- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 5, 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.

Children learn the fundamentals of electronic communication as they become part of the E-Mail Detectives.

This CD-ROM offers both a straight tutorial and an animated mystery environment to teach children 6 to 9 years old essential e-mail skills, including how to use an address book, send messages and add file attachments.

The faux e-mail program does not resemble any type of popular message center but looks like an amalgam of older versions of America Online and Netscape programs to make sure the skills acquired can be translated easily into a real online situation.

Fully narrated by a female with a very proper British accent, the action begins as the child chooses between the Tutorial or Adventure modes.

The Tutorial simply walks junior through 11 interactive exercises, beginning with a brief history of e-mail communication and concluding with e-mail tips on using the reply function as well as sending the same message to multiple contacts.

The Adventure mode introduces youngsters to the woeful town of Webble Valley and its very sad population. Gas explosions are destroying the community, and it is up to the player, with the help of on-screen characters Julia and Nikhil, to figure out how to stop the problem.

This challenge will involve using the school’s computer room, meeting with locals, compiling e-mail addresses that will receive important bits of information such as maps, working with Professor Roberts and his Gas Buster 1001 machine, and uncovering the secrets behind the spooky Webble Academy and Diggit Mine Co.

Basically, the player moves through the town in a very directed fashion while viewing simple animation to receive new instructions and ways to use the e-mail program. This could mean selecting or adding a name to an address book, directing Nikhil to type a message based on a multiple-choice menu or figuring out where the “send” button is located.

Directions are given to the player both verbally and in a text format at the bottom of the screen; Julia will assist with finding areas, and Nikhil will read most anything pointed to on the screen.

Parents can keep track of progress in a record-keeping system, and an accompanying 35-page booklet supplements the on-screen learning through tips on safe e-mail practices and help for educators.

Compared to software adventures starring Dora, SpongeBob or Mickey Mouse, children will not consider this the most exciting program around, and adults will balk at the hefty price tag. However, as a purely educational resource, it skillfully and intelligently walks users through the basics of a valuable communication tool that will become more important as the children get older.

The E-mail Detectives from Sherston Software, $74.99, For Macintosh 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, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@ washingtontimes.com).

Trio of treats

Here are three multimedia items for the entire family:

• Happy Healthy Monsters, from Sony Wonder for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, $14.98. Parents trying to get their obese offspring off the couch and moving have a chance with a 45-minute DVD combining Sesame Street characters, celebrity guest stars and on-screen exercising. Grover, Elmo, Zoe and Cookie Monster work with a paunchy Andy Richter, Fred Willard and Wyclef Jean to promote fitness and a balanced diet through song, jogging in place, jumping and dancing.

Extras such as a downloadable coloring sheet on veggies and real children talking about their favorite foods help, but I have to believe the best way to get a child active is to shut off the tube and interact with him.

The package also includes a growth chart for measuring height — not width.

• The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, from Nintendo for Game Boy Advance, $34.99. The classic role-playing adventure returns to hand-held gaming screens, taking children on an amazing journey into a fantasy world filled with swords, sorcery and magical lands. The player becomes the hero Link in this micro-epic as he must save Princess Zelda and the kingdom Hyrule from the power-hungry sorcerer Vaati.

Over-the-top perspective action includes talking to plenty of characters, combining magical relics called Kinstones, using the Minish cap to shrink while solving puzzles or exploring tight spots, and battling creatures within dungeons. Even though the massive amount of action takes place on a roughly 3-inch-square screen, the simulation will consume the player through its high production values, time-consuming charm and its delving deep into the Zelda mythos.

• The Wiggles: Live Hot Potatoes, from Hit Entertainment for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, $16.99. Much as the Who’s “Live at Leeds” performance archived the band during its most explosive period, this DVD highlights the musical dynamite of Murray, Jeff, Anthony and Greg during a Wiggles tour stop at the Sydney Entertainment Center.

For 140 minutes, children get the charisma of Liberace times four rolled into a dancing, Disneyized theatrical extravaganza. All the hits, including “Hoop Dee Doo,” “Eagle Rock” and the toe-tapping “Hot Potato,” are executed to perfection. Extras to this potent presentation range from Song Jukebox, which acts as a chapter selector to quickly get to the 20 songs, to a pair of episodes from the television show, to a Christmas-themed on-screen illustrated storybook featuring Henry the Octopus.

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