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Fast Forward: Software Reviews [The Washington Post]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Fast Forward / Business section
The Washington Post

Hope has been a regular software / hardware reviewer for Fast Forward in the Business section of The Washington Post. Starting in 1996, she wrote dozens of reviews about the latest educational software programs to hit the market (see examples below). Others were timely reviews of software programs (such as tax software, also below).

SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS: EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH, THQ
March 9, 2004

What: Kids journey into cartoonland.

Details: The cantankerous boss man Krusty Krab has named SpongeBob SquarePants Employee of the Month and rewarded the porous critter with tickets to an underwater theme park, Neptune’s Paradise. Problem is, it’s hidden under the ocean and SpongeBob must uncover clues around his hometown of Bikini Bottom to find the correct route.

This requires him to chat with, among other aquatic oddballs, an iron-pumping lobster at Goo Lagoon, a sunburn-seeking stingray at the beach and*a nitwit clerk at the Barg-N-Mart. The best clues can be found at Grandma’s house—but poor Grandma confuses SpongeBob with another grandchild.

Like the cartoon that has captured the attention of millions, this CD is all very surreal, and many of the jokes are likely to fly over young players’ heads. Nonetheless children who are glued to the Nickelodeon show will surely enjoy the antics of the smarmy-mouthed Sponge.

Be aware, however, that this game isn’t all that easy to master. Guiding SpongeBob around town is simple enough (a box flashes across the bottom of the screen to offer directions on where to go next), but until you find the right hints and connect the necessary dots, you could spend hours just walking in circles.

This game takes serious perseverance and good reading skills. It may carry an “E” rating, shorthand for “suitable for everyone,” but it seems more likely that its creators had in mind “everyone who can enjoy his or her
version of comic mischief.”

Bottom line: Either a magical mystery tour or a long and winding road, depending on your perspective.

LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, ActiVision
December 12, 2004

What: New movie tie-in that makes you want to see the flick.

Details: Players get an upfront warning from this title: “If you are interested in playing a fun-filled game with cute furry heroes and helpless princesses, you have chosen the wrong game entirely.”

But this software preview to the upcoming Jim Carrey movie is no darker than one of the racier Barbie adventures.

Based on the insanely popular series of books by Lemony Snicket, it stars the three Baudelaire children: Violet the teenage inventor, Klaus the 12-year-old bibliophile, and Sunny, a baby who babbles profound social comments and likes to bite things.

After the Baudelaires die a mysterious death and lose their mansion to fire, they are sent to live with a villainous uncle named Count Olaf. It’s obvious he wants their millions, not their love, and players have to stop him. Fifteen missions, taking the kids from the catacombs beneath Olaf’s manse to the shores of creepy Lake Lachrymose.

Unfortunately for Activision, a read through any of the 13 Snicket books will be more entertaining, not to mention educational, than this CD-ROM. But it does offer a few interesting insights into Violet’s inventions, which are incredibly clever.

Bottom line: Kids can’t win this one without being clever themselves. Plus seeing inside the miserable circumstances of the Baudelaires might help kids realize just how fortunate they are.

THE MYSTERY OF THE MUMMY, The Adventure Company
March 2, 2003

What: Sherlock Holmes meets I Spy.

Details: With his signature pipe in hand, super-sleuth Holmes takes kids to a turn-of-the-century Victorian mansion to find a missing archeologist and Egyptian mummy. The sets are beautiful, but once you stop gaping at the interior design you realize you’re in for a real challenge.

This game requires tremendous patience and a better-than-average PC (note the fine print about video cards; you’ll need one with at least 16 megabytes of memory). Just installing the program took 13 minutes on one computer; our tester, a 40-something systems integrator, took another 20 to locate the key for the first door in the manor’s foyer.

But after getting the hang of the game’s tools and goals, he figured out the first few clues without referring to the enclosed crib sheet. Soon, though, he tired of the repetitious challenge. “The included hints only take you through the house’s first three rooms,” he says. “After that you could spend hours getting lost. I’d just go for the $9.99 strategy guide to make things simpler—and more fun.”

His two daughters felt the same, but were slightly more patient. They took copious notes that they repeatedly referred to, and caution other players to save often. After a couple of hours the 4th grader says the time wasn’t worth the effort—but the middle schooler said she’d play again.

Bottom line: The best audience is teenagers with time for tedious brain twisters.

BARBIE EXPLORER, Vivendi Universal
January 5, 2003

What: Adventure game for tomboys.

Details. Beautiful Barbie finally trades in her blow dryer and dance moves in this new Windows release of an old Playstation title. Unlike other titles that bear her name, this Barbie-meets-Indiana Jones game sends the blond doll around the globe—to Egypt, Tibet, and the African jungle and beyond—in search of four pieces of an ancient, mystical mirror. Using only keyboard arrow keys, players navigate the journey and guide Barbie to jump, climb, and run along the rough terrain.

My 8-year-old daughter, Anna, loved figuring this out—and it wasn’t always easy. Locating the fourth hiding place involved finding the other three parts of the mirror, which required getting Barbie to climb up a cliff, dodge ferocious furry critters, and make her way through a jungle. Anna spent a lot of time slamming Barbie into trees and watching her fall down dark pits until she figured things out.

Barbie does remain a stick figure with a Banana Republic wardrobe, and there are better action games available (even ff many of them tend to exclude girls). But this game has the virtue of teaching that girls can do things besides shake their booty and fix their hair.

Bottom line. Still silly, but better than other Barbie titles.

LEGO SPYBOTICS SNAPTRAX S3S, Lego Systems
September 8, 2000

What: Computer-driven Lego play set.

Details: This impressive robot car, or “spybot,” is unlike any Lego set you had as a kid. The tiny Mars rover, one of four available Spybotics models, features shiny plastic parts that resemble metal and chrome, tank treads to climb over rough terrain, and—most important—the ability to download play scenarios using Lego’s included software and a serial cable. (You can, however, stiff build this thing from a box of parts.)

Nine-year-old Nicholas Carroll of Clifton and his brother Kevin, 14, immediately unpacked a Snaptrax, slipped the Lego software into their computer and dove into their roles as Spybotics Secret Agents. In their first mission, a challenge called “Energy Crisis,” a raspy female voice instructed the boys to create physical obstacles for Snaptrax using shoes, soda cans and dictionaries, then find an electromagnetic power generator (read: a flashlight or desk lamp).

This accomplished, the boys took Snaptrax to their dimly lit playroom filled with the randomly placed sneakers and books and let it rip. They used a remote control to help the Spybot traverse an Encyclopedia Britannica, the legs of an air hockey table and the family dog on its way to the generator. More than once, they took too long, and Snaptrax made a very strange boo-boo sound seemingly to suggest that it was sad.

But when the boys got the bot to the flashlight before the time limit, Snaptrax did a zippy victory dance. Nicholas loved it, but Kevin got bored after mastering the game and played only a few more missions.

He suggested, and we concurred that if only the car moved really fast around a race track, or off, or if it could do more than just ran through a series of downloadable missions that it would be much more fun

Bottom line. A fun, futuristic ride for preteens, but it could end up serving its final mission on the shelf.

*EXCEL@MIDDLESCHOOL, Knowledge Adventure
September 8, 2000

What: Self-tutoring program for teens.

Details: If you have finished the 8th grade, and want to feel stupid, pop in one of the six-disk Excel@Middle School program (not to be confused with Microsoft Excel) and tickle your brain cells with multiple choice questions ranging from “The United States has 50 states which are: territories, political regions, commonwealths or nations?” to “Choose the two climate regions that are the closest to the sun?

Don’t know for sure? Then sign in on the home page and choose an area to study- math, language arts, geography, science, or history. There are subsets within these subjects-such as grammar in language arts, or pre-algebra in the math section—where players choose to take a diagnostic test or study the lessons. When in doubt, click on study, for these quizzes can be tricky.

My father-in-law, who for more than 30 years worked as a cartographer for the U.S. State Department, scored only 75 percent on the world geography test. My sister-in-law, an engineer, scored 68 percent on her physical science exam.

The good news is that after a few minutes running through the instructional information on each subject, everyone’s score jumped considerably—possible proof o the company’s claim that the program will boost grades.

I’d argue, though, that if middle schoolers are going to take the time to sit down and study the content on these tutorials, they probably are good students already. But if your teen needs a boost in one or more subject areas, and learns best by playing with a computer, this information-rich program will make a useful addition to your educational software library.

Bottom line: Worthwhile brain game.

TAX SOFTWARE: At the top of its forms?
Friday, April 3, 1998

The IRS estimates that it will take 10 hours to complete Form 1040 by hand. But as a married taxpayer filing jointly with one dependent, a freelance business, and a mortgage, I didn’t have a minute to spare. Which tax program is best to speed through this?

Although seven companies offer tax programs a decade ago, only two still in operation: Inuit’s TurboTax and Block Financials’ Kiplinger TaxCut. For most people, the Intuit software is the better pick; it makes doing taxes almost, well, fun.

Start with one of two paths—EasyStep (the program asks you questions and then fills in forms) or Forms (you fill out the forms yourself)—or switch between both. The program tried to keep you from getting lost, marking your answers with blue text and flagging missing info in orange.

It can import financial data from Intuit’s Quicken and offers other handy touches, such as Tax Advisor that gives tax-cutting tips, and a Refund Monitor, which continuously updates the bottom line. (As with TaxCut, its deluxe version throws in help videos and extra IRS publications).

Kiplinger’s TaxCut, on the other hand, is for the left-brained among us. Although less fun and intuitive, it handles everything competently enough (and unlike TurboTax, can import data directly from Microsoft Money files).

But TaxCut tends to segregate its help from its form-filling parts, forcing you to click back and forth between screens. It also seemed confused by pretax deductions for a 401(k) retirement fund. If you are comfortable with tax filing—or use Money and don’t want to deal with file-translation hassles—TaxCut should do the trick.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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