The Alphabet Zoo- by Larry Bouthillier

Since we all know that every child loves animals, and naturally, every child that's used OS/2 loves OS/2, it's only natural that one of the first commercial children's software titles for OS/2 is The Alphabet Zoo, by Second Story Productions or, as they prefer, 2SP. The Alphabet Zoo is a CD-ROM collection of multimedia programs that offer learning and entertainment, making use of audio narration, video segments, text, and graphics in an effective presentation.

I had help with this review from an expert on children, my three year old son Alex. One thing that was clear right away is that he likes it. While some games offer more flash and complexity than The Alphabet Zoo, there's nothing quite like the glee in his eyes when he hears the game applaud him for getting a correct answer!

First Impressions

The Alphabet Zoo comes in a colorful package, which includes the CD-ROM, a brief printed installation guide for the included OS/2 and Windows 3.1 versions, and an animal coloring book for those times when Alex just can't get enough of the animals, but Daddy needs to use the computer for a while.

While the program is attractive and graphically well-designed, it's clear that great attention was paid to the educational aspects of the game; with educational value given a higher priority than glitzy "eye candy". The Alphabet Zoo consists of five basic activities that entertain, teach, and give children the opportunity to use what they have learned about the alphabet. First are the three alphabet games; Alphabet Zoo, First Letter, and Concentration.

Alphabet Zoo

Launching AZ from its program object brings up a colorful full-screen graphical menu of the 26 letters in the English alphabet, hiding the desktop behind a black border. A nice configuration touch, of which there are many in this package, is that these can be arranged alphabetically or by QWERTY keyboard layout; the child can select letters either by mouse or by keyboard. Selecting a letter displays a page which includes a photograph of an animal (JPG 30k) whose name begins with that letter, the upper and lowercase version of the letter selected, and a movie window that usually plays a short video clip of the animal in action. A calm, low-key narration clearly pronounces the letter, the animal name, and gives a one line comment about the animal. From here, the child can browse through other letters in succession or go back to the alphabet menu display to choose another letter.

While my son loves the pictures, the color, and the narration, I must confess to learning a little bit myself... for example, can you think of an animal whose name begins with "X"?

While the quality of the photographs provided is often stunning, the quality of the movies is often disappointing. The documentation notes that the movies are home videos taken at various zoos and animal parks around the US. In many scenes, the image consists of a motion picture of a sleeping or otherwise inactive animal. In some segments, the motion of the camera operator's unsteadiness is the only motion in the movie.

When asked, a 2SP representative noted that the cost of licensing National Geographic video was prohibitive for the version 1.0 release. While future plans include changes to the movies, more of their attention is focused on further developing elements that have a greater direct educational value, like the audio descriptions of the animals.

First Letter

First Letter, like the remaining modules, runs in a PM window. This highly configurable game offers the child a chance to apply what he's learned in Alphabet Zoo. The game displays a letter and offers three animal photographs to choose from (but can also be set to display one animal and offer three letters to choose from). The game verbally asks the child "which animal starts with an 'X'?" and the child uses the mouse to choose the animal which begins with the letter pictured. After a choice, the narrator pronounces the letter name and animal name. In what's been a source of never-ending delight to my son, the game rewards a correct choice with the sound of applause.

The game runs for five or ten letters, user selectable. The user can even choose which five or ten letters are used in the game or to use random letters. At the end of the game, a PM dialog displays a score card with a list showing the letters used and the number of attempts made to find the correct answer for each.

Concentration

This is an adaptation of the classic card-matching memory game. It also offers a great deal of configuration options, including selecting the number of cards displayed, which letters are used, the appearance of the card backs, and more. The game can be set to provide a variety of matching tasks, including matching upper case letters to lower case letters, and various combinations of upper and lower case letters to the animals whose names start with those letters. As in First Letter, the game pronounces the letters and animals as they are chosen, and gently tells the child when a choice is, "not a match." Again, the user can choose which letters are used in the game, making it easy for parents to have the game focus on letters that the child may not know as well.

Movie Time

Movie Time provides a way to directly view the over 100 movies that are included on the Alphabet Zoo CD. Here again, a colorful array of letters acts as a menu, with the individual movie titles available for the chosen letter appearing as icons in a scrolling window, along with their sometimes cryptic "8.3" character filenames. The movies, which vary from good to very poor in quality, play at 160x120 resolution. The interface is simple and attractive, although very young children may not understand the scroll bars, and will not be able to read the movie titles available.

Silly Stories

Silly Stories is well... a silly game for older children. The game provides a number of story templates, written with missing words throughout. The game prompts kids for words that fit a category--an object, a liquid, a name, a place, etc. In many cases, the choices include pictures as well as words. Of course, the kids are choosing words in the absence of any context. The game plugs the words into the story template, and displays the result (GIF 30k). Silly? Usually! Funny? Sometimes! Sometimes the resulting stories make more sense than others, and sometimes they make no sense at all.

As is customary in The Alphabet Zoo games, this game is extremely configurable. Kids can save complete stories to disk, edit the story templates, and control the font size and graphic size of the stories displayed.

This program has the most "grown-up" user interface of the group. Although the choices and options are clearly spelled out by dialogs as you go, it uses standard PM File Selection dialogs for Open and Save operations, and it uses a conventional File menu for New Story, Open Story, etc. Sometimes the game will prompt the user for a lot of words and pictures--numbering in the teens. A counter on the screen displays which word or picture number you're selecting, but a display showing how many there are in total would also be helpful.

Documentation

Second Story Productions has included documentation in the form of a Manual.WRI file, and a manual in the form of a standard OS/2 .INF file. The manual is an excellent example of on-line documentation, including screen shots, graphics and logical navigation. The game settings are clearly explained, as are techniques parents might consider when using AZ as a teaching tool.

Installation and Performance

AZ's installation program offers two alternatives: running most files directly from the CD-ROM, which conserves hard disk space at the expense of performance; or installing all the files to hard disk, which takes a large amount of disk space, but runs faster. On my 486/66 16MB RAM test system, I used the leaner install, which installed about 5MB to my hard disk. With my 4x IDE CD-ROM, AZ ran acceptably well, drawing files from the CD-ROM as needed. The delay from mouse-click to audio or video response was noticeable, but not excessive. I did not have drive space to test the full installation, but I'd say if you have the space, that's the better alternative. If not, you're likely to still be satisfied.

The installation program is a source of problems for users who have installed IBM's FixPak #17 for Warp. In my case, the install routine prompted me for a path to which to install the game, and then ignored my choice and installed to the root of the C: drive. It also failed to set the graphics paths correctly in the Silly Stories module. Other FixPak users have reported installation problems as well. 2SP acknowledges the problem, which is apparently related to the REXX runtime libraries updated in FP17. For now, 2SP officially does not support Warp with FixPaks, although I found them responsive and helpful when I had questions about my installation. Despite the install glitch, I've found no other problems with running the program under Warp with FixPak #17.

Conclusions

The Alphabet Zoo shows a great deal of careful design in many areas, and shows some "Version 1.0" characteristics in others. Some things made an immediate impression when I first ran the program. The quality of the graphic design is excellent and the program's attention to detail and configurability is impressive. However, I'd like to see improved movies, and an integrated full-screen interface for the whole program, like The Alphabet Zoo module, which prevents kids from accidentally removing focus from, or hiding, the program window. It would also allow younger kids to go from one game to the next without having to deal with the Workplace Shell.

The design goal of the program is clearly education--fun education, but education nonetheless. Those looking for a "Disneyesque" game full of animated doo-dads and musical accompaniment will not be interested in The Alphabet Zoo. But those who are looking for a more practical, but colorful and fun children's product will be pleased by the direction AZ's authors have taken. I consider it $30 well spent (a special introductory promotion).

This is 2SP's first commercial product, although 2SP's programmers are not new to OS/2 and OS/2 programming; everyone who worked on The Alphabet Zoo is a veteran of IBM's Boca Raton development site and the Windows 3.1 version on the CD is a port of the OS/2 version, not vice-versa. 2SP is currently working on enhancements to AZ, as well as a Windows 95 port of the program, and they hint at more titles to come in the future, including another edutainment title called US Geography.


 * The Alphabet Zoo
by 2nd Story Productions
MSRP: US$45
Larry Bouthillier is the father of a three-year-old expert on animals and letters. His son Alex occasionally lets him use the computer.

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