The last time you saw a kid playing with a GameBoy Advance, odds are he or she didn't see you: Put one of those $100 handhelds in a child's hands and the kid might as well have been sucked inside it. Perhaps it's titles such as Advance Wars 2 and Spyro Orange: The Cotrex Conspiracy that turn GameBoy users to goo.
Or maybe it's something akin to the Disney Channel's effect -- any inane show is enough to transport kids to Neverland.
But what if, instead of aggressive action games or Hollywood-produced tie-in titles, a handheld offered some sort of educational value?
That's the idea behind the Leapster Multimedia Learning System, an $80 handheld from LeapFrog Enterprises (www.leapfrog.com), an Emeryville, Calif., developer of educational hardware and software. We've had good experiences with such earlier LeapFrog offers as its LeapPad System, a kid-friendly laptop game that helps kids teach themselves to read; Turbo Twist, a spelling bee in a plastic tube; and Odyssey Globe, a talking, interactive geography lesson.
The Leapster could easily be mistaken for a GameBoy; at about 71/2 inches wide and 5 inches long, it's not much bigger than one, though a bit heavier at 1.3 pounds. It's sturdy enough to handle being tossed around the minivan, and the backlit color screen, at three inches square, is big enough to avoid the need to squint to see anything on it.
Without so much as a "How does this work?", my two kids, Dylan, 5, and Anna, 8, turned the Leapster on by pressing a tiny button on the top, adjusted the sound (by pushing another button on the side), tapped in their names on the screen, and went to town with the handful of Leapster software titles, a sampling of the eight available so far.
These tiny two-inch cartridges slip into a slot on the front of the Leapster, and retail for about $24 each. Some feature such familiar characters as Viacom's SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer, while other, more overtly educational titles are Leapfrog originals: Leapster Kindergarten, Leapster 1st Grade, Mr. Pencil's Learn to Draw and Write, Math Baseball and Letter Factory.
Dylan opted for Letter Factory, a song-and-dance ditty that stars the letters of the alphabet. In this singalong, preschoolers are introduced by Professor Quigley and a frog named Tad to letters that heretofore didn't know their own sounds. As the game progresses, the kids match letters and sounds, and ultimately prepare for the Big Show. In addition to (it is hoped) giving some kind of a foundation for learning to read, the title teaches kids to listen and follow simple directions.
Anna went for SpongeBob SquarePants Saves the Day. With three levels of activities and 45 skill-building exercises, this game kept her busy for days. Reading, math and science games are the focus here, with topics that include phonics and attributes, logic and classification, music composition, and money and addition.
There's nothing dry in SpongeBob's world, of course, so each lesson is far from being a chore. SpongeBob even encourages kids to script their own jokes. "Can your Krabby Patty sauce pass the Patrick taste test?" a pink octopus asks. "The yuckier your sauce, the sillier is Patrick's reaction."
Over several weeks of on-and-off testing, the Leapster has yet to drain its four AA batteries, but other users in online forums have complained about short battery life; make sure you've got extras before you take the Leapster on a trip.
Many computer-literate families likely own these same titles, or ones much like them, on CD-ROMs that they can play in any personal computer. A Mac or Windows computer can also play a far wider selection of titles than a Leapster.
But to judge from what kids (and adults) gravitate to, sometimes it's the platform -- not the content -- that matters; just look at the success of the GameBoy, or the cell phone. That seems to be what LeapFrog is banking on. But Leapster is probably going to need a better selection of titles before it jumps onto too many wish lists this year.