Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 10, Number 12: December 2010

The CD-ROM Project


Back in the day, I reviewed quite a few title CD-ROMs aimed at kids (people old enough to read who aren’t yet teenagers)—at least a dozen in Library Hi Tech News. Several were excellent, including some of Dorling Kindersley’s titles. I gave most of them away, but still have three. Let’s take a quick look.

My First Amazing History Explorer

I gave this DK Multimedia (Dorling Kindersley) CD-ROM an Excellent review in April 1999. Designed for ages 6-10, it uses a cartoony, animated 640x480 interface with lots of sound and music and relies heavily on explore-and-click interfaces. Basically, you have eight historical periods to explore, with a specific goal (locating eight pieces of a “Time Trail” to rescue a professor) that’s there mostly to keep you exploring.

Each period (from Ancient Egypt through Medieval Europe to a city in 1928) has quite a few objects where the cursor changes to a hand. Some are already animated; others become animated when you click on them. In almost every case, you get animation, appropriate sounds or music, then an illustrated text box (very readable serif type) with the text read to you in a kid’s voice as you’re reading it.

Some text boxes have stickers you can collect for your journal by answering an easy question. Some have activities that also add to your journal, possibly including “photos” of you—an avatar you build when you start the process, superimposed on some historical setting. Each period also has a Time Trail piece. The information sheet says there’s more than two hours of sound and 150 narrated boxes. It’s not comprehensive but it’s a fairly rich introduction—and it’s worth noting that, for example, the Medieval Europe setting includes two positive text boxes on the role of Muslims in that period.

I wanted more, but I thought it was about right for the intended age group. You’d learn something about history while enjoying soe exploration, and I believe what you’d learn would be both accurate and well stated.

How it works now

That’s a short paraphrase of my original review. What happened when I tried it in 2010 on Windows 7? The install process included a warning that the Windows version (the disc also has a Mac version) was designed for Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 and might not run right on the unsupported version of Windows it encountered—but that was the only problem.

It ran just fine—with one major caveat: It’s an unmovable 640x480 screen (centered on a fixed white background if your screen has higher resolution). I couldn’t use it on my preferred secondary screen; the Windows taskbar is hidden while it’s running. (Amazing how small 640x480 seems these days…)

But it ran—with sound, animations, everything working beautifully. If you still have this disc, it should work just fine on Windows. (I can’t speak to the Mac version.)

Would today’s kids spend time exploring this disc? I have no idea.

Contemporary situation

Amazon still offers this through third-party sellers although it’s been discontinued; prices run $0.79 and up. There’s a slightly newer version (1.1, where the disc in hand is 1.0) offered directly by Amazon for $6.60. (The original price was $30.) shows 216 libraries holding this, and I think it’s something a kid could explore fully within a week or so.

Are there web equivalents? Perhaps—but I wouldn’t know how to find them. And, again, I have no idea whether today’s kids would find this CD-ROM or a web equivalent engaging. If they would, the CD-ROM still works just fine.. (It says you should shift to 256 color mode for best performance, but performance in standard mode with no compatibility tricks was never less than crisp.)

Rocky & Bullwinkle’s Know-It-All Quiz Game

Remember Rocky & Bullwinkle? Bullwinkle J. Moose is the host of this quiz game, and that’s what it is: Two or three teams of three players each (two players on each team are cartoon characters, and if you’re by yourself the game will assign a cartoon character to head up the second team), with either easy or “hard” questions in a dozen categories. Round one offers five multiple-choice questions from each of two categories, alternating between teams. Round two has nine questions from each of two categories. Round three has ten true-false statements from any of three categories.

In each round, you get penalized for wrong answers—and in the first two rounds, if the first team answers wrong or doesn’t answer within five seconds, you can buzz in and get half credit for a right answer. There are more than 2,800 questions in all. Meantime, you get various popups from cartoon characters (all voiced by the original actors). That’s about it: Reasonably fast, fairly amusing, and the questions aren’t all easy (at the hard level). When I played a full game by myself, it took about half an hour. With people playing against each other, it might or might not take longer. The cartoon interface is crisp and clean. I rated it Excellent back in 1999.

How it works now

Just fine. It installs without complaint (not mentioning possible Windows incompatibility). All the media work beautifully. On the other hand…

It’s another fixed 640x480 interface, this time with a black background on a larger screen (and, oddly, changing the portion of my larger secondary screen that isn’t a Windows image from black to white). Oh, and it insists on both opening credits and long closing credits (although I think you can avoid those).

I thought kids in the target age range (9-12) would learn some things from this quiz. I’m less certain that’s true. It works fine and it only cost $20 in its heyday, but I’m not prepared to say much more.

Contemporary situation

Yep, it’s still available--$2.99 and up from a third party on Amazon. It’s been discontinued (surprise!). There’s a newer version (possibly the same product from a different distributor) for $6.99, also from a third party; it’s also been discontinued. I see the same name showing up on products aimed at schools, either for 3rd and 4th grade or for 5th and 6th grade, selling for anywhere from $20 (single disc) to $120 (ten-pack).

I see 33 and 8 libraries (respectively) holding this title—with, oddly enough, one version (from Simon & Schuster, dated 1998) classified as an interactive multimedia CD, the other (the one I tried, from Houghton Mifflin, also dated 1998) classified as a game—although it’s also a CD for Windows or Macintosh. I suppose they’re both legitimate choices.

Online equivalents? I’m sure there are some, but I’m not a gamer. Are there any with such rich use of cartoon characters in the original voices? Dunno.

Probably not a great loss, all things considered, but it was fun in its day, and possibly educational.

Pinball Science

Here’s one I was looking forward to: “Build wacky pinball games packed with science facts and learning fun.” By David Macaulay, author of The Way Things Work (a book but also a CD-ROM, which I’ll probably get to eventually). It’s another DK Multimedia $30 title, this time with the task of finding and rescuing a mysterious inventor by restoring three Great Inventions, which are actually pinball worlds, to full working order.

Each world is a pinball game with missing parts. You answer questions about scientific principles that make the parts work in order to restore them. Once you’ve restored all the missing parts, you can play the pinball game.

In 1999, I found it fascinating but was unable to move from one pinball world to another—but then, I was never much good at pinball. The interface blocked out other applications. I thought it was good at teaching scientific principles. But that was in 1999.

How it works now

It doesn’t.

Oh, it installs, this time with a warning that it’s designed for Windows 95 (even though it appeared in 1998). But when you try to run it, it says you lack proper sound card support and offers you the choice of Quit (which quits) or Continue (which quits).

Too bad, and this doesn’t bode well for a bunch of great DK Multimedia discs down the road. If I had to guess, I’d guess this is a matter of hardware-level hooks that were legal in Windows 95 and simply aren’t possible in the integrated Windows versions (XP and beyond).

Current alternatives

Amazon still shows it, this time for $10 (from a third party but fulfilled by Amazon). A customer review suggests that it’s the same version—and, as the reviewer says, simply not workable on anything more recent than W98.

There also seems to be a 2.1 version, published by “Genuine Dorling Kindersley Multimedia” and selling for $15.88 from a third party, supposedly designed for XP, Vista and Windows 7—although, given that specification, the other requirements are a little wonky (233MHz or faster processor, 64MB RAM with 128MB recommended, “sound card and speakers,” 800x600 monitor with 16-bit color, and QuickTime 7). It appears that 119 libraries hold this in various editions, with 17 specifically holding 2.1.

If the newer version works on Windows 7, it could still be enjoyable and educational—Macaulay’s humor, visuals and approach are all first-rate. I have no doubt that many online pinball games are available; I wonder whether anything like this is around?

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 10, Number 12, Whole Issue 135, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

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