AGE OF EMPIRES II: THE AGE OF KINGS, Microsoft
What: Medieval real-time strategy game. Details: The first improvement you're likely to notice is that this game looks less silly--in the first Age of Empires game, objects weren't to scale and buildings and fighting units appeared to be the same size. For Age II, the graphics have been revamped and are finely detailed so that buildings, people, walls and environments are all to scale and look better than ever. There's also been an interface-lift: The game is easier to use and navigate, and players can now set way-points, formations and even levels of aggressive or passive behavior. A key new feature is the ability to designate "gather points" before you start producing soldiers: When a unit is produced, it will automatically march, ride or sail where you previously told it to go. Age of Empires II spans from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages, featuring 13 civilizations, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and native tongues--in which each represented civilization can speak to you. You can't help but grin when you order your Japanese units around and hear them respond in Japanese. Combined with multiplayer support for up to eight players on a local area network or the Internet, larger maps, a new training mode and improved, trickier game play, Age of Empires II takes no prisoners. Bottom line: This series is wearing its age well.
-- Tom Ham
Win 95/98, $40
BLUE'S TREASURE HUNT, Humongous Entertainment
What: Second Blue's Clue's adventure game. Details: Nickelodeon and Humongous have patterned Blue's Treasure Hunt on their first release with a few modifications, some of which are more successful than others. Like the earlier offering, Blue's Birthday Adventure, the two-disc Treasure Hunt contains several charming Blue's Clues games (along the lines of the TV episodes) with familiar songs and characters. In this program, however, the games must be solved in order and all three must be mastered to gain entrance to the "Land of Great Discovery," the big goal of this game. This air of strictness and a bit of increased complexity seem out of place in what's supposed to be a gentle challenge for 3- to 6-year-olds, but luckily the instructions come with a cheat sheet. Once in the "Land of Great Discovery," kids can decorate a park and clubhouse scene with "stickers" they have selected or created in the game's second paint program. It's not much of a payoff, but there is one neat surprise waiting inside the clubhouse: a computer game kids can design themselves. This gives older players the opportunity to think both creatively and strategically; I was impressed by how the activity had Rachel, one of our junior reviewers, doing everything from arranging the game pieces based on her favorite colors and fruits to thinking several steps ahead to determine whether the addition of a piece would make it easier or more difficult to win the game. Bottom line: Despite gimmicks, this hunt is worthwhile.
-- Elizabeth Chang
Win 95-98, $30
JAMCAM, KB Gear Interactive
What: Real digital camera for kids. Details: When I was a kid, I loved taking pictures, but I hated that eternal wait to see how my pictures turned out. By the time I got my shots developed, I could hardly remember what I was trying to do with each shot. Digital cameras solve this, but the drawback is they're too expensive and fragile to give to kids. Until now. The JamCam is a surprisingly good, surprisingly durable and surprisingly affordable digital camera. It has a rugged exterior, uses a 9-volt battery (not included) and connects to the computer by either a serial cable or USB (why can't cameras costing five times as much provide both connections?). Its top resolution (640 by 480 pixels) isn't exceptional, but it's as good as what $600 digicams offered a few years ago. It includes easy-to-use software for photo editing (Microsoft's Picture It 99) and fun photo warping (ArcSoft PhotoFantasy 2). Photos look good but aren't as detailed as even the cheapest film camera. There's also no focus control, no zoom, no flash and no LCD display, and it's too easy to accidentally take a picture with the non-recessed shutter button. But what do you want for less than $100? Bottom line: Great gift for aspiring Ansel Adamses.
-- Daniel Greenberg
Win 95-98, $90, http://www.kidboard.com
CAPTION: JamCam: The Instamatic of digital cameras?
CAPTION: Treasure Hunt: A little strict.