Looking for a gift this holiday season for a preteen who's CD-ROM savvy?
There are lots of good choices covering most everything, including math, social studies, music and even basic money management (maybe I should get that one).
But if you are looking for something that is purely entertaining, relatively inexpensive and thoroughly charming, I have a hint for you: Pick up any CD-ROM made by a small Seattle-based company called Headbone Interactive.
These discs are not on the technological cutting edge, nor do they include a lot of fancy multimedia pizazz. But with a wonderful graphic sensibility, clever stories, skilled voice actors and a sense of humor that is hip but doesn't cross the boundaries into mean-spiritedness or bad taste, these CD-ROMs are far more imaginative than most of those turned out by far larger companies.
The brightly colored characters, with angular bodies and simple features, look as if they were put together from old Colorform kits. When they are placed, as they often are, into a setting derived from black-and-white, 1950s photographs, the mixture of styles can perhaps be described as postmodern. Whatever it is, it's definitely cool.
Of the more recent Headbone releases, the one for younger kids of about age 4 and up is World Tour, which features a group of talking animals called the Gigglebone Gang. They host games and tell stories to explore the cultures of several countries, including Mexico, Japan, Egypt and Australia. The animals (my favorite is Velma the pig, with a deep Southern-accented voice provided by Jayne Muirhead) are featured in other Headbone CD-ROMs, including Infinity City, which teaches some basic arithmetic.
Also for kids at that age level is Elroy's Costume Closet, featuring Elroy and Syd, two friends who find themselves the stars of a stage show that requires a lot of costume changes. If you put together an outfit that features all the clothes that match a particular role, such as an astronaut or farmer, Elroy and Syd will automatically perform a little skit starring that character.
At Headbone's Web site (http://www.headbone.com), new costumes are regularly added for downloading.
Then there's Elroy Hits the Pavement, a comic adventure story for the age 8-and-up crowd.
For ages 10 and up, there is the company's most ambitious title, Escape From Dimension Q, featuring a girl named Iz (short for Isabelle) and a robot named Auggie (Augustus) in a futuristic adventure. Their mission, as forced upon them by the Decentralized Intelligence Agency, is to rescue five secret agents caught in a separate dimension where no music is allowed. The puzzles will keep even experienced gamer kids busy for a good many hours.
Each of these CD-ROMs, which work in both Macintosh and Windows formats, is priced at $19.95, a bargain these days. But there is nothing cut-rate about the Headbone titles, all of which are delightful.
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