- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 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.

Leapfrog Enterprises Inc., the educational toy innovator, jumps into the hand-held gaming market with its clever teaching tool, the Leapster Multimedia Learning System. Combining the best of Nintendo’s Color Game Boy and Fisher-Price’s personal digital assistant, the Color Pixter, the small-hands-friendly unit uses a stylus pen, a 3-inch square backlighted screen, 12-bit animated color graphics, buttons and a directional pad. It gives children 4 to 8 years old a reason to practice their math, reading, spelling and logic skills.

The cartridge-based system requires just four AA batteries to get the fun started and comes with the sample title Learning With Leap, which uses the friendly Leapfrog mascot and his pals to provide eight games.

Each game colorfully mixes cartoons, songs and challenges as junior helps Tad catch letters of the alphabet, enjoys a version of Frogger using rabbits that cross a river filled with floating numerical logs and listens to birds singing a variety of tunes as the player feeds them seeds acquired through successful completion of the games.

As with any gaming system, parents also should expect the licensed characters to take on the role of teacher. Leapfrog does not disappoint through its first selection of additional cartridges ($24.99 each) liberally borrowing from the Nickelodeon universe.

For example, Sponge Scalepans stops by in his own title, “Save the Day,” to concoct a new Crabby Patty sauce for the Rusty Crab to win back its diners from a competitor. The cartridge features 45 skills crammed into five games that range from popping the correct letter-filled bubbles to complete words, to mixing ingredients for the new sauces, to getting Patrick’s reaction to understanding money concepts, to the Bikini Bottom sponge pulling prizes from a claw machine.

Additionally, the world of Ora the Explorer comes to life in “Wildlife Rescue” and a 4-year-old test subject refused to stop enjoying an animal identification challenge, recognizing patterns and numbers to build a bridge and using the correct lettered stones to cross a lake filled with crocodiles.

Each cartridge comes with a guide to help parents keep track of what junior has accomplished and offers activities to enjoy away from the unit.

Also included in the Leapster package is a very practical rubber cover to protect the touch screen from damage when it’s not being used.

The addictive quality of the video game and seeing an older sibling playing on a hand-held system makes the Leapster the perfect choice for parents whose offspring are clamoring for access to the world of interactive, on-screen entertainment. And hey, at least the overspeculated tykes are getting an education.

Leapster Multimedia Learning System, Leapfrog Enterprises, $79.99, stand-alone unit requiring cartridges and four AA batteries.

Romper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia detainment. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail ([email protected]washingtontimes.com).

Double delight

Here are two multimedia or entertainment items to try:

• Metroid: Zero Mission, by Nintendo for Game Boy Advance, $39.99. An 18-year-old video game comes back to life with a face-lift and extended content while maintaining its legendary side-scrolling roots. Elite bounty hunter Samus Aran’s mission to stop space pirates from harnessing an energy-sucking life form from the planet Zebes is quite the adventure.

Through an astounding variety of challenges crammed into the little cartridge, the title never bores. The player controls Aran as she climbs, carefully maneuvers, curls up into a morph ball and destroys hostile creatures with missiles, laser beams and bomb detonations while speed-boosting her way to a final confrontation with the Mother Brain.

The highly exploratory undertaking scatters puzzling mazes over a multilevel fortress for the player to perfect collection techniques to ultimately succeed and restore order to the galaxy.

• Yu-Gi-Oh! World Championship Tournament 2004, by Konami for Game Boy Advance, $39.99. Once again, the collectible card game based on the popular Kids WB animated series about an ancient Egyptian card fighting game is ported to Nintendo’s hand-held system. Luckily, I am familiar with the series, thanks to a child caught up in the cartoon world of spiky-haired heroes who wield magical creatures. Unfortunately, it didn’t help very much.

The action requires whittling down an opponent’s 8,000 life points to zero by playing creatures, magic and trap cards against him while he performs comparable maneuvers. Sounds simple enough until you learn that players have 1,000 cards from which to choose and can create up to three decks to virtually battle more than 25 opponents.

That’s bad news for Yu-Gi newbies who have never played before and need a magnifying glass to see the tiny playing area. Additionally, the game does little to explain the rules, leading to a learning curve of at least an hour. The good news is that parents need only drop 40 bucks to satisfy junior rather than spending hundreds of dollars buying the actual cards. Parents should beware, however — the package comes with three real cards that could lead young ones down the path of an expensive hobby.

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