Storytelling enters the CD-Rom realm, creating interactive adventure, learning, music-- and make-it-yourself books--to captivate young disc-drivers

By EW Staff
September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the ever-raging battle for children’s elusive attention, television is clearly the neighborhood bully. Not even the promise of story time with Mom or Dad is likely to drag a 2-year-old away from a certain purple prehistoric reptile’s video song stylings. Ironically, if old-fashioned stories are to succeed in the video era, it may just be by the grace of one of technology’s newest darlings-the interactive compact disc. Here’s a selective sampling, listed by computer platform, of the enormous new crop of kids’ interactive stories and adventures currently available on CD-ROM.

For Mac and pc
Living Books, the marriage of game publisher Br derbund and conventional publisher Random House, has yielded some of the best discs in kids’ multimedia, among them, three released this summer: Ruff’s Bone, Arthur’s Birthday, and Little Monster at School ($40 each). All share an easy point- and-click interface. For beginning readers, text is highlighted as it’s read aloud, and each word is pronounced when clicked. The discs offer a guided-tour ”Read To Me” mode for the mouse potato and a ”Let Me Play” mode for the adventurous.

Ruff’s Bone is aimed at children as young as 3 years old, with easily identified ”hot spots” and attractive, stylized illustration. The protagonist, a nondescript pooch, chases his treat through a series of successively stranger landscapes. Campy, but definitely fun. B Little Monster addresses the universal fear of the first day of school by taking us through the daily routine of a small hairy suburban kid with vestigial wings and big teeth. If I had to go to school with this crowd, I’d be scared too. There are lots of fun hot spots and subtle jokes here, including a smiling principal who delivers a great line when clicked-”Good morning, all you little monsters!” B+ Arthur’s Birthday brings us the further adventures of Marc Brown’s Arthur, a clever aardvark with big glasses. Intended for older readers (ages 6 to 10), this disc finds Arthur facing the problem of two parties on the same day. With lovely illustrations, an inventive ending, and hilarious hidden secrets, this is the coolest Living Book yet. A Fatty Bear’s Birthday Surprise (Humongous Entertainment, $49.95) is an adventure game with training wheels, aimed at 3- to 7-year-olds. The roly-poly stuffed protagonist needs to explore his owner Kayla’s house while she sleeps so he can collect ingredients for her birthday cake. In the process, kids solve problems (Where do you find eggs? What’s likely to distract a mouse?), and click and point at active fun spots, such as dancing carrots and a mailbox that lets fly with a present. Fatty narrates, so pre-readers will have no trouble with this graphically simple yet engaging game. B Fatty’s corporate cousin Putt-Putt is back for more in Putt-Putt Goes To The Moon (Humongous Entertainment, $49.95), the latest installment in the story of a perky purple convertible, with a knack for getting in trouble this time. An experiment with fireworks (note important safety lesson) gets Putt- Putt blasted to the moon, where a local lunar rover helps send him home again. With strong similarities to Fatty Bear-blocky but attractive graphics, bouncy music, and smooth game play-this should get and keep the attention of your youngster. B Sadly, the creativity of Fatty Bear and Putt-Putt is lacking in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Xiphias, $39.95), a quickie CD based on the inexplicably popular Transformers-esque television show. The disc features video from five complete episodes, divvied up into small chunks. Kids can watch an entire episode or view snippets of their choice spliced together. As far as I can tell, neither way makes the show any good. The small, blotchy QuickTime video windows don’t improve matters, and the addition of small capsules of explanatory text and a quick antidrug message don’t compensate for a near-total lack of interactivity. In one clip, a villain sneers, ”And then you’ll suffer, you foolish Power Rangers!” Not as much as I did watching this. D If your kids are certified cartoon addicts, you might begin the weaning process with Wallobee Jack: The Thai Sun Adventure (WordPerfect/The Novell Applications Group, $29.95). While the disc is more like a slide show than a cartoon, its Aussie hero has a hip sense of humor reminiscent of Tiny Toons. Kids can watch the plot play out, or jump in at set ”action points” and change the story with a careful click. Not as slick or interactive as the Living Books or Tuneland, but miles ahead of Power Rangers. C+

For Mac Only The company that produced the landmark CD game Myst has revitalized one of its first kids’ products with The Manhole Masterpiece Edition (Cyan, $49.95), an overhaul of the original 1988 version of The Manhole. Created by the Myst team of brothers Robyn and Rand Miller, the disc provides an elaborate, gorgeous world to explore. There are no puzzles or riddles here, which is probably fine with most kids. They’ll be too busy meeting strange animal denizens and listening to the beautiful score to notice. There’s only one fair comparison to make here, and it’s not that The Manhole is kiddie-Myst; this one came first, so Myst is The Manhole for grown-ups. A

For PC Only
For sheer sing-along fun, not much can compete with Tuneland (7th Level, $49.99). Narrated by Howie Mandel, the character of Lil’ Howie—a sort of hyperkinetic Winnie-the-Pooh-plays hide-and-seek through a beautifully animated countryside. Nearly every cartoon animal, when clicked on, kicks into its own familiar song, with musical contributions from the likes of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Some of the 42 arrangements may be a bit odd (”This Little Pig” to a calypso beat?), but the sound quality is excellent. Aimed at pre-readers, the disc provides easy navigation as characters explain themselves (”Click on me to visit my pond!” exclaims a waddling duck) and allows kids to interrupt any familiar territory. One problem: Since the package includes a song/coloring book, your kids will probably be playing Tuneland long after you’ve tired of hearing it. Time to buy Junior headphones. A The Lure of Wiggins In Storyland (Media Vision, $59.95) is the chance for your child to create his or her own interactive storybooks. With a toolbox filled with scenic backdrops, animated characters, and soporific New Age music, budding authors can create illustrations for their early literary masterpieces. The kid-created books can be saved for later or printed for illumination with the included crayons, coloring book, and stickers. The mix- and-match scenes are simplistic, but each creation is unique. Unlike most of the discs reviewed here, there’s truly no limit to Wiggins’ possibilities. B+