Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 164 / MAY 1994 / PAGE 80

The Tortoise and the Hare. (educational software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Clayton Walnum

Clayton Walnum

Buyer, beware! That's the rule when you go shopping for multimedia CD-ROM titles, as with all other software. The quality of CD-ROM titles varies from mediocre to sensational. Make a bad choice, and you'll end up with a disc the kids would rather use as a Play-Doh mold than use with the computer. Thankfully, there's one series of CD-ROM titles you can trust: Living Books, from Br[phi]derbund. Buy one of these products, and both you and your kids are guaranteed hours of rewarding computer fun.

Living Books are not only electronic storytellers but full multimedia experiences featuring nearly cartoon-quality animation, original music, professional actors, and a heaping helping of wit and cleverness. The latest offering, The Tortoise and the Hare, is exceptionally entertaining and rewarding. It comes with demos of the other three titles in the series (Just Grandma and Me, Arthur's Teacher Trouble, and The New Kid on the Block), so you can see and experiment with the first page of each book, in case it hasn't made it into your library yet.

When you run The Tortoise and the Hare, the two main characters appear on the screen and introduce themselves. The hare relays a somewhat biased summary of the famous race before zipping off the screen. The tortoise sticks around, however, to guide you through the program, promising that if you follow his instructions, he'll see that you get to hear the real story. He begins by pointing to the onscreen controls and explaining what each one does. These verbal clues enable even very young children to get the most out of the Living Book.

The options on the main screen include Read to Me, Let Me Play, Options, and Quit. If you select the Read to Me option, you're presented with an animated, cover-to-cover reading of the storybook. On each page, the program highlights the story's works as the digitized voice reads--a great aid for young readers who are polishing their reading skills. The narrator, a bird named Simon, appears on every page and reads the text. It's almost as if Simon is observing the story as it happens, an element that adds an immediacy to the tale that children take to like kittens to catnip.

Movielike sequences interspersed throughout the reading bring the story to life. For example, in the first scene, Simon introduces the tortoise, who yawns and strolls from his house and plops down on a bench to watch the world go by. When Simon introduces the hare, the hare zips from his house, rushes behind a tree to brush his teeth, hustles across the street to criticize the tortoise for his slowness, and then streaks down the road and out of sight.

In another scene, the hare stops in a garden, where he gorges on vegetables, munching and slobbering as if he's starving. After downing the contents of a basket, he belches and gives Simon a triumphant grin. Of course, with every stop the hare makes-- especially the long snooze he takes after his hefty meal-- the tortoise catches up more and more. At the end of the race, the hare dashes for the finish line, but he's seconds too late.

When you choose the Let Me Play option, the book not only reads each page to you--complete with the cartoon sequences--but also allows you to play with the items on the screen before moving on to the next page. Click on a flock of birds, for instance, and they break into a perfectly harmonized a cappella version of a favorite oldie. Other fun sequences include a chimney that blows its lid with a giant puff of smoke, a mailbox that spits a letter at a snoring mailbox across the street, a young frog that does a painful belly flop into a pond, a fox that buries his snout in a box of popcorn, a muskrat that plays some snazzy bluegrass on his banjo, and much, much more. There are dozens of objects with which to experiment; virtually every item on the screen will do something.

Each page's text is also interactive, allowing you to click on words in order to hear the words spoken. Children can click on the words in any order, so they can build sentences or just add new words to their reading vocabulary. Add the fact that the program can be switched between English and Spanish, and you have a fascinating environment in which children can learn about words and the way they fit together to form sentences. Although children may not understand the Spanish version of the story (or vice versa if their native language is Spanish), they'll nonetheless enjoy hearing the story in a different language, as well as seeing how one language's words relate to another's.

Choose the Options button, and you move to the option screen, where you can choose a particular page in which to play, view the program's credits, or see previews of upcoming Living Books titles. As always, the tortoise is there to guide you in making your selections, describing how to use the arrow buttons to choose a specific page. Even the credits are a delight to watch, featuring several zany characters-- including a juggling office worker, an incompetent wizard, and a goofy dragon--in entertaining animated sequences.

Of course, nothing can quite match the contentment children and adults share when they snuggle up and read a book aloud. So that you can take advantage of this more conventional form of storytelling, The Tortoise and the Hare package includes a fully illustrated, hardcopy book version of the story that almost exactly follows the on-screen version. For the times when you're unavailable to read, your child can follow the story in the book as it's being read on the computer-- although it will be tough to ignore the action on the screen!

Like the other books in the Living Books series, The Tortoise and the Hare boasts expertly rendered 256-color Super VGA graphics. The nearly cartoon-quality animation sequences are the state of the art, and they're as fascinating to watch as they are integral to the story. A variety of digital voices (performed by over two dozen actors) and sound effects further enhance the multimedia experience, bringing the tortoise and the hare's contest to life. The majority of the sound is entertaining music, but you'll also get to hear fires crackle, telephones ring, water splash, crowds cheer, birds chirp, doors creak, doorbells chime, and many other realistic sound effects. All the original musical compositions are expertly performed by a six-piece jazz combo and a quartet of singers. The music is absolutely terrific.

The Tortoise and the Hare is as close to perfect as a piece of software is likely to be. In spite of its reliance on Windows' complicated multimedia extensions, it performed flawlessly on my system the first time I ran it. To run the program, all you must do is put the disc in your CD-ROM drive and click on The Tortoise and the Hare's executable file. You can also install the program in one of your Windows program groups, making it even easier to run. To get the most out of The Tortoise and the Hare, though, you do need a machine that complies with the multimedia standard. This means an 80386SX or faster processor with Windows 3.1, a CD-ROM drive, a sound card, a Super VGA monitor, and four megabytes of RAM.

A wonderful new item on the long list of excellent Br[phi]derbund titles, The Tortoise and the Hare is a delightful addition to the Living Books series. Once you get started, both you and your child will have a tough time pulling yourselves away from this engaging performance of a venerable classic.