- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 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 computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word — cool.

A challenger to the dominance of LeapFrog’s Leapster in the hand-held educational gaming market has arrived with V-Tech’s V-Smile Pocket Learning System.

Parents may feel a bit duped after dropping $60 on the original V-Smile edutainment console, released about a year ago. The system enabled players to play cartridge-based learning games with mediocre graphic presentations on a television screen.

Compared to this newly released, much better and more versatile product, the original V-Smile looks like a stopgap so the company just could get something on toy shelves back in 2004.

The portable V-Smile Pocket features a 3-by-2.5-inch, high-resolution color LCD screen contained in a small-hands-friendly unit. The unit sports a directional pad and buttons for Help, Learning Zone (which immediately takes players to educational minigames) and Enter along with a bank of multicolored action buttons.

Developed for children 5 to 8 years old, the unit requires 4 AA batteries and a Smartridge cartridge to bring it to life. It will remind younger gamers of a bloated version of their older siblings’ Sony PSP.

In an added twist, the V-Smile Pocket can be connected to a television’s audio/video jacks using the included 6-foot-long cord. That means junior can use the unit as a game controller and, if he has to leave the house, can unhook the connector and keep playing.

Using the system simply as a control pad seems like a missed opportunity for V-Tech. Today’s technological advances should enable the V-Smile Pocket to mimic the action of Nintendo Game Boy Advance/Game Cube and use both screens during play — for example, use the hand-held screen to view a map while playing on the television.

The V-Smile Pocket, unlike its competition, does not offer a touch screen, but it is backward compatible to the entire library of roughly 20 cartridges. It also has a switch on the back that rotates the two primary control buttons for the left-handed player.

The system comes with the Smartridge Zayzoo: My Alien Classmate, in which an extraterrestrial tests players through a gantlet of educational games, including chasing on-screen children holding words that match a picture and shooting down books with letters on them to spell words.

The success of a gaming system also relies on licensed content, and V-Tech does not disappoint with its Smartridges boasting action with cartoon stalwarts including Scooby-Doo, Elmo, Bob the Builder, Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man.

In one of the latest releases, Toy Story 2: Operation Rescue, Woody looks great on the hand-held and gives children 4 to 6 years old a chance to control and interact with Disney/Pixar’s popular animated characters through a narrated adventure and selection of challenges.

Games such as a Toy Barn Race tax players to identify letter cases; the Maze of Vents hones map-reading skills; and Cowboy Gallery has players shoot numbered targets to solve an equation — all of which mix classic side-scrolling action with plenty of educational moments.

Before buying a V-Smile Pocket, parents may want to wait a week and check out the latest version of the Leapster hand-held unit. The L-Max ($99.99) reportedly offers a touch screen, backward compatibility to its older cartridges and the ability to plug into a television and deliver duel-screen learning fun.

V-Smile Pocket Learning System from V-Tech, $89.99, Stand-alone unit requiring 4 AA batteries and cartridges (sold separately, $19.99 each).

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

• Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends: All Pupa’ed Out and Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends: A Cloudy Day in Sunny Patch, from Lions Gate Home Entertainment for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment systems, $16.98 each. Gorgeous computer animation and wonderful life-lesson stories distinguish this Nick Jr. cartoon series based on author David Kirk’s beautifully illustrated children’s books about an arachnid family living and learning among their bug brethren.

A pair of digital video compilations give preschoolers the chance to watch the exploits of characters such as Bounce the blue bedbug and the spider twins Pansy and Snowdrop on demand as each single-disc package offers eight episodes and a couple of desktop challenges.

Episodes such as All Pupa’ed Out,” which finds Shimmer and Squirt baby-sitting a Monarch butterfly caterpillar, and “Something’s Stinky in Sunny Patch,” in which Stinky the detective tries to catch a mysterious bark eater that has munched on Mr. Mantis’ house, will captivate younger viewers.

My official tester’s favorite game on the discs, Super Bug Mom, had him delivering Miss Spider’s children to their favorite activities and watching animated clips as a reward for successfully completing the task.

• Fantastic Four, from Activation for Game Boy Advance, $29.99. Marvel Comics’ legendary superhero family stars in one of the year’s hottest films and also has found a home on Nintendo’s hand-held gaming system in a challenge that will thrill 10-year olds.

A single player eventually is able to control Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing through a story based on the movie but extended to include missions to stop comic-book archenemies such as Diablo, the Mole Man and Blastaar.

The action through 3-D environments is mainly of the button-mashing, platform variety while each hero uses familiar powers — the Human Torch, for example, shoots fireballs to pummel hordes of nasty robots, thugs and dinosaurs.

Characters often must work together — the elastic Mr. Fantastic can act as a bridge for the Invisible Woman to cross, or a trio of heroes can protect the Thing from missiles as he lifts a fire engine away from danger — to give junior a lesson in teamwork.

The quick-paced game even manages to include images of the film’s actors along with streams of humorous text-based dialogue.

• Herbie: Fully Loaded, from Disney Interactive for Game Boy Advance, $29.99. Despite the slick-looking 3-D environments and potential charm of Lindsay Lohan driving the world’s most famous Volkswagen, this mediocre driving challenge, loosely based on the new movie, will only frustrate younger gamers.

A single player plows through eight tracks, driving against NASCAR-type vehicles while controlling a moody metallic movie star that can spit tires, jump and turbo-speed past the competition.

Disney developers need to remind themselves that replayability as well as multiplayer options (especially in race simulation) and giving players a chance to win instead of just spotlighting licensed characters are the ingredients for successful games.

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