stages.

Sounds simple enough, but try digit dancing while viewing a 2.5-inch-wide screen for guidance and carefully listening to high-pitched alien voices furiously shouting out moves through a speaker the size of a dime. Maybe the younger crowd has bionic hearing and eyesight, but this old fogy had better luck closing his peepers and using “the force” to play this once-fantastic musical challenge.

“James and the Red Balloon and Other Thomas Adventures” by Anchor Bay Entertainment, for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, $19.99. Thomas the Tank Engine fans who are part of the digital-video-disc revolution are in for a treat with the latest DVD release featuring the 58-year-old train and his pals. Youngsters can watch six episodes from the award-winning series, including the title feature and “Twin Trouble,” starring those Scottish engines Donald and Douglas.

Additionally, with portly controller Sir Topham Hatt as a guide, children can enjoy three games, look at some character biographies or page through the eight-page color booklet.


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