Steve Hudson, Assistant Editor, COMPUTE! Books
Dozens of educational programs have been released—some good, some less than good—but one of the most interesting is Word Flyer.
Best known for dynamic and challenging games like Archon, Pinball Construction Set, and Worms?, Electronic Arts has developed a reputation for sophisticated programs. Word Flyer is no exception. Like most educational programs, it uses graphics and sound to reinforce learning, but uses them in a way that's both new and refreshing.
Word Flyer was developed by ChildWare, a programming group within Electronic Arts. Typically, ChildWare programs combine proven educational psychology with captivating programming, and Word Flyer is no exception.
The object of the game is straightforward: Use your joystick to maneuver word flyers and match zooming letters or words. It's a challenging and exciting game for young children. But there's learning amidst the laughter. Without realizing it, players are practicing valuable reading and vocabulary-building skills. On lower levels, the emphasis is on recognizing the letters of the alphabet; that makes the program valuable even for children who have not yet learned to read. Higher levels introduce words chosen from a built-in list of over 2000 entries. The approach is both original and nonviolent.
Booting The Birds
Two towers—built of the word towers—dominate the screen, one on the left and one on the right. Atop each tower sits a remarkably realistic-looking bird. A control panel runs across the bottom of the screen; it consists of flight level and speed indicators, a score bar, a timer, and a number-of-players indicator. On higher levels an alphabet bar appears too.
Play starts on flight 1, where emphasis is on the alphabet and on two-letter words. Flight 2 comes next, giving you the chance to match three-letter flyers. Subsequent flights introduce you to three- and four-letter flyers and faster speeds.
On flights 2 and above, you also gain access to the "alphabet bar." That allows you to select the first letter of your flyers. On levels 4 and 5 you can also change the color of your flyer to match the color of various zooming words.
If you're playing a two-player game, the hourglass timer will clock each player's turn. Need to take a break? At any time, on any level, you can move your flyer to the "rest nest" (an unmistakable mass of sticks and twigs) and press the joystick button to stop the timer. Also, at the beginning of each game (and at any point during play), you have the option of entering the "control panel" and changing any of the game parameters.
Although it takes a few minutes to get the hang of it, game play is fundamentally simple. Use your joystick to select a word from either word tower—the chosen word will be highlighted for you—and then press the button to send the chosen word flyer soaring into the air. Move it into position to match one of the soaring words, and press the joystick button again. If the match is correct, one of the birds will nod approval. If your match is incorrect, the bird will pronounce the avian equivalent of "uh-oh!"
In either case, your score will change appropriately. The score is increased when a player matches the flyer with the correct letter or word. On higher levels, additional points are awarded if the words' colors match too. Incorrect matches lower the score slightly and return you to the word tower. In two-player games, an incorrect match ends that player's turn.
Many parents will be pleased with this departure from the winner/loser approach of other multiplayer games. Word Flyer emphasizes constructive cooperation instead of conflict and destruction. The total score increases whenever either player correctly matches a letter or word. By working together, two players can move through the different levels more quickly than either could alone.
Parent and child can play together, working toward a common goal, and the child will learn to recognize letters, words, and colors. But he or she can learn the importance of cooperation too.
Where's The Word?
Word Flyer's graphics and sound are effective without being overpowering. Joystick control is responsive. The constantly changing list of letters or words holds interest, assuring many hours of satisfying and challenging play.
However, after several sessions, one odd quirk does become evident. In some cases, while exuberantly chasing down a zoomer, the flyer would fly off the top edge of the playing field. However, you can move the joystick to maneuver the flyer back onto the screen. Bothersome? A little, at first, and it might confuse very young children.
Also, at several points in the otherwise excellent manual, the reader is told that something will be described under a subsequent heading. It is mildly confusing (and occasionally annoying) to have to skip ahead to figure something out; in the case of instructions, at least, necessary redundancy is a feature that many software manuals still lack.
But once you figure it out—and it won't take long—control is simple and straightforward. Selecting flyers, colors, levels, and speeds quickly becomes second nature, allowing players to concentrate on the game itself. The educational goals underlying this game are pleasantly and effectively achieved. All in all, a deft piece of work.
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