- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

In a world of ultraviolent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is 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 multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word cool.

The Penn and Teller of sand-extracting implements expose children to object- and space-recognition concepts in the delightful world of Bucket and Spade.

Developed by a former teacher, the software caters to kindergarten and first-grade students, providing eight activities for them to practice shape identification, patterning, sequencing and following directions within a mildly animated environment.

During a clear summer night at the shore, activities begin when the pair of plastic tools sneak out of a shed. Bucket asks the child to select from one of four colored beach huts that correspond to the program’s four difficulty levels.

The red hut will appeal to 4- and 5-year-olds, green to 5- and 6-year-olds, yellow to 6- and 7-year-olds and purple to children 7 years old and older.

Once a hut has been selected, up to eight balls bounce onto the beach, corresponding to a variety of mouse-clicking challenges. They range from methodically selecting illustrations to correspond to where Spade is hiding among beach-themed items to controlling a crab through a gridded path to using an on-screen directional pad to deduce logically what Bucket is holding by asking him questions.

The student will encounter a total of 30 2-D and 3-D shapes while working through a hut’s activities, always being encouraged by the narrating Bucket, who sounds almost Monty Pythonesque in his pointed, though soothing, instructions and occasional tips.

A mysterious orange hut, nicknamed the Shape Demonstrator, also lurks in the background of the main screen. It leads to interactive teaching presentations on the names of shapes, familiar items associated with them and their properties.

Students will not find a frenetic, animation-rich adventure as they interact with Bucket and Spade, but it’s definitely a comfortable learning experience for a quick introduction to the world of geometry.

As with all Sherston titles, the software is pricey, but it is as robust for the child as it is for the parent. Adults can control the activities found in the huts, add and discard some of the shapes, further refine the Shape Demonstrator to highlight sides and corners, and monitor progress through a Pupil Records’ screen.

Bucket and Spade, from Sherston Publishing, available through Tool Factory Inc., $59.95, compatible with 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 multimedia treats

• Crayola: My First Electronic Coloring Book, from Techno Source, stand-alone device requiring four AAA batteries and a television, $19.99. Only the youngest and multimedia-starved tykes will appreciate this underwhelming product.

The device, which quickly plugs into a television’s audio/video jacks, offers 30 repetitive activities. Action incorporates 10 on-screen pictures that can be colored using a directional pad and a pair of buttons. Challenges can extend the process as junior first connects the dots of the images or works through a four-piece slider puzzle to get to the final line-art image to be colored.

The pictures are not traditionally colored, but rather, a select number of parts are filled in with a limited 10-hue palette as junior moves the on-screen crayon.

All the device needed to succeed were a joystick and a bit more pixel power so players could really draw and connect the dots or actually drag a crayon on the screen to produce a stroke of color — and not just awkwardly move the cursor near a point to color a shape.

The good news is that there’s no mess for parents to clean up; the bad news is that their 3-year-old has been exposed to interactive television and the skills required to manipulate a Game Boy or entertainment console controller.

• The Incredibles: Collector’s Edition, from Buena Vista Home Entertainment for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, rated PG, $29.99. The Academy Award-winning animated film about the conflicts between Bob Parr’s family life and his being a superhero arrives in a two-disc package that extends the humor and magic of the Pixar/Disney cartoon.

After enjoying the exploits of Mr. Incredible and his clan as they battle the evil Syndrome on the first disc, viewers will find plenty to giggle about as they pop in the second.

Alas, there’s no PC-specific fun, but upon the DVD resides a clever ode to the classic “Clutch Cargo” cartoon featuring Mr. Incredible and Frozone (with a hysterical commentary by the heroes); a virtual dossier culled from the National Supers Agency database of 21 heavy-duty heroes, including sound bites; a short cartoon highlighting the powers of the Parr baby Jack Jack; and about 70 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage exploring the roots and development of this powerfully entertaining project.

• Shaman King Reincarnation Starter Deck, from Upper Deck, $17.99. Japanese animation continues to thrive in America as programs are extended through collectible trading-card games and multimedia worlds.

One of the newer cartoons being broadcast on Fox 4Kids joins the ranks of “Yu-Gi-Oh,” “Duel Masters” and “DragonBall Z.” “Shaman King” explores the life of junior high school student Yoh Asakura, who has the power to communicate with ghosts and is determined to win the ultimate Shaman tournament.

Upper Deck’s new cardboard challenge acts as triple-tiered version of the card game War. Plenty of numerical calculation is required, and it’s nowhere near as easy to master as the classic card game.

A pair of players place specialized number cards on their own mats and incorporate a slick-looking main-character Chamber Card into the action. The card, a first for the industry, is basically a standard-size card with a two-sided minicard hiding inside of it that can be pulled up during appropriate moments.

The starter set does an excellent job of providing everything players need to enjoy the game and “Shaman King” experience. The package includes two random 30-card playing decks, rule book, play mats and a DVD containing two full 23-minute episodes of the popular 2-year-old cartoon series.

Interested youngsters also can learn how to play through an interactive tutorial found at the Upper Deck Web site (www.ude.com/shaman).

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