Review: Leapfrog’s Tag Reading System

As I’ve written before, Kitty is really interested in learning to read.  We’re working on getting her there, but she’s three and obviously it’s going to take some time. This means that for now we are still reading her any book she’s interested in.  We read to her A LOT, and while it’s really hard to say “no” to a kid handing you a book, sometimes it’s just not practical to take the time to read (like when I’m cooking, going to the bathroom, or I’ve just read her five books and she’s begging for number six).  So when it was time to start thinking about Christmas presents for this year, Leapfrog’s Tag Reading System was appealing because it would read the books to her.

LeapFrog TAG Reading System - Green
Note: product does not stand on its own.

Leapfrog offers a Tag Junior which is suggested for ages 2-4, and the Tag Reading System is suggested for ages 4-8.  With Kit being three months away from her fourth birthday we opted for the more advanced version. The Tag Junior books seemed like they’d be more interesting to Kitty, and they are board books, which would have been more durable, but we decided the bigger age-range of the Tag Reader ultimately made it the better option. We found a purple version of the reader on closeout for $20 (Score!  They system usually retails for about $30).  It came with The Cat in the Hat and we purchased additional books featuring The Little Mermaid, Tinkerbell and Scooby-Doo.  Aunt Karen knew about the purchase and picked up Tangled to round out her collection.

The Reader looks like a chunky pen, and connects to a PC with a USB cable.  Leapster’s Connect software has to be installed on your system, and the content for each book has to be downloaded onto the pen.  The pen can hold up to ten titles at a time, though inactive titles are stored on your system and can be quickly swapped out.   This was the only clunky part of the process, but we had to load five books at once and Kitty was pretty excited about getting started.  The reader also uses to PC to access the “Learning Path” which allows the parent to track their child’s progress.  The pen also occasionally asks the child to have a parent connect to the software to access online “rewards” thay they earn from working through the books and their games.

To quote Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and the Tag is a pretty good example of that. The books look and read just like a normal book, with the exception of a few small symbols in the bottom right hand corner of each page.  Touching these symbols allow the child to have the page read to them or to play short games which are available on most pages. Super-Dad and I were amazed at this tiny thing’s ability to know exactly what point you were on in any given book without any additional hardware. The pen has an optical sensor and each page on the book has an almost invisible dot-matrix that the sensor uses to find its place. It will read the story, read the page, or read each word.  Each picture has sound effects or dialogue.  It’s pretty slick. The speaker has good volume for its size, and Leapfrog has also included a headphone jack, which I am immensely grateful for. 

Unlike its predecessor, the bulky Leap Pad, (which required a large pad, a book, a cartridge and still needed the child to push a specific spot on each page to “activate” it) the Tag needs nothing but the pen and the books. It will also read any title you own aloud without the book, a really smart feature that we’ve used at bedtime and when the books were forgotten at home on a long car ride.

Leapfrog Tag Kid Classic Storybook Walter The Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise
Is Walter the Farting Dog a classic? That’s for you to decide.

The production quality of the books we’ve tried has been phenomenal. The voice acting is great, as far as I can tell they use the same voice actors as the movies the books are based on.  The books are nice to look at and are long enough to be entertaining.  The MSRP on the books is about $14, but they are frequently on sale.  If you avoid character products the selection may leave you disspointed.  I think every book I’ve seen in stores is a licensed product, though there are several children’s “classics” like Olivia , Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and The Little Engine that Could available. The Leapfrog website and Amazon (and occasionally stores) also carry learn to read kits with phonics based readers.  The website also offers a few interactive maps, some activity-only books and some game boards.

My only real complaint is that clicking on any picture plays an accompanying sound clip, which totally distracts Kitty from the actual story.  She will spend a good amount of time dinking around with the pictures and totally ignore the “read the page” icon.  That really is a small complaint, though.  Kitty finds the entire experience very entertaining.  We were worried that because she was on the low end of the suggested age group that the system would be too complicated for her (we remembered it taking Nate a few months to get into the swing of using the Leap Pad when it came out).  I am happy to report that she has absolutely no problem using the system.   Even Nathan enjoys it, and I have found them snuggled in bed “reading” together several times since Christmas.

The verdict?  The Tag Reading System is totally worth the $30 price tag.  It’s portable, streamlined design makes it HUGE step up from Leap Frog’s previous attempts and it manages to be both fun and educational. It’s easy to use with features that make it both child and parent friendly.  Most importantly, it buys me 15 minutes of uninterrupted shower time.

Nerdy Dance Party

We love Nerdcore singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton in our house, and this particular song has been stuck in my head for about a week now. He does drop the F Bomb in here, but it’s in such a nerdy and charming way that it’s totally forgivable.

Review of the Kinect, Dance Central and Kinectimals

Review of the Kinect, Dance Central and Kinectimals

When the Kinect peripheral for the Xbox 360 came out in  November, we were intrigued.  We briefly considered buying one until we learned of it’s $150 price tag. After all, that was only slightly less than we paid for our entire Wii system, and that thing and its terrible graphics sits dusty on the entertainment unit.  Still, it was getting pretty amazing reviews, so when Nate and Kitty’s Grandma asked if we would be interested in it as a Christmas gift, we got very excited.

This year we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas morning at the Grandparents’, so opening the Kinect was a bit of a non-event as we didn’t have the Xbox with us to set it up. We got back to our place at 8 PM on Christmas and after fifteen minutes of begging Super-Dad, he reluctantly set it up.  Was it a hit?  The kids stayed up playing until after midnight and then Super-Dad and I continued to play for an hour after they went to bed.

The Kinect comes with “Kinect Adventures”.  The game isn’t spectacular – the graphics aren’t great and we would later discover that other games make even better use of the Kinect sensor – but it was fun. It definitely did its job of showing “yeah, this thing actually works”.  Most importantly, it instantly proved that Microsoft had succeeded at doing what Nintendo tried so desperately to do with Wii but failed, making video gaming a physical activity.  After about 30 minutes of playing Kinect Adventures our heart rates were up and the grown-ups were starting to break a sweat.
After three days of showing off Kinect Adventures to everyone who came into our house, we decided to take some of our Christmas money and invest in a few additional titles.  There were seventeen games available at the Kinect’s launch in November, and over forty by the time we got ours.  According to reviews only a few of those titles really lived up to the potential of the technology.  We narrowed it down to three:  Kinectimals, a virtual pet game geared to kids, Kinect Sports and Dance Central.  We found  a coupon at our local mega-mart for a discount on two games, so we had some decisions to make.

The reviews I read lead me to choose Dance Central.  The game, from the creators of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, had already started showing up on Best of 2010 lists for games in general and was clearly the darling of the Kinect titles.  I didn’t really think of us as a group of dancers, but the reviews were just sooooo positive, that I figured it would at least be a cool way to show off our new technology.
Dance Central
Dance your ass off.
I *still* don’t consider us a group of dancers, we kind of suck, but it has been a blast trying to improve. Dance Central is amazing.  The interface is dynamic, with the “drag and swipe” menu beating the pants off the languid feeling “select and hold” method every other game seems to have.  It’s a great workout, after 10 minutes of playing my heart rate was up and I was sweating, but I didn’t want to stop.  Recognizing its aerobic potential Harmonix included a “Workout Mode” which tracks the calories you’ve burned.  The music is dance music, so if you like that kind of thing, good for you.  I personally was so sick of “Poker Face” after beating it on hard, that I never want to hear it again (okay, I never wanted to hear it in the first place, but whatever.)  There are a couple of gems in there from a purely nostalgic stance; Dancing to “Whoomp There it is” and “Posion” by Bell  Biv DeVoe made me smile and “Funkytown” is super fun.  Look, I’m not saying the music is good, but it’s a dance game and as much as I enjoy Death Cab for Cutie, it just wasn’t going to work out.  As for the lyrical content of the songs: Nate’s ten-year-old sesibilites were totally freaked out by “Hey Mami” by Fannypack in which a voice that sounds like a child sings “Hey Mami/You sexy”.  So…yeah.
It’s not an easy game.  After you nail the “Easy” level the sensor starts getting really picky about how you move.  There’s no “kinda” doing a move and getting away with it, you’d better nail that Jazz Square from head to toe, or you’re going to lose points. The game gives you plenty of chances to “Break it Down” and learn the moves, though the ambiguous instructions from the off-screen choreographer (“dig left, dig right”) don’t always help.  I do appreciate his positive encouragement, though.  Unlike Rock Band you don’t get booed at, and even after Kitty missed every move in a routine he told her not to worry.  Nate felt embarrassed just attempting the moves and got very discouraged when he couldn’t nail them.  Coordination is key here and it’s something some kids (and apparently some adults like me) are just not developmentally able to do.
I wouldn’t recommend buying this game *just* for the kids, but if you have adults who are going to play the kids will enjoy giving it a go, joining in during the “Freestyle” portions and watching the hilarious time-lapsed, sped up montage at the end of each song.  Once you get over the initial shock of watching yourself look like an idiot this is pretty funny. However, if this feature is just too much embarrassment for you to handle you can turn it off.
So sweet your teeth will hurt.
“You will listen to me!”

Kinectimals will have you saying “Oooooh how cute!” about a zillion times.  Seriously, if you don’t think that this game (and watching your child play it) is the cutest thing ever, you have a heart of stone and shouldn’t have procreated.  Kinectimals has a loose story line involving a cat-loving sea captain who mysteriously vanished, but all that comes is in far behind the adorableness that is playing with your virtual cat.  Kitty picked a panther, named it Casey and treats it better than our real cat.  Even at three and a half she was able to play this game with minimal assistance. The on-screen cat/fairy hybrid  guide animal voiced by Invader Zim (really, it’s same voice actor. Try not hearing it now that I’ve told you) helps the little ones with this. Getting started was a little tricky, but after you are signed in and have selected your cat, even small children can navigate this game.  They throw in some mini-games involving teaching your cat tricks, playing fetch, driving RC cars and knocking over targets, but the star here is the interactions with your cat.  This game is probably the most perfect game for kids ever made with both Kitty and Nate enjoying it immensely.  While it has some playability for adults, I got bored pretty fast. The kids fought over whose turn it was and played until I had to pry them away from the screen. If you have the Kinect and you have kids, this game is a must have.

Kinect Sports
For the next time I have an extra $40 bucks lying around.

Kinect Sports was developed by Rare, known for the Viva Pinata and Banjo Kazooie games, both of which my kids love.  It seemed to be the more family friendly option with games like soccer and boxing that would appeal to the kids, to adults who may or may not have been imbibing and to those looking for a workout.  It didn’t make the cut this round, but this is still one of the better reviewed games, made by a company that has made some fantastic family friendly games, and will be the next title we purchase.

So is the Kinect worth it?  I’d say that if you already have an Xbox 360, then absolutely yes.  The technology is truly a game changer (see what I did there? Game changer?! Ha!). The Kinect is going to keep your Xbox experience fresh and may actually give the console the ten year life cycle Microsoft is hoping for.  The kids seem to enjoy it as much as the adults, and unlike the Wii its better graphics and innovative interface make this more appealing to hardcore gamers.  If you were already considering purchasing an Xbox, spend the extra and get the Kinect bundle, which ranges in price from $269 to $400 depending on the hard drive size you get.  If  this whole Kinect thing has made you think of buying a system for the first time, it’s probably not for you. Though if you get a lot of play out of your Wii you may consider upgrading.

Did you get a Kinect for the holidays?  What do you think?  Leave a comment below with your thoughts on the system and games you’ve tried.

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