- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 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.

Famed electronic composer Morton Subotnick teaches children to understand and create harmonious sounds by manipulating imagery in the innovative Making Music.

After watching extremely detailed tutorials on each section, narrated by the soothing yet monotonous tones of Mr. Subotnick, children 5 to 10 years old can select from several options. Building Blocks, Mix and Match, Melody & Rhythm Maker and Games hone listening and comprehension skills, allowing players to tackle the program’s clever use of the art medium to develop unique musical compositions.

I suggest beginning with Games to get the ears finely tuned while enjoying four challenges using toy soldiers and multicolored balls on a football field. Each game involves discerning differences in melody, pitch and rhythm in phrases, executed by clicking on the correct ball or soldier to collect 175 points for each. The challenges culminate with the player making up his own melody and the computer challenging his ear using different instruments.

Next, move on to Building Blocks to manipulate cubes featuring parts of animals to denote the beginning, middle and end of musical phrases. Tunes such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” can be altered and combined, by melody or sections of melody, and heard using 16 different instruments. The finished pieces can be dragged onto a music stand for later use.

A stop by Melody & Rhythm Maker will allow the virtual musician to use birds perched on multiple wires. The birds can be moved to define notes on a staff, and hatching chicks punctuate beats and rests while, once again, the player creates savable phrases.

In Mix and Match, junior changes the top half (melody) and bottom half (rhythm) of the photo of a young person and the instrument in front of him to listen to a musical piece responding to the changes. The birds and chicks also are used to tweak melody lines and compare them against the computer’s version.

Finally, the most impressive part of the software takes the typical options and layout of a computer art program and transcribes them into unique musical arrangements.

Within the Making Music module, a tool bar appears on the right-hand side of the screen and a blank page in the middle.

Square icons can be activated to allow children use of a paintbrush to place notes and select from a color palette containing instruments for sounds, a dotted line to duplicate parts of a phrase and weird faces that will flip or reverse a musical piece.

The composer can create a colorful masterpiece and incorporate all of the musical ditties developed from the earlier sections.

This process leads to unlimited possibilities for the child, who can spend hours embellishing, rearranging and combining musical notes and phrases while saving two dozen completed pieces.

Making Music, Viva Medi, $29.99, cross-compatible with Mac and PC 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).

DOUBLE DELIGHT

Here are two multimedia or entertainment items to try:

• The Lion King 11/2 by Buena Vista Home Entertainment, for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, $29.99.

Families don’t even need to know about the famed legend of Simba and his adventures to appreciate this two-disc direct-to-DVD animated gem. Featuring the voices of Nathan Lane as the hyper meerkat Timon, Ernie Sabella as the digestively distressed warthog Pumbaa and Jerry Stiller as Timon’s Uncle Max, they deliver a distinctively vaudevillian style of comedy.

The behind-the-scenes story of “The Lion King” unfolds as the Hope and Crosby of the savannah reminisce about meeting and taking care of a young cub within a script packed with chuckles. Conventional cinema also gets a kick in the pants as characters talk to the viewers, sit in the audience and react to the theatrical high-jinks.

After enjoying the 70-minute effort, children can go back through the film and find 20 images of Mickey Mouse hidden within the cartoon or pop in the second disc to watch a charming “mockumentary” on Timon narrated by Peter Graves, play the jungle version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with 80,000-question combinations, or take an immersive virtual theme park safari as the characters offer assorted wisecracks.

• SpongeBob SquarePants TV Games by Jakks Pacific, stand-alone unit requires four AA batteries and a television, $19.99.

Fans of the animated Bikini Bottom native get the chance to manipulate him and his pals through challenges crammed into a controller shaped like SpongeBob himself. The yellow box uses SpongeBob’s famed proboscis as a joystick and plugs directly into the A/V jacks of any standard television set, requiring no entertainment console, discs or cartridges to enjoy the action.

The self-contained eight-bit gaming system offers five games of skill: Invasion of the Hooks; Super Chum Bucket; Patrick and the Maze; Sandy’s Surf Adventure; and, my favorite, Bubble Pop, which features 50 levels and has SpongeBob bounce a watery orb off his noggin to dispatch layers of bubbles blocking his exit.

Although the graphics are not on a par with Xbox, the laughs and action are of the highest quality, especially for the 5- to 11-year-old audience. Heck, even Mom and Dad will get a chuckle as they save Squidward from getting the hook or maneuver an obese sea star through Pac-Man-like puzzling pathways.

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