- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

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.

Familiar fire-breathing friends help children soar through the scholastic skies of math and logic in Dragon Tales: Learn and Fly With Dragons.

Based on the popular PBS Kids cartoon series, the software places children 4 to 6 years old in Dragon Land. The player must help three young dragon siblings — Val, Jamie and Zuzu — earn their Dragon badges and learn how to fly.

Watercolor backgrounds mix with traditionally animated characters to present a typical edu-tainment experience — visit an environment, click on hot spots within the environment, and play activities or games to move the story forward.

This offering is a vast improvement over last year’s more musical title, Dragon Tales: Dragon Frog Jamboree.

After typing in his or her name, the child lands in the Playroom and eventually must complete a separate adventure with each dragon sibling. (While in the Playroom, click on the radio for a surprise — it will play the “Dragon Tales” theme song).

I was especially partial to the missions of the cheese-loving, spectacled dragon, Jamie. To earn his badge, he must help Mr. Dustfree clean up his house after Mungus the Giant trips and causes a bit of an earthquake.

This challenge involves returning crystals to the Swirloscope and viewing them in kaleidoscopic patterns, clicking on various items in the house until pairs are displayed or, to earn the badge, engaging in the shelf puzzle game.

In this game, the player must discern patterns among the items on the shelves and then place an item that completes the pattern. For example, rows containing two cheese sandwiches, an empty space, two cheese sandwiches and a minipizza will need a minipizza in the empty space to complete the row.

Besides stimulating the noggin through the sequencing, the game features Mr. Dustfree overenunciating all of the food items, which I guarantee will lead to a chuckle.

A similarly structured experience occurs as Zuzu visits with Princess Kidoodle and helps catch dragonflies and when Val helps Arlo with his junkyard after the Giant of Nod and his Nodlings make a mess.

Once all the young dragon badges are acquired, it’s time for each sibling to fly in an obstacle course and then work together in a video-game-like challenge,

In total, children will conquer 11 activities that automatically adjust to their progress as they practice matching, counting, sorting, memory, following directions, and number and object recognition.

Despite some occasional stutters in the animated action, the title provides an excellent entertainment environment that perfectly mixes simple skill building with a large cast of wonderfully defined characters.

The package also contains the 23-page Dragon Tales book “Raining Cats and Dogs” for parent and child to enjoy away from the computer.

Dragon Tales: Learn and Fly With Dragons, Scholastic Software, $19.99, cross-compatible for PC and Macintosh systems.

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:

• THUNDERBIRDS INTERNATIONAL RESCUE EDITION GIFT SET, FROM MGM HOME ENTERTAINMENT FOR DVD-ENABLED HOME ENTERTAINMENT CENTERS AND COMPUTERS, $29.98. Parents can introduce their children to the hippest 1960s puppet television show on the planet through a two-disk set highlighting the two films made about the classic supermarionation adventure series.

Through the 94-minute “Thunderbirds are Go” and 89-minute “Thunderbird 6,” children learn how 21st-century billionaire and former astronaut Jeff Tracy took his five sons to a secluded island, where he created the mechanized International Rescue Team.

They also learn puppets spend a lot of time sitting around, since walking looks a bit awkward, and that creator Gerry Anderson occasionally intercut real human hands and foot movements with the puppeteering to give the lead characters a more realistic, though slightly creepy look.

The set comes loaded with bonuses that include enlightening optional commentary tracks on each film from director David Lane and producer Sylvia Anderson (who was the voice of Lay Penelope).

She explains how the Tracy family was based on the Cartwrights of “Bonanza” fame with Jeff even taking on a Lorne Green design.

Also, a pair of quizzes on Thunderbirds trivia can be taken along with viewing almost 100 behind-the-scenes photos and numerous featurettes that deconstruct the meticulous special effects wizardry of Derek Meddings and the art of bringing marionettes to life.

Additionally, the package contains a magnet set of the main characters and a launch pad and five Thunderbirds spacecraft that can be assembled from punch-out foiled cardboard.

• Mario versus Donkey Kong, by Nintendo for Gameboy Advance, $29.99. Two video game legends meet again through Nintendo’s hand-held gaming system to teach children that crime never pays.

It all begins when the famed mustachioed plumber of the Mushroom Kingdom learns that a greedy, chest-thumping gorilla has been stealing and hiding his popular Mini-Mario action figures. Mario must perform acrobatic maneuvers through levels of platforms as he battles his old enemies to collect keys, unlock his Mini-Mario dolls and guide them to safety.

Through six worlds, this side-scrolling adventure mixes puzzle elements with boss battles to pack quite a visual wallop within the confines of a roughly 3-inch-square screen. Players of all ages will appreciate the game’s historical characters as well as its challenging action.

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