Cool down with hot CD--ROMS By Jane Huth

My son has discovered the quickest way to raise my blood pressure is to stand in the middle of a room crammed with books and toys and tell me he's bored. And in the dog days of summer, all I need is some more heat. That's why I always keep a few cool CD--ROMs on hand to pull out when the thermometer's rising and my children are getting restless. Here are three sunny programs that will help us all stay cool. THE WIGGLES: WIGGLE BAY, $19.95,, (818) 553--5000; ages 3--6.

If the irresistibly bouncy songs don't grab your preschooler, the bright colors, beach themes and clever games will win her over to this CD--ROM. My 4--year--old was entranced and challenged by the eight activities on the program, which features the Wiggles, the quartet of Aussie singers appearing on the Disney Channel TV show of the same name.

The appealing activities included jigsaw puzzles, three videos of the Wiggles singing and dancing, and several games including Tic Tac Toe, mazes and a treasure hunt for the key that will open a trunk of buried jewels. Kids also can make up and record songs on an xylophone. They can grow flowers in the garden by planting seeds and keeping them watered so they don't wilt.

I've never seen the TV show, but if it's as entertaining as this CD--ROM, it's easy to see why the Wiggles are a hit with the preschool crowd.

LEARN TO PLAY CHESS WITH FRITZ & CHESSTER, $29.99, Windows,, (877) 848--6520; ages 5 and up.

Fritz's dad, the White King, takes a vacation, leaving Fritz in charge of the kingdom. The evil Black King sees this as the perfect opportunity to challenge the acting king, a.k.a. Fritz, to a chess match, winner take all. Yikes, what's a kid king to do? Enter Chesster, a sewer rat, and his Brain Building Intelligym. Fritz and his smart cousin, Bianca, go there to sharpen their chess skills in preparation for the showdown with King Black in the chess arena.

Kids of all ages can learn chess from this program. Even kids who have played a lot of chess can brush up their skills. To help beginners learn the basics, King Kaleidoscope (an old family friend of the Whites') shows Fritz and Bianca around the countryside, where games demonstrate how the chess pieces move. For example, the game “Smash the Toilets” teaches that a bishop moves on the diagonal. In the garden, the queen moves in all directions to pick flowers before they wilt. After players have played all the games, they move to the Intelligym, where they practice chess moves, such as checkmate and stalemate, with all the chess pieces: king, queen, bishop, rook, knight and pawn.

When players have gained enough skills, they play actual games in the practice arena. Here Chesster plays the king to help the kids train for the big challenge against King Black. I didn't make it to the final showdown (where King Black would have beaten me in a flash) because the training games were too difficult for me. Fortunately there's a help key that suggests your next move when you're stumped.

Children already interested in chess will enjoy playing with Fritz and Chesster, and kids new to the game may soon be hooked.

ZOOMBINIS ISLAND ODYSSEY, $24.95,, (800) 223--6925, ages 8 and up.

Little blue folk with funny noses, fruity feet and no mouths seemed like a snore to me at first glance, but then I took a closer look. These critters, who warble and wobble, are quite fun and very challenging to maneuver through the obstacles they face. Players must use math, reasoning, logic and science skills to help the Zoombinis repopulate Zoombini Isle with Zerbles, even stranger--looking orange critters. It seems Zoombini Isle was a paradise before it was overrun by the evil Bloats. These monsters, who look suspiciously like SUV--driving brutes, broke the chain of life on bucolic Zoombini Isle by ruining the environment. They overran the island, chased away the moths, ate all the Snozzleberries and devastated the Zerbles, then left without cleaning up after themselves, the cowards.

I had to put on my thinking cap to get through the easiest of three levels in Zoombinis Island Odyssey, and I was stymied several times. Players first create a team of Zoombinis, then proceed to a complicated catapult that shoots the Zoombinis over a high ridge. I went straight to the help button before trying to figure out how to work this medieval looking device, and even then it took me three tries to get my team of 12 Zoombinis onto the mountain. Next, players have to decipher hieroglyphics on a wall that won't let the Zoombinis pass until the coded tiles are matched with symbols. I spent my youth figuring out codes, so the tiles were the easiest part of the program for me.

Feeling smug and airborne, I crashed at the Planetarium, where players must figure out how the Earth and moon are aligned at the right moment for the moths to burst out of their cocoons. I finally figured out how to adjust the orbit of the moon to the rotation of the Earth, but it wasn't easy. Just when you think you're doing all right, a patrician--voiced announcer says you've got to go back for more Zoombinis, or more moths to pollinate the Snozzleberry seedlings to feed the Zerbles, who round out Zoombini Isle's food chain.

I can hardly wait until my son learns to read so he can play with this CD--ROM. No part of the program, including the help key, is explained up front. To get the Zoombinis moving, players have to figure out that the blank blue ovals need feet, hair and eyes. There's a help key, but that highfalutin' announcer doesn't tell players where to find it, nor does he offer hints when players struggle. The puzzles are presented as games, and they are both challenging and fun to decipher.

Give this program to a child who thinks math and science are boring, and see if he changes his mind. Even adults will find themselves drawn into this game, and will learn a thing or two about genetics, ecology, astronomy and mechanics by tagging along on this very clever odyssey.


Jane Huth lives, writes and plays with computers in the northern suburbs with her husband, a kindergartner and a preschooler.



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