Saturday, June 11, 2005

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 wonders of the universe open up to younger students through a program as visually exciting as it is intellectually stimulating.

Starry Night Middle School acts as a virtual astronomy teacher as it not only meets all space-science curriculum standards for sixth- through eighth-grade classrooms, but also offers an endless glimpse into the stars.

Combining 3-D, photo-realistic visuals with streams of astronomical information, the three-disc set takes owners from 4713 B.C. to A.D. 9999 as they analyze 2.5 million stars and more than 40,000 deep-space objects with accurate imagery culled from sources such as the Tully 3D Database and Hubble telescope.

The software uses a presentation similar to current versions of popular Web browsers to display a tabbed, hyperlinked navigation format with a top menu bar and right-side action window to deliver the multimedia content.

However, before jumping into the living encyclopedia of the universe, I suggest moving to the third disc, titled SkyTheater. This DVD-enabled ditty entertains students with a cinematically interesting introduction to parts of the science while warming up their noggins for the content explosion awaiting them.

Once intrigued by the premise of planets, nebulae and comets, junior researchers gladly will jump at a chance to manipulate the cosmos through a presentation that not only will entertain, but also will force users to interact with data and imagery to find answers to their questions.

The software includes zoom functions; an info tab to pull up chart positioning; and quick, detailed descriptions. It even uses a time and date function to accurately align with nearly anyplace on Earth to help train junior astronomers to find celestial bodies in the real night sky.

“Going above and beyond the call of duty” features include making short QuickTime movies based on some spectacular flyby views shot while navigating the universe; using a robust portal to find weekly astronomical events, solar and lunar eclipses and star phenomena; and a Spaceship mode that allows the student (with or without a joystick) to direct his travels across 700 million light-years of stars.

Users with Internet access also will get updated photos, whenever available, that cover multiple views, and an analysis of the Earth, sun and the latest placement and discoveries of comets, asteroids and satellites.

Additionally, a fantastic Teachers’ Guide containing 350 pages housed in a three-ring binder accompanies the middle school edition. It gives educators and home-schoolers access to 24 detailed lesson plans, including computer exercises, hands-on activities, tests (with answer keys), work sheets and even resource lists and a glossary of terms.

Starry Night Middle School excels at all teaching levels for the self-directed student, home-schooler or amateur stargazer.

Starry Night Middle School from Imaginova, $99.95 for Windows XP or Macintosh OS X (version 10.3 or higher) computers. DVD-enabled drive required for SkyTheater disc.

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 (jszadkowski@

Duo of gaming treats

• WarioWare Twisted, from Nintendo for Game Boy Advance, $34.99. Nintendo continues to lead the hand-held gaming world with awesome and affordable innovations. The latest involves a cartridge that contains a gyro sensor to detect sideways motions as well as a forced-feedback feature to offer a new way to play.

Mario’s twisted archenemy returns with more than 200 addictive micro-challenges that give successful players access to 130 virtual souvenirs from Diamond City.

As players turn the Game Boy like a steering wheel, they perform virtual stunts such as catching a butterfly, ironing a shirt, focusing a camera lens and walking up a winding staircase during timed events within a story mode displaying multiple animated mediums, music and a crazy cast of colorful characters.

As difficulty increases, button-pressing comes into the action as variations of shooting an arrow, loading a Ferris wheel and rotating a buffet table to find a piece of sushi require dexterity and quick reaction time.

Replay value is nearly endless as all unlocked games can be revisited to compete for high scores.

The imagination of the developers is even more insane in that glorious souvenir area. Players might end up winding a musical carousel (the more the owner twists the dial — by turning the Game Boy — the longer the item plays) or dialing a rotary phone.

The latest WarioWare will not only amaze players and onlookers, but also will produce a high giggle factor for the entire family.

• Need for Speed: Underground 2, from EA Games for Nintendo DS, $39.99. I am not a fan of racing simulations presented on hand-held gaming screens. It’s too hard to hold a magnifying glass while avoiding obstacles.

EA Games, however, takes just enough advantage of Nintendo’s processing power and its dual-screen unit to make its driving challenge worth recommending to race fans.

A cool selection of cars combines with a variety of tracks to allow the player to get emotionally involved with some 3-D, free-roaming street races.

Successful drivers accumulate points and unlock customization features for their vehicles. The personalized decal art program that uses the DS’ touch screen is a highlight. Additionally, up to four drivers can compete via its wireless capabilities.

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