- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 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.

Parents pestered by children begging for aquatic pets can offer My Sim Aquarium, a virtual simulation to test their offsprings’ fish care abilities.

The program attempts to simplify the visit to the pet shop by bringing it to the computer screen. Owners can choose from 48 species of fish and get a quick education on each through a 103-page encyclopedia.

After the new owner chooses background music from among eight classical pieces, he can furnish the tank with a selection of plants, rocks, coral and other objects or pick from 12 prepared environments. He has the option of scaling and moving everything as he also chooses from 20 miniatures of famous buildings and more than 40 other items, such as the popular treasure chest (complete with opening lid) and windmill.

Most important, the owner then visits the marine pet shop to purchase about five to eight fries (baby fish) for the tank. No virtual money is required, but fish species must be replenished via the new owner, who breeds his pets and sells some back to the store.

Caring for the fish involves reacting to a monitor system that pops up in the corner of the screen. Four bars reveal health, hunger, friendliness and growth, with extra clickable areas devoted to changing the water and feeding the critters. A pair of binoculars zooms in and follows any of the fish through the three-dimensional domain.

Simple mouse clicks accomplish tasks, and a mouse painter hand allows the owner to tickle fish and get them used to their new home.

The detail and artificial intelligence of the fish is pretty slick — each has seven emotions ranging from joy to aggression, and they even will begin to breed once they reach maturity.

Owners can take a very hands-on approach to care through the Expert mode (fish last around two days) or use the autofeed features in Lazy mode (fish will not grow or breed). Additionally, the aquarium can be turned into the computer’s screen saver.

My Sim Aquarium looks beautiful and has a learning curve that will appeal to the 10-year-old in the family (although it works even for adults). The developers, however, seem to feel that just enjoying the serenity of fish-watching is not enough, so they have thrown in some silliness that takes away from the real-life educational potential.

Besides adding various types of fish food that can make the pets glow and immediately grow, they also have added a mermaid that visits the tank after the owner successfully breeds six species. It’s a cute idea, but parents will have a difficult time explaining that a mythical creature will not be stopping by when it’s time to graduate from virtual to real-life fish care.

My Sim Aquarium from Viva Media requires Pentium 233MHz or faster processor and Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000, XP computer system, $34.99.

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

• Garfield: The Purrrfect Collector’s Edition, from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, $26.99.

Whether the world needs another live-action Garfield movie is questionable. (We got another one this summer anyway.) However, I felt pretty comfortable reporting that the world definitely does not need a special DVD release of the first Garfield film, which underwhelmed critics but made a minor box-office splash in 2004.

Twentieth Century Fox disagreed and has bestowed upon viewers a two-disc set loaded with extras. Those who manage to avoid the widescreen and full-screen versions of the film on the first disc (which I highly recommend) will find an incredible assortment of items to please younger Garfield fans and CGI deconstructionists.

A history of Garfield from the Jim Davis comic strip to silver-screen documentary includes plenty of information from Mr. Davis and even a quick tutorial on how to draw the fat cat. Director Peter Hewitt and producer John Davis also provide an optional commentary track, and a Composite Workshop feature with the effects supervisors and multiangle scene breakdowns does a great job of explaining the magic behind the digital animating of a comics legend.

The anchor of the set is found on the first disc. Through a computer and Web browser-based menu, visitors can access a card trick performed by Garfield, help him eat food that falls from the sky, solve 10 jigsaw puzzles and access an art program that enables budding cartoonists to lay out a full comic strip and print their masterpiece.

Here is the perfect case of the DVD medium’s potential far outshining its original source material. Children will love it.

• Lemmings, from Sony Computer Entertainment for PSP, $39.99.

Legendary green-haired creatures that look as if they were culled from a Sid and Marty Kroft production infect Sony’s hand-held multimedia machine and give players the chance to save a dunderheaded species.

The puzzle-loaded adventure has a player guide a set number of miniature humanoids to an exit by assigning eight types of commands such as dig, float, climb or bomb to individuals or groups of Lemmings to keep them moving in the right direction.

Along the way, pits of lava, steep cliffs and spikes will impede the rescue attempts within the 150 levels, which mix side-scrolling action with fairly elaborate and often hostile environments. The on-screen fun can be zoomed in upon, for us older players with pooped peepers, or sped up.

The player also can create his own levels and share them with others via a wireless connection to spread the rounds of pitfalls and perils unleashed upon the little fellows.

• Magnetica, from Nintendo for DS, $29.99.

The arcade hit Puzz Loop becomes part of Nintendo’s dual-screen hand-held wonder in a puzzle-loaded game that mixes marbles with bust-a-move action.

The frustrating fun has a player flick orbs with his stylus pen on the DS’ touch screen at a cascading chain of magnetically attracted marbles trickling through a maze. He must match at least three of the same colored marbles to eliminate strings of them before one reaches the maze’s reactor core.

Sounds simple enough, but taming the orbs requires a quick wrist and plenty of thought to get the most out of the marble chain reactions.

As part of the company’s Touch Generation brand, created so average players can quickly enjoy the video-game revolution, the title delivers a wide variety of permutations to the basic game with 99 levels and four difficulty settings found in the Challenge mode alone. Additionally, multiplayer modes are available that use the unit’s wireless connection.

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