- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

Online exclusive

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.

LeapFrog taps into classic video games to teach children the wonders of words and math through its Leapster Arcade line.

The four cartridges, compatible with the company’s hand-held Leapster and L-Max learning systems, are affordably priced and concentrate on one- or two-player games offering four levels of challenges.

First, an ode to Asteroids arrives as Cosmic Math, which has children in pre-kindergarten to first grade select a spaceship surrounded by a trio of space rocks labeled with numbers. A voice announces an addition, subtraction, multiplication or division problem, which is also mirrored at the bottom of the screen, and pilots must blast the appropriately numbered asteroid to continue. A shot at the wrong rock breaks it up, and pieces may hit the ship. Three hits and the ship goes up in flames.

Next, Letterpillar is the cutest challenge and takes its cue from Centipede while reinforcing reading and spelling skills for children in pre-kindergarten through first grade. As letters specified by the narrator are consumed, the insect’s segmented body grows. Players may need to identify capital letters or spell three-letter words as the smiling, bulbous-headed creature is maneuvered around a grassy environment.

The hardest of the bunch, Word Chasers, is the thinking child’s version of Pac-Man. Children in first through fourth grades move a cat head around a maze as it munches on letters to form more than 500 words. Angry mice will impede progress, but when letters are picked correctly and words spelled, the creatures become easy pickings for the floating feline noggin. Adding to the difficulty is an occasionally difficult to understand narrator and the accidental digesting of the wrong letter.

Finally, Number Raiders pays homage to one of my favorites, Space Invaders. Children 4 to 7 years old engage in a tense adventure in mathematics as they shoot down numbered space rocks while learning to count to 100 and solve simple problems.

It is not enough to get the answer right in this game, as rows of rocks threaten to crush a spaceship tasked with blasting them. The player must carefully aim at the right space chunk, which moves back and forth. Once disintegrated, the rock lets loose a row of crystals that must be blasted before they dissolve. Incorrectly shot rocks can fall on the ship, and the craft also must avoid pieces randomly falling from some of the debris.

Overall, the games are fast-paced, challenging and long enough to cleverly cajole youngsters into learning, especially if parents take the time to explain the arcade origins of these games.

Trio of multimedia treats

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, from DreamWorks Home Entertainment for DVD-enabled computers and entertainment systems, $19.99.

This year’s Academy Award-winning animated film is crammed onto a single DVD along with a surprising number of extras concentrating on the film’s humor as well as its stop-motion techniques.

The cheese-loving inventor, Wallace, and his silently courageous pooch, Gromit, will spark a severe case of laughter in any household as they spend 85 minutes trying capture a familiar fluffy beast that is devouring their town’s prized produce.

Supplemental media includes a history of the characters, an eight-minute tour of Aardman Studios, where the legendary duo comes to life, an informative commentary track with writer-directors Nick Park and Steve Box, nine deleted scenes (with commentary) and a very instructive lesson from a stop-motion animator on how to turn a hunk of clay and wire into a bunny.

Viewers even get a look at some of Wallace’s amazing inventions, including the Snoozatron, the 525 Crackervac and Shopper 13 — the ultimate robot to handle the menial task of buying food.

Popping the disc into the PC leads to a link for the very interactive Wallace & Gromit movie Web site (www.wandg.com) as well as a slew of 17 printable activities and art projects such as jigsaw puzzles, photo frames, a calendar, stickers, stencils and a word search.

Finding Nemo: Escape to the Big Blue, from THQ for Nintendo DS, $29.99.

Pixar’s famed animated fish tale swims into Nintendo’s dual-screen hand-held gaming unit to offer a slightly watered-down version of a mini game extravaganza that will captivate the youngest owners of the system.

A single player can take control of the seven main characters of the Tank Gang, including the yellow tang Bubbles, starfish Peach and the damselfish Deb, while getting them back to the coral reef where each faces at least a trio of point-based and task-completing challenges.

Activities make liberal use of the DS’ unique attributes and might have a player blow into the microphone to expand Bloat the puffer fish to help clear a path for Dory as she maneuvers through a gantlet of stinging sea urchins. Or, he may need to lead Flo out of a trench by using the stylus pen.

Another level to the action is collecting tokens that can be used to buy creatures to place into an interactive reef and simply observe their interactions, which allows a soothing respite from the multiple levels of the hands- and lungs-intensive action.

Ice Age: Super Cool Edition, from 20th Century Fox for DVD-enabled computers and entertainment systems, $19.99.

Not to be confused with “Ice Age: Special Edition” from four years ago, this two-disc edition still highlights the hilarious computer-generated animated film but manages to heap on a few more supplemental features to thoroughly saturate tykes on the “Ice Age” brand before its sequel opens on March 31.

A very funny film starring the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary shows some period-specific, neurotic creatures trying to return a human baby to its family, but the really cool stuff is crammed onto the second disc.

It is spearheaded by another presentation of the film using pop-up boxes and text embedded in an ice background to show simultaneously the movie, behind-the-scenes clips, information about the animation process and real science facts. Who knew a typical squirrel eats 800 acorns a year?

I also enjoyed the previously seen animated shorts “Gone Nutty — Scrat’s Missing Adventure” and Academy Award winner “Bunny” as well as a pair of behind-the-scenes documentaries and six set-top games.

Popping the second disc into a DVD-enabled PC unlocks another level of previously seen interactivity.

Now junior can take part in the Sid Shreds snowboarding challenge or the melon-collecting dodge-ball challenge Super Dodo Ball and enjoy seven printable activities, including creating a mobile, snowflake and paper doll. You can skip the offer to create a calendar for 2003.

Leapster Arcade’s Cosmic Math, Letterpillar, Word Chasers and Number Raiders from LeapFrog, $17.99 each. They require either the Leapster ($69) or L-Max ($99.99) hand-held 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 ([email protected]).

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