In just two years, the animated PBS television series "The Magic School Bus" has become a force in primary education and is used by educators around the country to teach kids the hard sciences. Microsoft Corp. scooped up the software rights and has just released its fourth CD-ROM based on the show, " 'The Magic School Bus' Explores Inside the Earth."
Previous discs took kids on virtual voyages inside the human body, around the solar system and down to the ocean floor. The latest focuses on geology: "School Bus" players are enlisted to help Arnold find the missing rocks and minerals from his collection in six geological environments.
We tested the program with two young panelists, both computer literate and both familiar with "The Magic School Bus": Devon Hodgen, 10, a fifth-grader who favors "Mathblaster" at home, and his sister Darrce, 7, who likes "The Magic School Bus" books and who recently studied geology in school.
Devon discovered early on that an easy way to help Arnold find the missing rocks was to head for the "Earth Kitchen" and simply make some. The underlying goal here is to teach kids what compounds make up what minerals--as a result, Devon found himself taking chunks of rhyolite, adding lots of natural gas, heating and then cooling it to produce a chunk of feldspar, which was one of Arnold's missing minerals.
The easy prompts helped Devon cook the rocks quickly, and he commented earnestly: "This is much safer than doing chemistry experiments in my kitchen."
After adjusting the color tones for hair, eyes and skin tones on all the characters to achieve the weirdest possible combinations, Darrce at first seemed satisfied. But she was a bit put off over the lack of alternatives in maneuvering the bus, the options that just seemed to repeat themselves. Getting inside the volcano's fuming geode was fine once, but the repetition caused Darrce to lose interest.
While touring the six different lands, there are variations on the usual games that fill out most CD-ROMs for kids. The "Fossil Animator" is a two-level jigsaw puzzle in which the dinosaur fossils came to life with narration explaining how they got to be fossils once the puzzle is completed. The "Pan for Gold" game is the standard knockoff of "Tetrus," with colored minerals tumbling down a waterfall--catching gold and jewels will earn you points, but the big boulders will destroy your pan and end the game.
" 'The Magic School Bus' Explores Inside the Earth," Microsoft, $44.95. Windows only (95 and 3.1).
"Buster and the Beanstalk" is a cool new entry in the children's market from Terra-Glyph. This company is best known for creating teen and adult games, but for its foray into the kids' market, TerraGlyph signed an agreement with Warner Bros. to use its popular Tiny Toon characters. This entry weds those kid-friendly characters to a traditional fairy-tale setting.
The premise is simple: The giant from the beanstalk has purloined items belonging to Buster Bunny and Plucky Duck, and the kids must navigate Buster and Plucky up the beanstalk to the giant's castle to get them back.
It's not a leisurely pace. Moving against a clock, the players stop in nine fairy-tale rooms and hunt for items that help them build a key to help enter the giant's lair. As each item is found, a new clue pops up that tips off where the next item can be found.
At either of the two levels of difficulty, this is an easy game to navigate. Babs Bunny--cute in her little tutu and waving a magic wand--guides players with simple directions.
At one playing, our 6-year-old panelist, Joshua, who has basic computer skills, listened to Babs and could understand his next move. Later when he got stuck, he called Babs on her cell phone to get help. If a player forgets what he or she is looking for, another very useful helpmate is the speaker in each room, which the player can click on and get clues repeated.
The game also has a sense of humor, good news for long-suffering computer-kid parents. Each room works off a popular fairy-tale theme, and jokes and puns pop out of characters' mouths on a click-by-click basis. Most of the fun is for kids, but some puns will go right over their heads and play well to adults.
By the liberal industry standards, "Buster and the Beanstalk" is described as for children ages 3 to 9, but it probably won't hold the attention of most kids older than 7. If your compu-tyke likes this one, two other TerraGlyph recommended titles are "Hansel and Gretel and the Enchanted Castle" and "Rumpelstiltskin"s Labyrinth of the Lost."
"Buster and the Beanstalk," TerraGlyph, $49.99. Windows 95 only.
Michelle Stern's e-mail address is MStern6243@aol.com