software presents Xmas 1998

If you want to see new software you have to go visit a trade show. Next January’s BETT show is for teachers, while autumn’s ECTS is for the massive Xmas home market.
ECTS is a place for great discoveries, though it’s also the place for arcade games which dominate the scene at Olympia. As you search for things educational, you get used to dodging bullet noises. You even feel guilty for asking for the clever stuff. “Got something for the little kids?” you say as they reply “Yes mate, wanna come round the back?”.
But persistence pays as this year we’ve seen Barney and Lego’s intelligent brick – both smart, new directions in home education. Another offering, Creatures 2 (£40, Mindscape) is even smarter than its million selling original. It puts you in a working fantasy world and lets you hatch creatures from eggs, nurture them into adults ready to breed the next generation. Not only do the tiny creatures learn, but their hearts beat too. A miniature computer teaches them feelings while you teach them who you are and what is what. You type them words and they use speech bubbles to reply, ask for food or ‘what dat?’.

Search and you’ll find a gene-splicing machine with digital DNA. Here you play with the gene pool as the creatures reproduce. You have to protect them from hazards and diseased creatures though they do finally die. To avert problems, there’s a medical kit where you see their breathing and check if they’re eating enough.

All around is cartoon scenery that has rain, wind and seasons. Plants grow, insects breed, fish swim and can even be caught for food. You reward compliance by tickling a nose though (wait for it) you can also give them a smack. Doing so teaches them to hit each other – so there is SOME moral here. Produced by Cambridge based Cybermedia, it almost seems educational. That it lasts ages means good value for home but less feasible for school.

Lego too have been building virtual worlds. Last years Lego Island game (age 6-12, £30) offered a fully explorable world of bricks, but now there’s a heap of titles including Lego Loco (age 6+, £25) – a train set with an infinite amount of track, roads, trees and buildings. Cars buzz around and crash, trains stop at stations, passengers appear, walk around or change trains. There are many things to discover as you click here and there. A neat feature for school networks is that you can split your layout between other computers, and watch your train travel between screens. What is more, you can make postcard messages which the mail train delivers to other stations, to people on the network or indeed other Loco users on the Internet.

Two more new Lego titles are Creator (age 8+, £35) and Chess (age 6-12, £30). Creator is a construction set where you can make jeeps that move and helicopters that fly. You build a Lego landscape, go inside buildings and things come to life. You can also film the action and print instructions for models that you built. Chess is fun too, hilarious even as Lego pirates and wild west characters battle it out when a piece is taken. There’s a tutorial to introduce the game to kids and a bank robber story where the chess game affects how the story unfolds.

Learn to touch type is a modern new years resolution and software can even help. The latest Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing (adults) has encouragement, background music and games help to put off the moment where you will regress to two fingers. It adapts to your strengths, offers exercises with poetry and unusually makes a computer into a teacher. Even so, I went for the jungle fun in Disney’s ‘Adventures in Typing with Timon and Pumbaa’ (age 7+, £30). Here the characters from Disney’s Lion King teach finger placement in sips, exercise them up to speed and encourage all the way. Between bouts of stretching tiny fingers, there are games where you hit the right keys as Pumbaa slurps up bugs, or Timon works a water pump.

The more topical title is ‘Mulan Story Studio’ (age 5-9, £35) which features Eddie Murphy as a puny dragon. Helping to dry the tears after Disney’s cartoon, it mixes his antics with a read-along tale and a karaoke sing-along. There are games including real Mah-Jong and logic puzzle where you hit the right gongs to wake her ancestors. Add a feature that prints Mulan costumes to dress a paper doll and you’ve a measure of a quality title. Also worth looking for is Disney Math’s Quest which won the UK’s BIMA award for home learning earlier this year.

More titles for Xmas 98
Thank goodness software has got easy to install. Years back I could guarantee a Xmas day call for help with a snag. Today, when the hardest part is finding a tag on the shrink-wrap the bigger snag is finding quality. To save buying blindly, ‘Whizzkids’, a free catalogue on a CD-Rom is a real find. Made by Cathryn Hossack, a parent of three, the disc includes recommendations and ‘demos’ to sample and run. Thanks are due for help with this all you can eat for Xmas list:

The Lost Mind of Dr Brain (age 9-16, £10, Knowledge Adventure)
A re-release at a bargain price for a game with loads of mind puzzles involving memory and logic. A wacky commentary holds it together and you work through three levels of difficulty on each puzzle.

Reader Rabbit Toddler, Pre-school and Kindergarten (£25, The Learning Company)
For ages 18 months to six years. Cartoon characters talk children through activities with shapes, patterns and sequencing on to early maths and reading. Special features include UK voices, exercises on four levels and in the Toddler edition, absolutely click-free mouse operation.

Encyclopaedia Britannica ‘99
A serious competitor for a home encyclopaedia. It is the full 32-volume work with photos, maps and world data. It lets you type in questions in plain English, is a very good read, though at £99 it needs a second or third look.

Dorling Kindersley ’98
A strong line up including the updated astronomy classic Redshift 3 (age 14+, £30) and its photos, film and live star map. Sixty guided tours at last make it easy to use and let you see next August’s eclipse before the neighbours. Also updated is David McCauley’s The New Way Things Work (age 10+, £30) an entertaining even motivating CD-Rom about inventors, inventions and their scientific principles. Another update is the Eyewitness World Atlas with some awesome flight through movies and a smart way of showing world temperatures and rainfall on a spinning globe.

All About Me (age 6-10, £20)
A clever interactive fact file where a child can keep a diary, record what they do at school or home as well as facts about themselves – like how many teeth they have or how their feet smell. The software compares their height to a giraffe, their weight to a mouse and invites them to design their fantasy packed lunch.

My First Amazing History Explorer (age 7-10, £25)
Shows eight periods in history starting with Ancient Egypt. There are dioramas to explore, trails through time and ways to compare then and now. It follows up My First Amazing World Explorer 2 (age 6-10, £25) which has won awards and acclaim. Children tour the globe looking for clues and hear about the animals, costumes and customs of the countries. It’s a UK title to sit beside Broderbund’s also successful Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego – Junior Detective. Just out and using the same formula to cover two more subjects, there is ‘Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego’ and ‘Carmen Sandiego Maths Detective’.

Bananas in Pyjamas (age 3-4, £20, DK)
From the Channel Four series is sweet fun and pranks. There’s good animation with music, fixing chairs and tidying up but it’s for the very young.

Noddy 2 (age 3-5)
A first good one from the BBC with counting, colours, letters and a fun ski game.

All titles Mac / PC except Creatures and Lego. All prices are full retail plus 1p. Catalogue on CD-Rom from Whizzkids, Surrey KT24 5RZ

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