- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 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.

Two inquisitive beavers help children hone literacy and math skills in the beautifully animated adventure Didi and Ditto: Kindergarten.

Kutoka Interactive, an award-winning Canadian computer design firm, outdoes itself with this feature-film-quality interactive experience that at times looks like a Pixar classic while incorporating a Wallace-and-Gromit-like group of characters.

To begin, the 4- to 6-year-old player signs in and chooses to play as the female beaver, Didi, or her brother, Ditto. An extended video clip plays, featuring a “Benny Hill”-like chase sequence involving a rabbit thief and a turnip. The sequence reveals that one of the buck-toothed protagonists has been trapped by the vegetarian wolf Zolt, who will release the beaver in exchange for some vegetarian chow.

The player then maneuvers the character, now holding a sack to collect food for the wolf, through Jako’s Valley, encompassing six environments. The player must gather six fruits and six vegetables by successfully completing 12 educational activities.

While clicking around forested areas to uncover challenges, the child may discover bugs ready to tell a corny joke, bunches of slapstick animated segments (much better than on most other similar games I have seen) and short scenes of creature shenanigans. (Do not miss the owl Hootdini trying to make a frog disappear.)

The learning games include matching the first letter of words to pictures with the help of scarecrows, helping chickens drop the correct number of eggs into patterned baskets (requiring both timing and number skills), matching a music note sequence using a xylophone, and rhyming words to pictures using flies.

Each game tries to go beyond being just a teaching tool. For example, simply dragging a predetermined number of bees into a hive might get a bit repetitive, but the developers have loaded the insects with sound effects; their eyes even bulge out every time one is grabbed.

Three difficulty settings make the game worth replaying, and with four players being able to save the progress of 10 adventures, it makes for an amazingly flexible and affordable addition to the multichild family.

Didi and Ditto: Kindergarten, Kutoka Interactive, $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).



• SPYRO ORANGE: THE CORTEX CONSPIRACY, BY VIVENDI UNIVERSAL GAMES, FOR GAME BOY ADVANCE, $29.99. Two video-game icons return to Nintendo’s hand-held system to battle their archenemies in a game offering less visual excitement than its predecessors but still worth a look for fans of a purple dragon and an orange bandicoot.

In Spyro Orange, a single player controls Spyro and his trusted dragonfly, Sparx. The pair embark on a mission to stop Crash Bandicoot’s nemesis, Dr. Neo Cortex, from controlling portals that are unleashing hordes of henchmen upon the ratlike marsupial’s lands.

This side-scrolling, gem-collecting adventure includes 25 minigames, such as controlling a mechanized contraption, throwing snowballs at a furry thug and maneuvering a tank as it plows through a dangerous obstacle course. Success at the minigames leads to controlling the portals and receiving trading cards and gems. Young ones will appreciate that Spyro never perishes, instead losing gems, which impedes his ability to enter portals and requires collecting more gems.

Multiple players who each have a copy of the game or its sister title, Crash Bandicoot Purple: Ripto’s Rage, can hook up to simultaneously play other minigames, bet their precious trading cards and unlock more content for plenty of replay value.

Overall, I was a bit disturbed as the cute dragon immolated crazed scientists (who screamed in pain) along with sheep as the game progressed, but the graphic nature of the encounters is no more painful to watch than a “Three Stooges” short.

• R/C Pteranodon, by Takara, stand-alone product requiring one 9-volt and six AA batteries, $29.99. I have good news and really bad news about this great-looking, radio-controlled dinosaur featuring a 23-inch wingspan and a pair of propellers.

The good news is that the packaging offers a load of educational information about the flying beast that soared through the skies 100 million years ago. The controller offers a very manageable grip for youngsters, including a joystick to maneuver the reptile while in the air. The sleek charger has a retractable cord to re-power the beast in about three minutes and also acts as a display base.

The bad news? It does not work. Out of 10 test flights under variable conditions and heights, only once did I manage to get the styrofoam flier to glide about 50 feet — before it crashed into a neighbor’s tree. That journey split the creature’s fragile beak.

The flier also holds a charge for just about 30 seconds, so it spends more time on the display base than in flight.

Takara gets an A plus for a great idea to teach children something about dinosaurs but an F for failing to deliver a fun tech toy.

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