- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

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.

The Man of Steel is helping children learn through the Superman Laptop Advance, a computer that looks as if it were pulled from the hero’s home planet of Krypton. The triangular device features the famed logo of the “House of El” clan on its cover — yeah, it’s the familiar “S.”

Junior simply waves his hand over the laptop (which detects the child’s natural heat and electromagnetic field — no kidding) and it magically opens while composer John Williams’ famed theme song plays in the background. This sensor technology is so cool, the 7-year-old fan might wear out the computer’s hinges before even getting to the software fun.

Once the computer opens, owners get an urgent SOS message flashed across a nearly 4-inch-wide red-tinted LED backlit screen as Superman declares, “Join me, the Man of Steel, to save the world. Are you ready to face the challenge? Enter a mission code.”

From there, junior heroes access 30 math, logic, memory and spelling activities that use the qwerty keyboard and four-square directional pad (shaped in the “S” logo) to begin to hone their skills.

Superman lends encouragement along the way in games ranging from hangman to a Frogger homage. Drills include traditional addition and subtraction problems and fill-in-the-blank word conundrums. The computer even has musical note-matching and song-composition activities.

Each activity’s difficulty level adjusts up or down based on the player’s performance, so frustration should remain at a minimum. The graphics, however, could be a turnoff for the tech-savvy owner, as the pixilated images look miserable when compared to those on any recent video game system.

Additionally, despite the variety of games, once the novelty of the cover trick wears off, the computer might become ignored quickly because of the antiquated visual presentation. Parents might find better replay value, although at a higher price, in hand-held systems that can be upgraded, such as the Leapster, V.Smile Pocket and even the Nintendo DS.

All challenges also are available in Spanish.

Superman Laptop Advance from Oregon Scientific, stand-alone product requires three AAA batteries, $59.99.

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 ([email protected]washingtontimes.com).

Trio of multimedia treats

• “Arthur’s Missing Pal,” from Lions Gate Entertainment for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, $19.99.

The popular aardvark celebrates his 10th anniversary in the cartoon world with his first direct-to-DVD movie as computer animation brings Arthur’s universe to life.

All of his pals — Muffy, Prunella, Binky, Brain, Francine and Buster — lend a hand in this 68-minute tale about the third-grader trying to find his way-too-cute pooch Pal, who is lost in a great big town. The CGI format may be a bit jarring at first for the Arthur traditionalist, but it does look good, especially when used to tell a well-written, humorous family-friendly story.

Extras include an informative look at the transformation of Arthur and the gang from a storyboard to the final animations and two set-top games in which players must follow an ice cream truck (using directional arrows on the remote) and visit locations to examine items for paw prints of the missing dog.

• “Washington: The Warrior,” from New Video for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, $24.95.

The History Channel gave a lesson on the military career of George Washington on Memorial Day, and the program returns in a single DVD release. The 92-minute education mixes re-creations, a bit of CGI and plenty of interviews from historians and experts while viewers learn about a man who began his warrior life as a major for the Virginia militia and eventually would lead a revolution.

Extras are pathetic for such a great and informative presentation, as viewers get just a 15-minute behind-the-scenes look at the show (previously shown on the network). Would it have been so hard to set up a PC component to link the disc to the History Channel’s Washington: The Warrior Web site (https://www.historychannel.com/washington/index.html)?

• “Micro Machines V4,” from Codemasters for PSP, $29.99.

Hasbro’s line of tiny scale vehicles (about a third the size of Hot Wheels) comes to virtual life in a racing simulation for Sony’s hand-held system that will frustrate but eventually may captivate the younger drivers in the family.

Players can collect and trade 750 vehicles as they progress through Micro Tournaments and wirelessly challenge up to three other PSP owners (each must have a copy of the game) or use a head-to-head option for a pair of players to share a race on a single PSP.

More than 50 courses are available in familiar surroundings, such as a pool table or on museum railings and in unusual spots, such as a chicken coop for the drivers who control beach buggies, muscle cars and sport utility vehicles, just to name a few.

The single-player experience is painful, as load times and the inability to win (especially if you fall behind quickly) will cause profanity-laced tirades. I constantly cursed a carrot and wedge of cheese that impeded my progress in a race requiring me to pass specific parts of a track in the allocated amount of time.

Luckily, a liberal supply of power-ups, many of which are weapons (the fire-breathing Cremator stands out), will help demolish the competition and makes the multiplayer challenges a much more intense experience.

Additionally, the PSP can hook up with the PlayStation 2 version of the game to share additional tracks between the systems.

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