One recent afternoon I walked into our basement, and there was Eleanor, my 10-year-old, sitting at the PC, a look of triumph on her face. On the screen, a roller-coaster car was careening through twists, turns, and dips that could make even the hardiest thrill-seeker queasy. The roller coaster was Eleanor's creation, one she had just designed using a program called Ultimate Ride.
It's one of a slew of software games available this season that let kids as young as 8 create or enter entire worlds brought alive by three-dimensional graphics considerably richer and more detailed than in the past. In some cases, such as Lego Creator: Harry Potter, you can design all or part of the environment; in others, you shape the creatures within (table). Most of the games are fairly intuitive: A child can figure out the rules without spending a lot of time on the manual. All a kid needs is some familiarity with computers and, in most cases, a PC equipped with at least a 4-megabyte, 3D graphics accelerator card, a feature found in many computers sold in the past year or so. Unfortunately for Mac households, most of the games are just for PCs.
Eye-popping graphics and realistic sound aren't the best part, at least from a parent's point of view. It's how challenging the games are. "They involve a higher order of thinking," testing the player's powers of reasoning and logic, says Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Software & Media Revue in Flemington, N.J. Would this quality also appeal to kids? I turned to Eleanor to see how the games would rate with their intended audience.
Eleanor's hands-down favorite was Ultimate Ride. She loved building the roller coaster: choosing the background (inside a nebula, for example), the material (steel or wood), and track pieces. She got a kick out of making the cars run upside down under the track. When she did a test run, her delight that her creation didn't fall apart could be heard across the street. The payoff, though, was the dizzying ride, which you experience from the vantage point of a rider on the first car. You'd almost swear you're on the real thing.
Eleanor wasn't as enthralled as I was with Zoo Tycoon. The graphics don't quite give you the sense, as Ultimate Ride did, of being inside a different world. Still, she enjoyed building a zoo from scratch, picking the terrain, and making decisions on everything from which animals to house to how much staff to hire. When you pick the animals, you get a primer on what type of environment they need. The most entertaining part is keeping the animals happy. If they're not content, a message flashes on the screen. Then you'll have to find out how you've erred. Too much foliage? Not enough food? As you walk through the zoo, you hear startlingly real animal sounds, as well as the buzz of visitors.
GIMMICKY. Eleanor was lukewarm toward Scan Command: Jurassic Park, despite the built-in appeal of Steven Spielberg's epic. The game is complicated and leans heavily on what amounts to a gimmick. The software comes with a handheld bar-code reader that you use to scan just about any product in your home, from books to orange juice cartons. The scanner translates numbers in the bar code into dinosaur "DNA" that endows, say, intelligence or strength. You then use the DNA to improve your army of dinos. With this army, you try to wrest control of Jurassic Park from the evil Dr. Irene Corts and her own coterie of creatures.
While Eleanor had a blast scouring the house for things to scan, the process of converting the DNA into dinosaur attributes is cumbersome. Eleanor liked the fights best. The action seems quite realistic. (No blood, though.) You have to advance through six levels, but neither Eleanor nor I got past the first. Still, it's not every day you can find a gift that looks good, exercises the mind, and entertains you as well as your child. By Anne Field