I don’t usually review programs I’m ambivalent about, but I’m making an exception in this case because these CD-ROMs are tie-ins to popular children’s movies that you might be tempted to think—as I did—are appropriate for children.
Three of the four are pointless action games: shooting, hitting and throwing that do nothing but waste time. The fourth is a pleasant game that had a lot of technical problems, which left me feeling lukewarm about it.
My 8-year-old loved all four. I made the mistake of letting him play the games before I’d played them myself. I assumed that because they were tie-ins to movies I’d deemed appropriate for him, the programs would be appropriate as well. Upon closer inspection, I decided three out of four weren’t for him.
If you have a child who can take or leave action games and has a lot of time on his hands, then go ahead and buy these games. They are fun, I admit. But I recommend books, sports or educational computer games instead.
I’ll start with the one game I found appropriate, although technically challenging:
THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE, $19.99, www.thq.com; ages 7 and up.
In his never-ending quest to conquer the world, the evil Plankton has stolen the crown of King Neptune and wants to blame poor Mr. Krabs for the crime. Enter SpongeBob on a quest to recover the crown and save Mr. Krabs from King Neptune’s wrath.
My kids, huge fans of SpongeBob, loved the SpongeBob movie and were eager to play this game. But the program crashed so many times that it left my son in tears. We eventually got it limping along on my old Windows ME computer, but the sound was kind of sick and the screen kept flickering in and out. My son dried his tears and I was left wondering if the game needed a bit more testing before it was released.
Technical difficulties aside, the PC version of “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” is amusing. In some ways I like it better than the movie because it’s interactive. Kids move SpongeBob and his pals around, collecting objects—such as a spatula to pry open SpongeBob’s trunk and ice to trade Patrick for the remote to turn off SpongeBob’s TV—as they search for the stolen crown.
SpongeBob and his pals are irreverent and funny, and some of the jokes are aimed at adults. (“The stable has no windows. Know why? Who ever heard of stable windows? It’s a nerd joke.”) The game follows roughly the same story as the movie, but my kids still loved playing it. There’s little educational value, unless you count reading the dialogue, but it’s entertaining, and there’s no violence. If you’re lucky enough to avoid technical glitches, this is an enjoyable program for your kids.
THE POLAR EXPRESS, $29.99, www.thq.com; ages 7 and up.
The book, The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg, is a Christmas favorite in our house, so we were excited when the animated movie came out. My husband and daughter liked the three-dimensional IMAX movie, so I handed the PC game to my 8-year-old son without testing it first (not a good idea). I’d expected a charming video game based on the movie with a story, a goal and pleasant activities and challenges along the way. Instead I found evil Jack-in-the-boxes and nasty marionettes throwing and kicking (actions that here seem like shooting) in repeated kill-or-be-killed scenarios. This video game for young children is far removed from the book, which is mostly sweet and tinged with wistful nostalgia.
Kids play as the nameless narrator called “Hero Boy.” He travels through cars of the Polar Express train fighting off nasty toys who keep throwing things at him. His arch nemesis is a puppet unimaginatively named Scrooge. It’s hard to fight off the bad puppets, but it’s also stressful to be dodging toys and balls hurled in your direction. Too many hits, and Hero Boy gets knocked out. Yes, he springs back to life, but is this a good thing to teach our children? I don’t think so.
Of course, my son liked the game a lot. He played through every train car until he fought a giant evil puppet, and then the train arrived at the North Pole. What did he learn from it? Not much. What did I learn? Play the games myself first.
THE INCREDIBLES: WHEN DANGER CALLS, $29.99, www.thq.com; ages 7-10.
Don’t make the mistake I did and confuse this game, which is for younger children, with the Incredibles video game for teenagers, which is much too violent for youngsters. The boxes look similar, and you may miss the “T” (for teen) rating on the game for older kids. I gave the teen game to my 8-year-old without realizing it was the wrong game. He had a great time shooting, chasing, hitting and killing bad guys until I figured out my mistake and took it away from him. (He’s still mad at me.)
The Incredibles: When Danger Calls is a much tamer game, but it’s hardly educational. While it lacks the addictive, adrenaline-fueled “kill-or-be-killed” video game excitement of the teen game (which I loathe), it isn’t particularly entertaining, aside from the video clips taken from “The Incredibles” movie.
Kids play as one of the Incredibles family members—Mr. Incredible, Mrs. Incredible, Dash or Violet—or as Frozone or the evil Syndrome. First they play in “normal” mode, as the members of the Parr family (“Call me Bob,” says Mr. Incredible). Win a few games, and the characters transform into their superhero selves. Each game is preceded by a clip from the movie, which my son found thoroughly entertaining.
I was not impressed with the games in either normal or superhero mode—they are neither entertaining nor educational. In one game, Dash must sneak to the front of his classroom and put tacks on his teacher’s chair. (Why give kids any ideas?) In another, Mrs. Parr catches the dishes that Dash throws in the air as he’s messing up the kitchen.
In superhero mode, kids play more action-oriented games, involving chasing and killing bad guys. I don’t approve of this bloodless killing, but many kids (including my son) will find it fun. There are also coloring pages to print out, or kids can skip the games and just watch video clips. If your kids loved the movie, this game may keep them busy, but don’t be surprised if they lose interest quickly.
And definitely don’t buy the teen game—it’s filled with bloodless killing and is a pointless time waster.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, $19.99, www.eagames.com; ages 8 and up.
My husband and I liked the movie, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” but we haven’t let our kids see it. It’s just too scary for young children.
The same goes for this video game, a companion to the movie. It’s relatively benign, as action games go, but I doubt there’s any value in racing, diving and shooting video games. If children need excitement, let them play sports.
Like the first two Harry Potter games for PC, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban roughly follows the story of the movie. In this game, instead of playing as Harry, kids play as the three characters Harry, Hermione and Ron, with the program selecting which character is in front, leading and casting spells.
The action starts on the Hogwarts Express train and later moves to the Hogwarts School and grounds. Unlike the movie, there are lots of strange creatures to fight, such as evil books spitting nasty blue firebombs or alien-looking imps who throw exploding candies at the three pals. As in the earlier programs, players cast spells to open doors, move objects, kill creatures and defeat opponents.
I let my son play with the two earlier Harry Potter games for PC, but later regretted it. The first one gave him nightmares (he was 6), and the second was just too vicious. He became addicted to the adrenaline-fueled action, and it was a struggle to pull him away from the computer.
Recent studies have shown that television’s quick cuts and flashing images have a negative effect on children’s developing brains, and I suspect fast-action video games are no different.
Jane Huth lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a second-grader, a kindergartner and a newborn.
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