Computer Game Reviews
The all-time classics never go out of style, but check their compatibility with newer operating systems.]
Last week I listed over 30 of my family's favorite computer games, but I didn't have enough space to provide a detailed review of each one. This week I have selected what I consider to be the Top Ten so that I can write more about them. I am including something for each age level and a variety of choices from amazingly educational to pure clean fun. Most of these are enjoyed by both boys and girls. These computer games are well-liked by the kids for their play value and approved by Mom and Dad for their beneficial qualities. These are my personal favorites!
Would you like to assume the role of Bilbo Baggins and go on the great adventure that started it all? Set in the world of Middle Earth, this one player action/strategy game follows the story of Tolkien's Hobbit, the prelude to Lord of the Rings. Meet famous characters such as Gollum, Gandalf, Thorin, Dwarves, etc. while battling Spiders, Trolls, Goblins, wolves, Wargs, Stone-Giants, Smaug, and more. The voices sound just like I would expect the characters to talk. It even uses actual quotes from the book! This music in this game is so good that we downloaded the soundtrack so we could listen to it separately. It has some beautiful instrumentation including Celtic and folk styles of songs with lots of acoustic guitar, quite unusual for game music. The graphics are rich and the animation is cute. You start out in Hobbiton, where you practice walking around and gathering supplies. Then you travel through places like Mirkwood Forest and Lonely Mountain, collecting gems for courage and health. Some of the puzzles you have to solve are pretty challenging, and in between there are lots of neat places to explore. You get to use the ring to become invisible and you also get to wield the legendary sword, Sting! This game is enjoyable for everyone. It's faithful to the story and lets you experience the adventure first-hand (after you've read the book, of course). (The only discrepancy is that in the game Bilbo looks like a teenager but in the book he was 50!)
I Spy School Days
This digital version of the book expands on the rhyming riddle/hidden object format by offering additional technologically-unique learning opportunities. For example, sometimes objects have to be moved in order to find the sought-after item, or a dot-to-dot activity needs to be completed to reveal a hidden object. The graphics are photographs of familiar items, most with a "school days" theme, and the package accurately depicts the product. The program contains: Oops Hoops (Venn diagrams disguised as Hula hoops), Nature, Chalkboard, Balloon Popper (chain reactions), Wood Block City, Codebreaker, Craft Projects, Find Me Riddle, and Make Your Own I Spy (kids can create I Spy pages to challenge friends and family). I Spy requires children ages 4-10 to use their brains while having fun at the same time. Scholastic's I Spy software series provides lots of fun practice for beginning learners in many basic skills such as reading, vocabulary, rhyming, visual discrimination, word-object association, cause and effect, memory, creativity, logic, problem solving, associative thinking, classifying and sorting. Children compete against themselves without any pressure or time limits, and incomplete treasure hunts are saved so kids can return to them later. Equally excellent are: I Spy Fantasy, I Spy Spooky Mansion Deluxe, and I Spy Treasure Hunt.
Logical Journey of the Zoombinis
The original Logical Journey of the Zoombinis was published by Broderbund but it was designed by TERC, a not-for-profit education research and development organization based in Cambridge, Mass. This highly acclaimed game was followed years later with two sequels, Zoombinis Mountain Rescue and Zoombinis Island Odyssey, which unfortunately are nowhere near the quality of the first. The Zoombinis characters in the original all have really interesting personalities, but in the sequels they are rather bland in comparison. The puzzles in the sequels aren't nearly as challenging, either, and the kids finished the games in no time. Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, however, becomes progressively more difficult as you go along and requires you to actually use your brain. Twelve puzzles are solved using concepts of sorting, classifying, graphing and deductive reasoning, thus teaching logical thinking and problem solving skills. There are short-term and long-term goals to work towards, from getting as many Zoombinis as possible through one puzzle to getting all 625 possible Zoombinis to Zoombiniville. The puzzles have four levels, from "not so easy" to "very very hard." Recommended for ages 8 - 12, but my oldest son is a logical thinker so he had it mastered at age 6.
The JumpStart series of grade-level, multi-subject "edu-tainment" software includes: JumpStart Baby, Toddler, Preschool, Pre-K, Kindergarten, First Grade, Second Grade, Third Grade, Fourth Grade, Fifth Grade, Sixth Grade. We have re-used the grade-level programs with all three of our children. When we first got these games for our oldest son, we gave them to him during the summer before he began the specified grade level in school, to play as a fun head start. JumpStart Baby, Toddler, Second and Third Grades are my favorites. We have the original JumpStart Fourth Grade which takes place in a spooky Haunted Mansion, but I've heard that they changed it since then, perhaps because of complaints that it was too scary. JumpStart Fifth Grade is probably the most difficult for its corresponding grade. Over the years, they have also added many more subject-specific titles such as JumpStart Typing, Jump Start Spanish, JumpStart Explorers, etc., all of which are enjoyed by kids.
The Learning Company has produced a Liberty's Kids CD-ROM for ages 7-12. It contains seven challenging re-playable events with more than 30 interactive animated characters. Kids can watch mini-movies from the TV show, interview historical characters, play puzzles and games, create and print a newspaper. Basically, players go on a scavenger hunt to collect missing objects and interview characters while answering Who, What, Where, Why and How questions. In doing so, they gather facts about major historical events such as the Boston Tea Party and the writing of The Declaration of Independence. This information is recorded in a notebook and later pieced together into a front-page story, so this game introduces children to journalism as well as history. The CD-ROM also contains quizzes and a reference guide with a wealth of historical information.
Carmen Sandiego series
In Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego, you chase Carmen across the United States, researching places and solving clues along the way. In Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, you chase her and her henchmen around the world while researching countries and solving clues. In Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego, you use a time machine to zip back and forth through time to apprehend the criminals using clues from reference material provided. Along the way, you learn about history, geography, and cultures while utilizing deductive reasoning and logical thinking skills, all while playing a fun detective game at the same time. The information contained in these games is excellent and interesting, and all of the extra features - such as sound clips and photo images - provided in the Deluxe versions are well worth it. Carmen Sandiego Junior doesn't have as much content, but younger kids (ages 5-8) will like it. The others are best for ages 9 and up. An interesting thing happened when we were playing Carmen Sandiego one day. We were in the Louisiana Bayou, and there was some really cool Cajun music (recorded live) playing in the background. Of course, the boys always have the sound turned way up. The phone rang and my husband answered it in the same room. The sales person on the other end was all apologetic, thinking that he was interrupting a party! That's how realistic this game is!
In this game, players age 8 and up guide a group of pioneers from Independence, Missouri, to a destination out West (such as Oregon, California, or Utah). You begin by planning the trip: buying supplies, getting advice, joining a wagon train. Then, as you travel, you make decisions about how to cross difficult rivers and hills, which places to trade, hunt, or stop and rest, and how to treat members of the party who are injured or sick. There are three levels of difficulty, lots of choices to make, different routes to take, and unexpected scenarios that come up which you have to deal with just like in real life. Along the way, you learn about native plants, animals, history and more. Oregon Trail I is the original; since it's an old program, its graphics are poor. Oregon Trail II is old now, too, and a lot simpler than its sequels, but it's still good. I didn't like Oregon Trail 3 when it came out because it didn't have the neat western music score at the beginning that Oregon Trail II had, which really set the mood. The later ones are good, though, each sequel getting progressively more detailed in the animation and digitized sounds.
Music Ace and Music Ace 2
Music Ace and its sequel are an excellent introduction to music for ages 8 and up. They are fun and engaging while detailed enough to serve as a complete beginning music curriculum. Each of these programs contains 24 self-paced tutorials that teach music fundamentals, theory, and listening skills in a painless manner. Music Ace begins with the basics, such as the staffs (treble, bass, grand), scales, octaves, keyboard basics, pitch identification, note reading, sharps and flats, whole and half steps. Musical games and a Music Doodle Pad are included. Music Ace 2 progresses to topics such as standard notation, tempo, rhythm, quarter notes, eighth notes, rests, measures, melody, harmony, syncopation, half notes and ties, dotted quarter notes, sixteenth notes, and much more.
The Maxis simulation games are generally good for ages 6 and up. SimCity Classic, 2000, 3000, and 4 all provide a realistic introduction to city planning and zoning, budgeting, government, business, cause and effect scenarios. In SimTower you can build a skyscraper while learning business skills and landlord-tenant relationships. SimFarm is a realistic farm simulation in which you plant crops, raise livestock, make business decisions, deal with weather and seasonal changes. SimPark, in which you design and manage a nature park, is ideal for young environmentalists. Choose a geographical location and select appropriate plants and animals to create a bio-web complete with a functioning food chain. Visiting humans also have to be managed. In each of these simulation games, sudden disasters such as fires and tornadoes add unexpected challenges just like in real life. They are all engaging and educational, but they do require a lot of hard drive space. SimCity is one of those rare instances when the older version of a game still provides quality play value, so if the latest version won't work on your computer, you will still enjoy a previous version. Even though all of the above Maxis simulation games are excellent, some of their others simply aren't as good or contain objectionable themes. For example, in The Sims it is too easy to let your imaginary characters commit sin.
Myst, Riven, Exile, Uru, and Revelation are well-crafted morality tales written by two committed Christians, the sons of a Bible church minister. They do not contain the occultism or demonism that many fantasy games are based on. The puzzles can be extremely challenging, however, requiring a great deal of logical reasoning and creative thinking. So these games are best for older kids and adults, although younger children will enjoy watching and offering suggestions. You're all alone in the middle of a strange place and it's up to you to figure out what to do and where to go. These games feature breathtaking scenery and exotic, mysterious worlds to explore, along with appropriate mood music and an element of danger that keeps you on your toes. This series is a classic.
"To Survive you have to Believe." This story is set in ancient Rome during the heyday of Christian persecutions circa 171 AD. The game was developed by N'Lightning Software as a Christian alternative to first-person shooting games. While it plays just like one, violence in this case is done only as a last resort. For example, in the beginning you don't actually kill any Roman soldiers, you convert them using a Holy Sword. As a Catechumen ("novice Christian") you've just spent the last year learning from your mentor. But then your mentor is captured along with other believers. It is up to you to prove your worth in the Colosseum and work your way through the catacombs beneath the ancient city to the brink of Hell itself in order to rescue your brethren. The enemies that you have to defeat in this spiritual war are powerful, but fear not! Angels are strong and have mighty weapons of their own! The music and graphics in this game are excellent. The background effects truly capture the essence of ancient Rome. There are five difficulty levels, and even Fledgling offers quite a challenge. The game is rated Teen for animated violence, but kids as young as nine years old may want to play if they're familiar with first-person shooters - and if they're brave enough. For they will encounter many scary creatures including evil spirits, demons, minor devils, lions, a Minotaur, the Hounds of Hell, Fallen Angels, and finally Satan himself.
Ominous Horizons: A Paladin's Calling
This is another innovative first-person adventure from N'Lightning Software. It is a professionally made game that is right on par with the best selling first-person shooting games on the market, while at the same time it is amazingly unique. The first thing you will notice about this game is the beautiful artwork on the box. Upon entering the virtual world you will be awed by the great graphics, beautifully rendered textures, detailed backgrounds, music that is well-suited to the setting, spectacular effects, realistic sound and movement. The game begins in 1461 Germany. You are a Paladin, called upon to retrieve all the pieces of Gutenberg's Bible from a thief who took it and destroyed Gutenberg's printing press. In the game you must explore complex mazes, solve puzzles, and discover hidden secrets. During your journey you will travel to many different locations around the world and explore such varied landmarks as the Mesa Verde pueblo, an Egyptian pyramid, Scottish castle, Japanese pagoda, Mayan temple, Stonehenge, a haunted mansion, and the Underworld. Angels are your allies and you must put on the full Armor of God to complete your quest. This game is rated Teen for mild violence, but it is a refreshing alternative to the typical first-person shooting games and can be played by kids as young as nine. But beware, parts of this game are seriously creepy and not for the faint of heart!
P.S. You've probably heard of Wolfenstein, which is an addictive, violent (rated M) first-person shoot-em-up game in which you have to fight Nazis (and zombies!) during World War II. Normally, I would not consider it to be educational or have any other redeeming qualities. But it just goes to show, you never know what your kids will learn from. After playing Return to Castle Wolfenstein at a friend's house, my 9- and 14-year-old boys became so wrapped up in the World War II theme that for weeks afterwards they spent their spare time reading World War II history books, learning about Nazis and the Gestapo, studying pictures of military uniforms and weapons, etc. That cold- blooded computer game actually started a whole impromptu unit study on World War II! Who would have thought!
www.childrenssoftware.com (Children's Software and New Media Revue)
www.superkids.com (Super Kids Educational Software Reviews)
www.computingwithkids.com (Computing with Kids and Choosing Children's Software)
www.terc.edu/mathequity/gw/html/gwhome.html (Computer Games for Mathematical Empowerment and Girls.)
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