- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 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.

A practical numbers adventure greets children as they become saviors to the arithmetically challenged residents of Metropolis in Math Missions: The Race to Spectacle City Arcade. With three levels of difficulty gauged toward kindergarten, first- and second-grade audiences, the title offers colorful, traditional cartoon action, music and the chance to work on addition, subtraction, coin counting and symmetrical shape creation through 12 exercises.

The fun begins with a song from the flighty city founder, Horton Spectacle, who decides to take a vacation from his suffering businesses, which seem to employ only clerks befuddled by anything involving a financial transaction. With the help of Deputy Mayor Ada Lott and a PDA referred to as an Automatic Personnel Education Tutor or @PET for progress reports, the player visits a strip mall, outdoor market and downtown venues to help these math idiots do their jobs.

Players who successfully handle all of the clerks’ problems receive wages worthy of an indentured servant, which may be spent at the Spectacle City Arcade and then replenished by helping the dimwits again.

So during a typical day, one might visit a toy store to help a clerk juiced up on sugar put orders together by matching the number of items requested held in 100-, 10- and single-quantity baskets. Or take a ferry (after helping the captain set his clock) to reach the outdoor market and engage in five activities involving measurements, hosted by a crazy Cajun fisherman.

The game also offers minichallenges and educational opportunities as one travels around the city. A paper carrier is always ready to throw the latest edition of the Daily Spectacle on the screen to enlighten with tidbits on famous mathematicians such as Andrew Wiles and Pythagoras, or the player may run into a soda machine and try to find the can that does not belong.

Once players collect some cash after helping all the clerks (I accumulated a whopping $11.25) they can hit that money-sucking arcade for three games, including bouncing a clown toward the top of a big top so he can pop balloons, and the Bug Bomber challenge, which involves getting a trio of similar creatures in a row to watch them get zapped into oblivion.

The latest Math Mission title combines plenty of replay value with useful skill development that will start Junior on the road to financial wizardry.

Math Missions: The Race to Spectacle City Arcade, Scholastic Inc., $19.99, cross-compatible for PC and Macintosh systems.

The process of reading becomes a bit more attractive with MagnaPhonics. This pricey, rectangular-shaped unit fits perfectly on a lap and allows children 4 years old and older to move 26 magnetic letter tiles using a felt-tipped wand. The letters fit into five activity slots at the top of the board so players can hear how consonants and vowels combine to produce sounds and ultimately words.

The four play modes will have users listening to songs about their favorite letters, identifying letters by sound, making up their own phonetic combinations and learning to spell 600 of the most common words taught at the preschool and first-grade levels.

One 4-year-old test subject immediately uncovered two problems with the unit. First, he had some trouble pulling letters into the sound slots and became a bit frustrated. Additionally, when he dragged each tile back to its original position, nothing happened. It would have been nice if the letter were at least verbally identified. Also, mom sometimes had a hard time understanding the spelling questions from the female announcer.

But Junior cannot lose the 26 pieces; the games automatically adjust to the child’s skill levels; and MagnaPhonics offers a diverse reinforcement of phonetics. These elements combine to make MagnaPhonics a great tool for the 6-year-old looking for a handy road-trip companion.

MagnaPhonics, Neurosmith $49.99, stand-alone unit requires four AA 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, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).


Here are two multimedia or entertainment items to try:

• Bionicle: Mask of Light, by Miramax Home Entertainment, for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, $19.99. Those buildable Lego action heroes from the Island of Mata Nui have come to home television and PC screens via a 74-minute direct-to-DVD feature. Boasting excellent computer-generated animation, the solid story highlights the struggle of Matoran’s Jaller and his friend Takua to find the guardian of their land, the seventh Toa.

Not only do children get to watch the toys they just bought at Toys R Us interact in exciting battles and environments, but bonus features also add to the event. Bonuses include character and clan biographies found through an interactive map of Mata Nui, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, and an enhanced viewing mode that offers pop-up boxes filled with Bionicle lore that appear as the film plays.

• Sleeping Beauty, by Buena Vista Home Entertainment, for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, $29.99. Once again, Disney has gone through the meticulous process of gorgeously restoring one of its animated classics to bring it to the digital video realm, and it has thrown in an avalanche of bonuses for a “Maleficent” evening of family and film historian fun.

After watching the 1959 flick, which is based on a Grimm brothers fairy tale, in either widescreen or full-screen formats, viewers can pop in the second disc to find two main sections loaded with visuals and activities. The first is Games, Music and Fun, and the second is History and Behind the Scenes.

The extras include two art projects in which designers can create a dragon or princess using household items; original artists and animators from the film explaining the entire process, using plenty of storyboards and original sketches; and short films that include a biography of Peter Tchaikovsky from the 1950s “Disneyland” television show and the Academy Award-winning visual ode to Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” originally shown in theaters before “Sleeping Beauty.”

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