- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

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.

High school students learn about breakthroughs of the 19th and 20th centuries while becoming the head of a multinational corporation in Genius: The Tech Tycoon Game.

Combining the history of invention with a building and management simulation, the game demands that a single player act as co-owner and primary researcher of a fledgling bicycle company trying to expand during the start of the Industrial Revolution.

With the advice of co-owner Mr. Hoffman, apprentice George, production manager Mr. Cunningham and bean counter Mrs. Friedrichs, the player must select a piece of land in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Berlin, London or Melbourne, Australia, and start setting up his complex.

The process involves dragging and dropping items displayed on a side menu onto a 3-D map to install everything from experiment workshops to lens-grinding facilities to firehouses and labor cottages.

Unlike the easy decision-making in similar strategy management games, such as Roller Coaster Tycoon, this one requires the player to incorporate acquired knowledge of electricity, engineering, thermodynamics, optics and astronomy into his actions in addition to handling all of the economic, structural and social minutia involved in creating a successful business (as months on a time counter fly by).

So, just placing some outhouses around a factory is not enough. The industrialist needs to select the best available insulation material to keep his workers warm and happy.

An intense science education can be found at the Office, where the junior researcher can buy and read technical journals on numerous inventions, including the compound pulley, Julius Albert Borsig’s steam locomotive and photography.

Then, this new knowledge might allow the player to understand the inner workings of a pressure cooker to receive a patent for the discovery or calculate how many Megapascals are equivalent to 14 bar.

The fledgling entrepreneur also can correspond with some leading scientists of the day, such as lens maker Carl Zeiss, internal-combustion engine creator Nikolaus August Otto and small-generator expert Werner Siemens, who request help on perfecting their designs and also offer advice on the company’s endeavors.

For those still under the impression that they just need to manage some stuff to play this game, the bottom line is exerting brainpower to solve a variety of puzzles and equations, which leads to the acquisition of cash that ultimately will keep the business growing and succeeding.

Yes, that’s right, solving equations is heavily involved in the process, and players who can’t quickly calculate (get out the paper and pencils, kiddies) the average acceleration rate of a piston that has a displacement of 10 centimeters and rises and falls 50 times per second need not apply.

The game can be ludicrously hard at times because while the player’s noggin is being taxed, he still has to deal with fires, disgruntled workers, building bridges and keeping an eye on his quarterly report to avoid bankruptcy.

I’ll admit that getting a correct answer and collecting cash for the company is a great feeling, but Genius: The Tech Tycoon Game really lives up to its name and will challenge even the brightest amateur scientists.

Genius: the Tech Tycoon Game from Viva Media for PC computers with the Windows XP operating system, $29.95.

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).

A trio of holiday treats

Here are three multimedia items for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers to keep the seasonal cheer smoldering:

• Santa’s Trivia Game, BEqual, $39.99. A perfect DVD set-top challenge for the holiday season is highlighted by imagery and footage based on the classic Rankin and Bass cartoon “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Up to four players ages 6 and older use the DVD controller’s directional and enter buttons or their voices as they answer a barrage of multiple-choice questions to move along a board toward Santa’s castle.

Timed questions range from holiday traditions and characters to details from literary works to anagram solving. Children learn about the origins of “Jingle Bells,” the composition of an Advent wreath, where reindeer live and the dangers of mistletoe. They even will be exposed to a quotation from Shakespeare. Players also can flip over the DVD for a demo of Madagascar: Animal Trivia that uses the same question format as the Santa challenge.

• Polar Express: Special Edition, Warner Home Video, $29.95. The musical, animated adventure based on author Chris Van Allsburg’s book about a doubting boy’s amazing journey to the North Pole arrives on DVD in a two-disc set loaded with extras that highlight the magic behind last year’s movie.

The 100-minute effort stars Tom Hanks in five roles, delivering some hilarious and touching performances with the help of cutting-edge motion-capture technology. Despite some creepiness in the animation — computer designers still have not mastered a realistic look for some of the characters’ facial expressions, especially around the sometimes lifeless eyes — children will not care and still will love the adventure.

The extras include a five-part series on the effects hosted by the movie’s know-it-all child, a short biography featurette on Mr. Van Allsburg, a set-top game in which players follow directions to steer the famed train across a frozen lake, and the chance to discover stocking stuffers hidden in the various DVD menus. The packaging also boasts a PC demo with two playable levels of a Polar Express computer game, but I could not find any files allowing me to install it.

• Legend of Frosty the Snowman, Classic Media, $21.98. The odd choice of actor Burt Reynolds to narrate and sing about the snowpacked legend’s first new DVD-direct cartoon is actually amusing within this family-friendly tale about a renegade snowman who teaches the children of Evergreen the wonders of just being children.

The lead actors from “SpongeBob SquarePants” (Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke) add vocal support to the traditionally animated effort, and extras include set-top challenges such as building a snowman, taking part in a snowball fight and following the verbal directions of Frosty.

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