- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

An award-winning superhero from the world of PC edutainment makes his debut on Nintendo’s Wii entertainment console in Pajama Sam: Don’t Fear the Dark (Majesco Entertainment, for Wii, $29.99).

Humongous Entertainment created this beautiful cartoony adventure in 1996 and its simple storytelling and click-and-find interactivity make it a timeless classic perfect for today’s 6-year-old Wii player.

In the story, a youngster named Sam tries to conquer his fear of the dark by finding and capturing the villainous fellow in charge, Darkness.

From his bedroom, Sam first looks around to find his gear - a mask, flashlight and portable bad guy containment unit (which looks suspiciously like a lunch box) - before entering his bedroom closet, also a portal to the Land of Darkness

Instead of the clunky mouse and keyboard commands used in the original, the wireless Wiimote orchestrates exploration through pointing and clicking around colorful areas. Arrows appear to help guide the player as he finds plenty of animated cut scenes, objects to complete tasks and multitiered missions for his ultimate faceoff with Darkness.

For example, as the player moves from locations such as a lava mine, boat dock and the villain’s impressive mansion, he might have to mix up a formula to become invisible, find a key to open a door or acquire a disguise to sneak past some pompous foliage.

Within each scene, there are at least a dozen hot spots to click that deliver some silly action and guarantee to hold a player’s interest and deliver a smile.

Additionally, found with this type of adventure are an eclectic selection of characters that talk to Sam and help him through some of his missions. The lineup includes a lactose intolerant tree, a boat afraid to get into water, a talking mine car and a singing stove.

Along the journey, Sam must not only recover his mask, flashlight and lunch box to face his nemesis, but he also must find 10 pairs of socks that have fallen into Darkness (a common problem in my household).

Learning time: Some of the simpler disciplines needed for learning, such as memorization, reasoning and following directions are reinforced. The action did sneak in some pure educational moments, including a very funny dissertation on the principles and history of geysers with the disclaimer “gratuitous educational content” prominently displayed.

Better yet, a faux game show hosted by the wooden Wink and Blink give players a bit of intelligence as they attempt to get through the Doors of Knowledge. Sam must answer four multiple choice questions that tackle a wide variety of topics ranging from history, anatomy and ancient Egypt to art and fruit.

Age range: A sophisticated preschooler will be giddy at the depth of the action, wonderful cartoon segments and abundance of clickable areas. Casually observing family members will get a kick out of the humor, obviously designed to tickle the funny bone of old and young.

Final advice: Pajama Sam has not lost his cartoon charm over the last decade and the young hero delivers a great-looking and amusing adventure for a new generation of gamers.

Game Bytes

Here’s an abbreviated look at some multimedia items for the entire family:

Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise (For Xbox 360, Microsoft, $39.99) - The prettiest garden-building simulation on the planet returns to give even the youngest green thumbs in the family the chance to create a virtual tropical paradise.

First off, let’s forget about the micromanagement of foliage, flowers, ponds, fences, fruit trees and aggressive weeds, the stars of this show are the papier mache wildlife. Specifically, it’s the abundant variety of colorful, candy-consuming pinata species that must be tended as they enhance and wreak havoc on a player’s property.

Trap them, feed them, name them, care for them, send them off to a party and watch the critters positively and negatively interact with one another as a garden expands and flourishes.

A story about the megalomaniacal Professor Pester and his plans for world pinata domination is unnecessary as administering to the exotic ecosystem bursting with Bunnycombs, Sweetles and Whirlms is more than enough fun.

New stuff to the simulation includes another 32 species, a tool to help the creatures perform tricks, themed modules to turn gardens into a pirate cove or haunted graveyard, desert and arctic areas on the island and a Just for Fun mode (an infinite chocolate coin bankroll and no mean pinatas), perfect for the newbie.

This effort’s greatest extra, however, is a cooperative mode where two gardeners (parent-and-youngster bonding alert) in the same room or four online can work together to share the sometimes-complex duties.

Microsoft also adds a real trading card element into the world-building requiring a player hold a Pinata Vision card up (one is included with the game, or print out more at the Web site, www.viva pinata.com) to a connected Xbox Live camera to unlock its surprises, but the amount of work involved does not justify the upgrades and visual rewards.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2009 (for Xbox 360, Electronic Arts, $59.99) -If I am going to spend the time learning the finer points of golf, then I need to find the guy who actually trained the star of the links.

As luck would have it, Mr. Woods’ coach, Hank Haney, holds a player’s hand while occasionally boring him to death, through the arduous chore of becoming a virtual professional golfer in this premiere simulation.

After creating an avatar - a real lesson in time-wasting minutia led by the tempting option of adding one’s face to the golfer - the player takes a dozen challenging modes of action over 16 courses.

Details down to tuning the clubs, instant swing analysis and dynamic leveling based on performance will exhaust the average gamer who just wants to hack away and master the controller’s analog stick technique or three-click method.

Tiger and his professional buddies look pretty good in digital form while the courses are as frustrating to conquer as they are beautiful. Unfortunately, the tedious color commentary during the action can suck the excitement out of any great shot.

The best new feature allows four online golfers to play simultaneously so the time-consuming turn-taking is no more.

Although I am more drawn to the crazier arcade golf experiences such as Hot Shots, I appreciated the latest Tiger Woods’ epic and so will the most passionate fans of the game.

Joseph Szadkowski’s ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to jszadkowski@ washingtontimes.com.

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