TuneLand. (discovery software for young children) (Discovery Choice) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Peter Scisco
Saturday-morning cartoons were never like this. Take one stand-up comic with childlike wonder; mix with great traditional kids' songs, classic nursery rhymes, and topnotch animation; and put it all in a technically sophisticated program that's as easy to use as a push button. TuneLand, from 7th Level, is without a doubt one of the best multimedia discovery programs yet created for children.
TuneLand is kid country, through and through. Children start the game in the barnyard, from which they can see all of the game's eight different locations. Moving from one place to another is as simple as clicking the mouse. Shortcut keys are also available (Shift-P to visit the pond, for example), so parents can take kids quickly to places they want to go.
Each scene, from the barn to the train station and everywhere in between, features a set of characters and a songbook full of tunes. The charm of the program pops out in the complete interactive nature of the characters and their surroundings.
But the emphasis here isn't on moving from one place to another. Rather, the real play happens when kids are free to explore TuneLand however they see fit. They get plenty of direction along the way in the form of cartoon-character guides, who introduce themselves when kids enter a scene for the first time. After that, when kids want to move to another scene, they just click on their guide, who whisks them away.
At each location, a mouse click causes the game's characters to break out singing or to act out traditional children's verses like "Jack and Jill" and "Hey, Diddle, Diddle." Hot spots launch clever little animated bits that will have kids squealing with delight.
The disc is packed with wonderfully produced music. Each song is tied to a specific scene, according to its theme. When kids visit Grandma's kitchen inside the farmhouse, they can sing along with such classics as "Three Blind Mice," "I'm a Little Teapot," and "Hickory, Dickory, Dock." A jazzed-up version of "Pat-a-Cake" is worth the price of admission. Not only will kids start singing, but they'll also clap their hands to the beat when the gingerbread man encourages them to join in.
Each of the other seven scenes includes as much song and dance as the farmhouse. Down at the pond, the fish and frogs and other animals belt out songs like "Row Your Boat" and "A Sailor Went to Sea." For real highflying, hoedown, hootenanny action, go inside the barn. Buck Owens and Roy Clark don't have anything on the chickens, turkey, and horse who live there. They do some pickin' and grinnin' for "Turkey in the Straw," "Shoo Fly," and "The Old Gray Mare," among others.
Toddler train lovers will enjoy the train station, with that old pufferbelly favorite "Down at the Station." And clicking on the engineer sends the locomotive up the mountain. You can guess who'll be coming 'round the mountain, driving six white horses. Those six goofy horses will send kids around the bend with the giggles. On the mountain, kids can meet Jack and Jill, who make their ill-fated trip for that troublesome bucket of water.
Out in the pasture, the dish runs away with the spoon, and the moon politely dips down so that the cow can make her famous leap. A little girl named Mary and her pet sheep make an appearance in the pasture's open field, as does that twinkling wishing star.
The program even has a jukebox mode, which lets parents and kids play the songs without running the main program. Families facing another bleak night of television can choose kid karaoke instead. Because the CD-quality music is piped directly from the CD-ROM, it can also be played on an audio-CD player. I don't recommend that, though--without a listing of musical tracks, it's hard to pinpoint where the music is on the disc.
The music and the charming characters are enough to make TuneLand a fine program, but there's more. During their explorations, kids can discover new ways to use the characters they meet. The trees at Grandmas's house, for example, play music. Some of them make bell sounds or hip-hop percussion when activated with a mouse click. By clicking on different trees, kids can create their own mixes.
And a game of hide-and-seek threads its way throughout the entire game. TuneLand's chief guide, Lil' Howie, is a young bear who can find the most unlikely places to conceal himself. Kids and parents alike will get a kick out of chasing him from one screen to the next. The voice characterization of Lil'Howie is performed by Howie Mandel--now that's an entertainment trivia question not likely to find its way into any board game.
Animated sequences and humorous bits grace the program. As with other interactive CD-ROM titles, children are free to click wherever they like on the screen. If they hit a hot spot (and the program is loaded with them), they get a visual snack. Clicking on a rocking chair plays an electric guitar riff and the voice of Wolfman Jack. (Not the real Wolfman--the voice impressions are performed by a studio of voice actors.)
In the barnyard, there's a bluesy chicken standing near the fence (jazz fans will get the reference to Yardbird). It's these little touches--delighting kids while entertaining parents--that make TuneLand so remarkable. It sure beats glazed eyes staring at the latest video release.
In general terms, TuneLand outshines its kids' multimedia competitors from a technical angle. Each animated tidbit is accompanied by excellent sound effects, which are broadcast through the computer's audio card. Because the music is reserved for the CD-ROM drive, it's not necessary to have a 16-bit audio card to enjoy the program. A less expensive 8-bit card reproduces the zany sound effects and character voices without any major sacrifices in quality.
All of the songs and some of the narration are piped right from the CD-ROM, giving exceptional clarity. For that matter, the entire program runs fine from a single-speed CD-ROM drive (within the MPC Level 1 specifications). Owners of double-speed drives may appreciate better synchronization between the animation and the sound, but single-speed owners won't be disappointed in the effects.
The look of TuneLand is radically different from that of most of the other programs in this genre because it uses celbased animation, such as that used in animated feature films. The result is readily familiar to anyone raised on Disney cartoons. The props, scenery, and moving characters are sharply defined on the screen, without rough edges or quirky angles.
Installation and operation are trouble-free and simple enough for the most inexperienced computer owner. The program's pedigree can be traced back to George Grayson, among others. The significance relates to Grayson's experience at Micrografx, a graphics-software publisher that was one of the first supporters of Microsoft Windows during the late 1980s, before that operating environment was reborn in its present easy-to-use form. Considering the problems some kids' multimedia titles can bring to parents (video anomalies, no sound, conflicts with other PC components, and invasion of hard disk space, to mention a few), it's a truly welcome event when a publisher does it right all the way down the line. Circle Reader Service Number 392