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LEAPSTER PROVIDES FUN, CHALLENGES YOUR MIND

A look at Leapster Multimedia Learning System.

Kids these days are bombarded regularly by invitations to play video games -- and not just from TV commercials and friends. Heck, fast food restaurants are handing out miniature games with their children's meals.

There's no getting around it. Video games are as much a part of today's childhood as Saturday-morning cartoon shows were for us older folks. Responsible caregivers can fight it, or they can make sure young kids, when they inevitably ask for games, get something worthwhile.

Yes, Virginia, there are educational video games.

And there's no better place to play them than on the Leapster Multimedia Learning System. This is a recently introduced product from LeapFrog Enterprises, the folks who make the LeapPad early reading system and other quality learning toys.

The Leapster, which costs $80, is a hand-held machine that is about twice the size and thickness of a Game Boy Advance.

Were it not a tad heavy, the Leapster would be perfect for little hands. The video screen is much larger than a Game Boy, and the games are controlled with an arrow pad or a touch-screen stylus (connected, thank you, by a string). It also has a good-size speaker that can be easily adjusted and heard, and audio instructions that walk children gently through the challenges.

But the games, which cost up to $25 each, make this machine extra special. Right now, there are seven Leapster titles on the market, including a SpongeBob SquarePants game and one featuring Dora the Explorer. Another eight or so games are planned by year's end.

Unlike Game Boy titles, there is nothing in the Leapster library that isn't suitable for all children. Targeted at ages 4 to 10, the Leapster teaches math, reading and other skills under the guise of playing video games.

The games I've played and viewed have the same formats as titles like "Frogger" and "Super Mario." In the "Dora" game, for instance, you help Dora and her sidekick Boots progress through a journey by solving puzzles involving shapes, numbers and letters. To cross a lake, the game asks you to hop over stones by hopping to a certain letter or number.

Challenges for older children include arranging words to make a coherent sentence, solving math problems and rhyming.

The games look and sound like real video games. Things are slowed down a bit for younger minds to more easily digest, but all the bells and whistles are there. The Leapster library includes more than games. Other available software helps children read books, create art and interact with videos.

The Leapster is $20 less than Game Boy Advance. And there's no charge at all for the assurance that children are playing with good stuff.

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