Here's a sneaky way to please your favorite youngsters this holiday. We've found three great games for tykes and preteens that (shh!) also teach important skills.
The Playroom will delight 3- to 7-year-olds. To be honest, it had Judi mesmerized. We had to tear her away from it to get this review.When the program's loaded, the title screen fades into a full-screen picture of a child's bedroom. On an EGA color monitor, we saw lots of detail: part of a bed, a night table, a toy chest, a window, a bookcase and much more. In the forefront are a parrot that sings when you point to him, a dragon whose one eye winks at you and a dinosaur that you can wake up and tickle.
The room is chock-full of interactive tricks like this that the child makes happen just by pointing to the object. A goldfish swishes around in his fishbowl. A Raggedy Ann doll waves hello. A peeping bear at the window ducks out of sight when you point and click. It reminds us of those shooting gallery arcades so popular at Coney Island and state fairs.
Our favorite click-and-do object is a picture frame on the wall. It cycles through half dozen important words printed out (such as yes, no, walk and poison,) along with pictures that show their meaning. For instance, for yes, we see a child nod his head; for poison we see a skull and crossbones.
Here is what's best about the pictures: While the child watches the word and its meaning, the computer's sound system says the word so well that we understand it clearly. Voila! A three-year-old learns to read the words.
All these wonderful moving and speaking components are not even the half of what's in The Playroom. Hidden behind six of the room's elements are six entertaining games.
Point to a book in the bookcase and it opens to show several hometown scenes. Kids select objects by picture and put them in the scene to tell a story. The computer teaches the first letter of each object, such as A for apple.
Next to the book is a tape recorder hiding a spinning game that helps children count to 10. If two ducks or two hats come onscreen, the child must put the spinner marker on two. If she chooses the number three, the computer flashes on the correct number and reinforces the concept by saying"two." A computer on the child's table in the picture helps with reading, spelling and even typing.
Behind a mouse hole is a three-level board game that teaches counting. For sheer fun (and, we're told, developing analytic skills), a Mixed-Up Toy game has you putting the head of one creature on the body of another and the legs of a third. The drawings are imaginative and fun to manipulate.
The last game, an old-fashioned cuckoo clock, helps kids learn to tell time by the hour. We're not sure whether any of today's youngsters will ever need that quaint old skill, but it's laudable that Broderbund's programmers thought to include it.
In case the kids ever get bored, the manual holds a few other games and playtime activities. In short, it's a winner and almost worth the $45 list for IBM compatibles (joystick or mouse not needed), $40 for all the Apple IIs and $50 for Macintosh. (Broderbund: (800) 521-6263) (This and other games reviewed here are usually discounted by local retailers.)
For 5- to 10-year-olds, The Learning Company has a new entry this year in its excellent Super Solvers series. Treasure Mountain! is an adventure game that rank beginners will find as challenging (and addictive) as full-scale dungeons-and-dragons maze games are to teenagers.
The goal of this adventure is to lead the main character through a mountain of mazes, unearth clues, find treasures, outwit mischievous elves and win back the king's magic crown. The game comes with a full-color map showing clues to success.
As the child plays, he learns to read, count, solve problems and make good decisions. There are even a few science lessons shoehorned into the plot line.
Kids who master this maze will enjoy two Super Solvers for 7- to 12-year-olds, OutNumbered! and Midnight Rescue. In previous reviews, we recommended them highly. If your favorite preteen's already solved those puzzlers, buy Challenge of the Ancient Empires. The Learning Company's educator panel suggests Challenge for age 10 and up. Players can explore five caverns, each representing a different ancient civilization. Each cavern has four chambers. As you play, you collect helpful tools and pieces of ancient treasures. Part of the challenge is putting the right pieces together to form the various artifacts such as vase and jar.
Challenge includes many elements of adult D&D games, such as a hero with limited but renewable energy. To get from chamber to chamber, players learn to reason and recognize patterns and to solve puzzles in logic. They also get an introduction to the arts and crafts of five dead civilizations. In this game, even the musical accompaniment is fun.
Our one quibble: In adventure games where there's only one adventurer, how come it's always male, never female?
Each game in the series lists at $50. Warning: All Learning Company games come only for IBM compatibles and require a color board and color monitor. Since they're very rich graphically, expect them to run slowly on PC- and XT-compatibles. (The Learning Company: 800-852-2255.)