- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 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.

An extraterrestrial robot finds a forest full of educational fun in Zook Discovers the Seasons.

The animated adventure allows the kindergarten crew to help Zook (who looks a bit like the Silver Surfer’s clunky little brother) to enjoy the many facets of the outdoors through games and colorful environments.

After signing into the game and choosing one of three difficulty levels, Zook lands in the middle of a magical forest where all of the creatures are preparing for the Festival of Seasons. The child must explore four major areas and work with animals to help Zook participate in the preparation.

He first runs into Flora the butterfly, who loves summer and will make Zook a costume out of flowers — if the player can find the correct colored flowers as dictated to him by the winged insect.

As the child moves the mouse cursor around a panoramic view of a summertime landscape, numerous areas can be clicked upon to amuse, and he or she eventually will stumble upon a game.

In the summer area, the featured game is an old standby, Concentration, in which the child must match pairs. After playing a few rounds, if the child returns to the forest and collects all of the flowers, Flora will belt out a quick tune and Zook will move on to a new season.

This pattern repeats itself throughout; the child must collect items as Zook runs into an autumn setting hosted by the hedgehog Nibbles, who needs to make a leaf cake; a winter wonderland with Sleepy the owl, who will design a crown; and then into spring assisted by Chester the frog, who has a penchant for playing music.

The software teaches a wide range of skills such as counting, following directions, mimicking patterns and identifying objects.

It throws in some animal facts and identification of their tracks along with soothing narration within traditional cartoon settings.

Compared, however, to the developer’s other software series, Mango Plumo, Zook looks a bit dated, too formula-driven and does little to stand out — especially against the waves of licensed character edutainment titles available.

Zook Discovers the Seasons, QA International, $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, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).



• Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Kids, by MGM Home Entertainment, for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, $14.95. Children’s book author David Kirk brought his illustrated arachnid to an animated setting last year via a 49-minute cartoon special for Nickelodeon. It has become available on a DVD offering the full-length feature as well as some fun extras for 2- to 5-year-olds.

The story expands a bit upon the spirit of the book of the same name, minus the rhyming. In it, Flora Spider tries to deal with the stress of taking care of her five new offspring, one of which decides to reunite a chicken egg with its mother, leading to an insect-packed adventure. The cartoon presents a style reminiscent of a watered-down “Bug’s Life” or “Rolie Polie Olie” that should appeal to today’s tots.

Bonus elements include clicking on 10 members of the Hollow Tree family to get their video biographies, accessing the DVD via a PC to extract printable coloring pages, playing a mildly interactive egg-decorating simulation and listening to Mr. Kirk read his Sunny Patch Kids book while watching his illustrations of the tale.

• Atari Paddle TV Games, by Jakks Pacific, stand-alone unit requires four AA batteries, $24.99. The retro tribute to classic video games continues with the merging of joystick and a granddaddy of all on-screen challenges. Arcade Pong and 12 of its nostalgic brethren are crammed into two authentic-looking gaming paddles originally used with the Atari 2600, allowing a pair of players to relive the poorly pixilated — though entertaining — on-screen performers of the 1980s.

Players simply plug the main unit directly into a television’s audio-video RF jacks, pop in the batteries, and they can compete in challenges such as the brick-by-brick wall-busting of Breakout!, 25 variations of the driving simulation Street Racer, a Steeple Chase and even a quartet of casino games. The experience drips with nostalgia while giving the entire family a reasonable learning curve for enjoying the video-game revolution.

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