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Sunday, April 14, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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User Friendly

Software Branch Is Kid Stuff For Packard Bell

Seattle Times Staff Columnist

What is it about Seattle and children's software? Not only does this region have a disproportionate number of kids-software companies, no two are alike.

There's 25-year-old Edmark, one of the first to get into the field, whose "Thinkin' Things" collections, "Millie's Math House," "Bailey's Book House" and "Sammy's Science House" are archetypes of the genre. Humongous has done wonderful things with animated graphics and original storytelling in its Freddi Fish and Putt-Putt titles. Headbone's "AlphaBonk Farm," "Pantsylvania" and newly released "Elroy Hits the Pavement" are among the wackiest and most rambunctious offerings available. And Splash Studios' "Piper" CD-ROM explores an intriguing new integration of video, storytelling and game challenges.

Now comes a line of six new titles from Packard Bell Interactive, based in Seattle but owned by the Sacramento PC clone maker. The link is a logical one: A lot of parents buy PCs with their kids in mind. Packard Bell, the nation's leading desktop PC supplier with 49 percent market share of the retail channel, includes demos of the new software with its computers.

The relationship solves one issue right off the bat for parents: Packard Bell software will indeed run with Packard Bell hardware - a pragmatic but reassuring point in these parlous times of system and hardware incompatibilities. Each title runs on Macs and PCs and costs $29.

Normally software carrying a hardware name might be considered a loss-leader, shovelware product. Not so in this case: Packard Bell Interactive has done a number of other things to distinguish its line, called the A+ Learning Series, in an effort to affirm its priorities.

Boxes carry a distinctive, uncluttered look but manage to display the oft-obscure information parents want most: applicable age spread (3-9 in its case) and what the program does.

This might be self-evident for the two most popular titles, "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Goldilocks," which teach spelling, reading and cognitive skills.

When it comes to "There's a Dinosaur in the Garden" and "Milly Fitzwilly's Mousecatcher," though, it helps to know the programs' target skills. Other titles include "The Little Engine," "The Yukadoos" and the A+ Learning Library ("The Wrong Way Around the World," "The Friends of Emily Culpepper" and "The Pirate Who Wouldn't Wash").

Familiar, but new and interesting

"Riding Hood" and "Goldilocks" score on the familiarity front - an aspect often missing from children's software. Early on, software makers had little success adapting tried and true kids' stories to PCs. Technical limitations kept the programs from being little more than text and pictures on a screen, with less resolution and readability than the typical storybook.

PBI has kept the storyline intact while adding animation, humor, a little gaminess and original music to the familiar tales. There's lots to keep kids busy at the monitor. Trees, houses, gardens, furniture and other parts of an image contain hidden animations, unleashed with a mouse click.

The storyline is displayed on-screen and read by a narrator. Unfamiliar words can be clicked on for full definitions.

Standard stuff - but wait! Say the story gets interrupted by a trip to the grocery store. The child can take the CD-ROM along, insert it in the car's CD player and match it by page number to a book (included with the software).

There's also a karaoke feature enabling sing-along with the original scores. My experience has been that kids love karaoke. And most love to sing.

PBI's new line is children's multimedia at its best: Parents will enjoy the software along with the kids, and the richness of the material will keep the family coming back to the disc time and again. If there is such a thing as "classic children's stories" on a medium as new as CD-ROM, PBI has defined it. User Friendly appears Sundays in the Personal Technology section of The Seattle Times. Paul Andrews is a member of The Times' staff. He can be reached by e-mail at: pand-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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