- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

With help from Nintendo’s magical handheld system, a new game series teaches kids “It’s OK to Be Smart” - if they are willing to go on a Brain Quest (Electronic Arts, $29.99 each).

Based on the popular pumped-up flashcard series by Workman Publishing, this fun, educational challenge goes overboard with keeping kids interested in learning.

Two titles, Brain Quest: Grades 5 & 6 and Brain Quest: Grades 3 & 4, contain more than 6,000 questions each and extend the typical trivia format usually mired in multiple-choice possibilities. The games offer a varied style of curriculum-based questions and spice up the action through extra activities and achievements to be unlocked.

Both use the same game mechanics, but a different story line. Let’s first look at the more difficult Grades 5 & 6 title, which is geared to students 10 to 12 years old.

After an introduction to the game’s host, a “High School Musical” type named Brian, the player is walked through the game’s modes. Those who want to do something more than simply answer questions in the Brain Mode (answer the fastest to collect the most points) can go on a wordy Quest.

The student selects from six extreme tween style areas tied to the subjects math (soccer), history (surfing), science (an auto shop), geography (snowboarding), English (rock music) and a grab bag (skateboarding). Once a venue is chosen, the player converses with multiple characters and, as he keeps reading their trash talk, a challenge eventually is issued.

If near a garage, one might think the player would be in a race game, but no, it’s a series of rounds loaded with questions. He must answer a certain number to earn a collectible and impress the character before moving on.

Brian will explain each question format before the player begins. Questions come in standard multiple choice, fill in the blanks (using a keyboard on the DS’ bottom touch screen), eliminate an answer by drawing an “X” through it, draw lines to match items, and grab and move answers into the correct order.

The questions are always fresh and taxing. A student might have to match first and last names of famous American composers, solve a complex equation, arrange precious stones from hardest to least hard, or spell “goodbye” in Italian.

The grab bag adds topics on the arts, literature, nutrition, sports, movies and music.

Success leads to collecting points and unlocking animated stickers. These can be purchased and added to a static scene to offer the student a chance to demonstrate some creativity.

If bored with questions, a deep Sudoku game is also available in 4-by-4, 6-by-6 and 9-by-9 puzzle grids.

If that still isn’t enough action, a pseudo-multiplayer option provides competitive and cooperative modes as players pass a DS back and forth. Not as great as tapping into two DS units wirelessly using one card, but I appreciate the thought.

The Grades 3 & 4 title offers the same extras and a wildlife motif as students converse with park rangers and go on quests to help animals. The questions are almost as difficult: One asked me to put in order, by age, the female stars of “Little Women.” I asked a couple of fourth-graders to perform the feat and their jaws dropped.

I warned in a previous column that the DS could make curriculum-based, casual gaming an enjoyable reality. Well, the time has arrived and students stand to gain a wealth of knowledge and feel great about their accomplishments thanks to Electronic Arts’ Brain Quest series.

Game Bytes

Here’s an abbreviated look at some multimedia titles for the pixie fan in the family.

Disney Fairies: Tinker Bell (For DS, Disney Interactive Studios, $29.99) - Peter Pan’s loyal friend twinkles in this third-person adventure co-starring the inhabitants of Pixie Hollow.

The deep, delightfully designed adventure has the player control Tink (she follows the stylus dragged on the touch screen and trails pixie dust behind her) as she explores the fantasyland’s 16 areas and helps other fairies prepare the seasons.

Action takes full advantage of the DS’ capabilities. Take the cleaning and repairing of items, a specialty of the tinkering star. Blow dust off of a pot by actually blowing into the DS microphone, or repair cracks to it by applying glue and hammering it into place (use the stylus to spread the patch and tap to set it).

Options in the action include use of a real-time clock (seasons change to match a player’s world); starting fashion trends with customizable costumes; making, collecting and wearing loads of accessories; cute timed minigames; and conversing with new friends including Chipper, Rosetta, Silvermist and Queen Clarion.

Girls, especially younger gamers, will really enjoy their visit to Pixie Hollow (once they get used to navigating around terrain) while parents will appreciate the sharing and friendship aspects of the game.

Disney’s online community, DGamer, is also available through the DS WiFi option to chat with other players and share items.

Clickables’ Fairy Game (Techno Source, standalone unit, uses three AAA batteries, included, $19.99) - Disney is pushing hard to give Tink and her pals the same pop-culture status as those pesky princesses. Techno Source helps with the ambitious Clickables system that combines a software download, a “members only” Web site, and a set of standalone toys that easily connect to a Windows XP/Vista/2000 PC. The result is an interactive universe dedicated to Pixie Hollow that gives female fans a handheld unit to play games and collect rewards.

In the case of the Fairy Game, it’s a purple, tulip-shaped, palm-size device that contains five challenges. The player navigates with a directional pad and buttons through the bare minimum of graphical presentations (a 1-inch LED screen). She performs tasks such as pounding dents out of pots and keeping flowers in full bloom.

It’s simple, repetitive gaming at its finest. However, the action is worth it thanks to collecting points. Easy to amass, they can be downloaded to the online Pixie Hollow site (www.pixiehollow.com) to buy butterflies that will hang out with a customized fairy.

Better yet, the points are transferable to other friends with Disney Fairies Clickables’ items (such as a bracelet or charms) by simply touching the metallic sensors of each together. It’s pretty slick tech and actually works.

Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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