- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

In a world of ultraviolent 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.

Parents have another way to help educate their children within the mesmerizing world of the video game — through the V.Smile.

This easy-to-use entertainment console requires cartridge-based programs to open the minds of 3- to 7-year-olds to the likes of geography, music, science and mathematics while amusing them with the shenanigans of popular licensed characters.

Boasting eye-catching bright blue and orange, the learning system is made up of a main unit that gets plugged into the A/V adapters in the back of the television and a large, circular controller for the player to handle the action.

The device, which is friendly for small hands, has four colored buttons plus a large orange “enter” button and a help button. It also has a joystick that can switch sides quickly to accommodate right- or left-handed players.

A Smartridge inserted into the front of the main unit, reminiscent of the days of Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, brings the system to life. The V.Smile comes with the Alphabet Park cartridge, featuring six play lands filled with letter and word exercises.

Parents can then purchase additional software content (sold separately for $19.99 each) encompassing the worlds of the Care Bears, the Lion King, Scooby-Doo, the Little Mermaid, Spider-Man and Winnie the Pooh.

Smartridge’s content is broken into age groups designated as “early learners” (3- to 5-year-olds), “junior thinkers” (4- to 6-year-olds) and “master minds” (5- to 7-year-olds). Each level offers a Learning Adventure requiring a player participate in missions to help characters or a Learning Zone to simply reinforce skills by playing games.

One of the most immersive titles, Mickey’s Magical Adventure, has the master minds demographic assist Disney’s favorite mouse dressed in his wizard’s apprentice garb as he tries to find Pluto after a disappearing trick goes a bit too far. The player, in the Learning Adventure mode, directs Mickey through a castle and its surroundings in a classic side-scrolling presentation.

Challenges include visiting the dungeon to light the right letter torches to spell a word and climbing a beanstalk by selecting the correct numeral to finish a sequence through a gorgeously rendered sky.

Also, matching shapes allow the mouse to escape the castle, and solving 10 math problems will shut off waterfalls on the outside castle walls to find Mickey’s canine.

The V.Smile runs on three C batteries but should have come with an adapter (sold online for $10) to save parents the hassle of Junior having a meltdown when the system abruptly cuts off.

V.Smile will easily catch the eye of children because of its licenses and ease of use but will run into tough, comparably priced competition this holiday season from Nintendo’s GameCube, Leap Frog’s Leapster and Fisher-Price’s InteracTV.

Additionally, parents will need to decide whether their children should first play educational games on real computers to acquire important keyboard skills or just become part of the video-game generation.

V.Smile from VTech, $59.99, stand-alone product requiring three C batteries, additional cartridges ($19.99 each) and additional joystick for two-player games (14.99).

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia “edutainment.” Calls, letters or faxes about a particular column or suggestions for future columns are always welcome. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail ([email protected]washingtontimes.com).

Double delight

Here are two multimedia or entertainment items to try:

• “Aladdin: Platinum Edition,” from Buena Vista Home Entertainment (for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, $29.99).

One of Disney’s funnier and more endearing animated efforts gets the royal treatment in the digital-video realm through a two-disc set boasting a palace full of extras.

A commoner who is given three wishes ends up defeating an evil sorcerer and falling in love with a princess.

Frenetic actor Robin Williams as the Blue Genie and an Academy Award-winning score bring the 1992 film to life.

The 90-minute effort has been given a face-lift to reflect the detail afforded a DVD presentation, down to redrawn characters and an enhanced audio mix for home-theater sound systems.

Of the variety of extras, let’s first forget Disney’s allowing Clay Aiken to croon a song composed but never used in the original film and, worse yet, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey starring in a new music video as they sing “A Whole New World.”

I’d rather focus on an optional subtitle track filled with facts such as background on the breakthroughs and use of digital animation in cartoons. Users also can play all of the song scenes separately as well as sing along through a setting that places words at the bottom of the screen.

Additionally, a 3-D magic carpet ride can be found on the second disc. When viewed on a large widescreen television, it looks as amazing as a theme-park ride.

Finally, a making-of-the-film documentary, “A Diamond in the Rough,” contains a reunion of the principal filmmakers with options to branch out from the main piece. Learn about all facets of the animation process for more than two hours of filmmaking deconstruction.

• Power Rangers: Dino Thunder, from THQ Inc. (for GameBoy Advance, $19.99).

The latest televised incarnation of a pop-culture entity that has existed since 1993 gets ported to Nintendo’s hand-held system to give fans of the Ninja-style characters a classic side-scrolling adventure.

Mimicking the mediocre happenings of the live-action show seen every Saturday morning on ABC, the game allows one player to command three Power Rangers looking to stop evil scientist Mesogog from returning the world to the age of the dinosaurs.

Amid the climbing, chopping, kicking and punching, Rangers work through 20 levels of action appealing to the male demographic. The player also will be privy to controlling Dinozords that eventually can be combined to form a Thundersaurus Megazord to take part in a Godzilla-type battle.

Despite the repetitive nature of the game, the price point makes it more than appealing to fans of the series.

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