Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wii Love Animal Crossing: City Folk!

I have been in love with my Wii ever since we bought it earlier in the year. While most of the games have been active, with Wii Sports or Wii Music or Wii Fit, I've been wanting something a little less swing and sway and a little more relax and putter about.

Years ago that would have meant pulling out my Final Fantasy X game for Playstation and beating some beasties into the ground with my RPG party. But you really can't play that around a 4 year old without having to answer some troubling questions. So I needed a game that I could play around my kids, and something that I could drop in and out of as needed without having to remember my skills.

Nintendo's answer to my problem - Animal Crossing: City Folk.

I can best describe this as a RPG for women. Don't get me wrong - guys can have just as much fun, but this is a relaxing, social game that nearly anyone can play. And for those (mostly female) friends of mine who don't play a lot of games because they don't have the time to finish the game, or don't understand the 284 combination button moves needed to control many characters, let me explain why this game is for you. It's very intuitive to play - only one button is ever needed. And it's not your traditional game, because there is no single objective, no final challenge, no "The End" on the screen with credits. Come and go as you like, play for a short time or all day long.

In Animal Crossing: City Folk, you are just starting out on your own, moving to a small town near the city to begin a new life. You pick out the empty property you want and soon find yourself with a mortgage and the need to earn some money. The local shopkeeper hires you to run errands for your first day, which also helps you learn the basics of the game. You can also earn money by collecting and selling fruit, fish, or turnips.

The real fun lies in the details. You can quickly form friendships with the other townsfolk, decorate your house to your own tastes, and plant flowers and trees around the town to decorate as you see fit. On Saturday night you can watch a band play at the museum's coffee shop. A short bus ride will take you to the big city, where you can shop at the fancy stores, have your hair done, and take in a show. The game is also sensitive to date and time. When it's dark at your house, it's dark in the game. Now that it's December, it's snowing in my town.

But perhaps the coolest feature is that your friends can come visit your town, and you can visit theirs. Using your internet connection, you can play together with friends, with your characters interacting together in the game. Typing out conversation to each other could take forever, though, so Nintendo rolled out the Wii Speak, a wireless set-top hands-free microphone. Once you have the Wii Speak, you can have real-time voice chat with friends who are playing with you. (Assuming they have the Wii Speak also, of course.) This feature makes this game a truly social event - you can visit your friends across the country without leaving your couch.

I've been playing Animal Crossing: City Folk for over a month now, and I think I can safely say I love this game. Occasionally I'll find myself wandering around the town aimlessly, but this game is a great stress-reliever when I want to unwind after a long day and escape to a simpler world. Cordy's still not terribly interested in playing video games yet, but once she is I'm sure this will be on the approved list. The non-violent nature of this game makes it perfect for young children.

The only thing that would make Animal Crossing: City Folk more enjoyable is knowing more people who also have it so we could play together. Hear that, people? I want to visit other towns and go shopping with you! So if you buy this game, let me know, OK?

(And trust me - buy the Wii Speak also!)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Gift Guides Make It Easy

I wanted to put together my own gift guide here this year, but after seeing so many of the great gift guides that others had put together, I decided I'd hold off until next year. Instead, I've been trying to review the best gift items I've come across lately, and leaving the gift guides to those more organized than me.

One in particular that I wanted to mention is the Mom Central 2008 Holiday Gift Guide. It has gift suggestions for nearly anyone you can think of, from infants to adults, men and women, and in all price ranges. I've browsed through it several times, and was pleasantly surprised to see a selection of products not only from major manufacturers, but also from mom-run small businesses.

They're also doing a daily giveaway, with different prize packages available each day. All you have to do to enter is register at Mom Central, visit each day's giveaway and comment.

Good luck with the holiday shopping!

MC Blogger Button

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An Art Table For Two, Without The Fighting

I'll admit that a lot of the big kids' furniture we have in our house is really more space than it might be worth. A giant easel, a kid-sized chair (especially when they insist in sitting in our chairs anyway), a small kid table that tips over easily, etc. Our house doesn't have a lot of floor space, so deciding which items can stay in the living room is difficult.

But recently I had the chance to review the new Step 2 Creative Projects Table, and I think I've found the one piece of kids' furniture that is worth every square inch. When I first saw the picture of this table, I knew it would be big, but I hoped my girls would like it. This table is designed as an art table for one or two kids. Got two kids who fight over the easel or art table? This is the table for you!

The table has two stools and two seating areas - one on each side of the table. This is way better than having two kids sit side-by-side, which inevitably ends in pushing, stealing crayons from hands, and tears. There is a wooden shelf in the middle which not only provides more storage, but serves as a good dividing line for determining each little artist's space. More storage is provided with four little storage cups, molded storage areas, and two lower wooden storage bins that are large enough to hold coloring books, sketch pads, or other books.

Set up was relatively easy, although I'd warn you to be sure to read all instructions before starting. There was an errata that came with the instructions that we missed at first, and had to repeat a step as a result. I'd also recommend a power screwdriver, or someone with good arm endurance, because there are several screws. I really like the mix of molded plastic and wood - the wood gives the desk extra stability and weight.

The stools are the perfect size for my slightly larger preschooler, and even my 18 month old can sit on the stool, too, although when she does her feet don't touch the ground. They should both be able to use the table for several more years.

Cordy started using the table exactly 2.5 seconds after seeing it.

While we're using the table for art, we've also found it works for nearly anything. Cordy has asked to sit at the table for dinner, and Mira occasionally uses it for climbing practice. (Like I said before, it's very sturdy, so I'm not worried when she climbs on it.) I think in the summer we'll take it outside for days when they paint, so it can be easily washed down afterward.

Mira excels at finding unconventional seating arrangements

My girls love this table, and I love how versatile it is. If one of them should ever lose interest in it, the upper wooden shelf can be moved back to create a single-user desk with lots of desk space.

If you have two or more kids who like to draw or color, the Step 2 Creative Projects Table is a must have. Even if you have an only child this table will provide ample space for any art or craft your child should want to pursue. My two use their table daily with few disagreements unless Mira climbs onto the table and sits on Cordy's artwork. The table not only gives them a place to keep all of their crayons, papers and coloring books, but it gives me a few extra moments of peace each day while they color.

Monday, December 08, 2008

A Smart Plush Playmate (& Contest!)

Contest is now closed - congrats to Ali!

Cordy's new favorite plush toy is her smart-e-dog. I received this toy for review after she looked over my shoulder while reading an e-mail about it and shouted, "Mommy, look at the doggy! Can I have it?" At that point I was committed to reviewing this toy.

Smart-e-dog, along with its friends smart-e-bear and smart-e-cat, is an interactive plush toy that can entertain your child through songs, stories and games. I think this gives the best description of what it does:

Designed primarily for non-reading 2 to 6 year olds, smart-e-dog encourages children to discover and explore through a library of literally thousands of award-winning songs, interactive stories, educational games and other content that parents can selectively purchase through the Internet and download to the toy with a super-easy USB connection. Measuring 13” tall, this plush pal utilizes electronics about the size of a deck of cards. The squeezable, adorable animals will enchant little ones with their “smarts” from hearing a song to reading a story to playing a game. There’s always something for kids to discover as the software changes and grows with the child’s interests from the nursery to kindergarten.
Basically, what arrives is a plush animal, instructions on how to connect to the online site, and a USB cable. It wasn't hard at all to connect, and I was amazed at how many songs and stories this dog can perform. To change what the toy can do, simply select the songs/games/stories you want it to have, then download the preferences into the toy using the USB cable. Most additional songs and stories are $.99 each, although there are some freebies available, too.

The smart-e-dog also has two settings, depending on how old your child is. It can either ask your child before playing any song or story, to give your child the chance to choose something different, or you can set it to automatically play without asking. The second choice is great for younger kids who may not understand how to choose between songs and games.

The software interface is a little confusing at first, but it doesn't take long to figure out how to create new playlists, download new songs and stories, etc. You can have the toy call your child by name, as long as your child is named something more common than Cordelia. (Cordy's name is never available for anything, and I'm used to that. Miranda was in the list of names, for the record.)

Cordy loves her smart-e-dog. She was confused by the interactive mode, so I switched it to shuffle instead, and now she loves letting the dog choose what to do next. When she gets the hang of it I'll probably switch it back. She takes her smart-e-dog to bed with her, brings him downstairs with her in the morning, and he has claimed top dog status among her other canine stuffed animals.

I like him too because he sings songs that aren't the usual boring "Twinkle, Twinkle" and - a feature all parents will appreciate - he has volume control and an off button.

To see all of the features, visit the smart-e-bear website and click on Learn More for the full tour.

Win one for Christmas!

I'm giving away one smart-e-plush, in your choice of dog, cat, or bear! Hopefully it will arrive just before Christmas to add one more present for your child.

How do I enter?
To enter, leave a comment by Friday, December 12 at 11:59pm EST, and make sure I have a way to contact you if your e-mail isn't in your Blogger profile. (Seriously everyone - I can't count the number of people who leave no contact info and I have to choose a different winner.)

Want a second entry?
Blog about this contest or link to this contest via Twitter and you'll have a second entry. Please leave a separate comment with the link to your blog entry or specific tweet.

One winner will be chosen after 12/12 by random drawing (Random.org). Winner must respond within 48 hours of being e-mailed to claim prize or another winner will be chosen. I want you to have the best chance of getting this by Christmas, although due to the congestion of the USPS at this time of year, I can't guarantee delivery by then.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How To NOT Ruin Your Clothing

I've said many times that I'm a domestic zero, failing at many simple household tasks like cooking and cleaning. But in our household I'm the one in charge of laundry, and so every few days I must make sure to get stains out and keep our clothing clean, without shrinking anything or turning white socks pink.

I've always been nervous about bleach. Knowing it's powerful ability to whiten anything - whether it was white to begin with or not - I rarely use it because I don't know when it should be used. Must the entire load be white? If some of the t-shirts are white with a design on them, will the design be ruined?

Recently Mom Central gave me the chance to try out Clorox 2, a color-safe bleach alternative. It's been around forever I'm told, but since it had the word bleach in it, I avoided it. After being assured that it really is safe to use on colors, I gave it a try.

I can happily report that I did not ruin my clothing with Clorox 2. The colors are still just as bright as before they were washed (a big plus, since I tend to make colors fade), and stains came out easier than before. I forgot to put any stain treatment on one of Mira's shirts (dry-erase marker), and I was surprised to see it come out of the wash without a single stray black mark.

Clorox 2 comes in several scents, but I was thankful to see it came in a Free formula too - no dyes or perfumes. Due to Cordy's sensitive skin, we have to wash everything in dye-free, fragrance-free detergents.

Win it!
Want to try out Clorox 2 for yourself? I have three coupons for a free bottle of Clorox 2 (any scent) to give to three lucky readers.

To enter, leave a comment below with a story of your worst laundry disaster, and make sure I have a way to contact you should you win. You can comment anytime between now and Wednesday, December 10 at 11:59 pm. Three winners will be chosen at random.

Good luck!

Eebee Charms and Encourages Exploration

When Cordy and Mira were babies, I tried out all of the baby DVDs designed to make them geniuses. My girls, however, never showed much of an appreciation for Mozart or Bach. And despite the success of those DVDs, I found they were really not very useful past 8 or 9 months. At that point I wanted them to watch programs that they would learn something from, and that something would be more than bad puns from Spongebob.

While Cordy has moved on to preschool programs and activities, Mira still falls in this age of being mostly non-verbal and wanting to explore and learn. Parent Bloggers recently introduced me to Eebee and his DVD Eebee's Adventures: Figuring Things Out. It advertises itself as a DVD that encourages toddlers 12 months and up to explore and participate in active learning.

When I first watched the DVD, I wondered if this was advanced enough for my 18 month old. The first scenes were of Eebee - a non-verbal puppet with some interesting hair - and his real-person playmate Kristy tackling a mountain of pillows. This was something Mira could already do. But soon I realized that this was only the beginning of several scenes, and that most were right at Mira's developmental level.

For each scene, they would show Eebee and his friend attempting some activity, such as crawling through a tunnel, playing with a flashlight, and building block towers. They interact like a parent introducing a new game to a toddler, and then stepping back to let the child explore while providing encouragement. The scene then cuts between Eebee and real children doing the same task. There's no dull explanation of what to do, or why the child should try this activity. Instead, this DVD works on the idea of having a child watch and then mimic the ideas.

Mira was immediately drawn in by the puppet Eebee. He's a cute puppet, and makes babbling and cooing sounds like a typical non-verbal baby or toddler. She enjoyed watching the kids and Eebee trying to do the activities, some of which required problem-solving skills, such as putting stacking cups together out of order and having one not fit as a result. After viewing it a couple of times, I noticed she was now trying some of the activities they did. She is more interested in blocks now, and she has taken an interest in the stacking cups that she previously ignored.

This is a fun DVD, and even if your child doesn't like to watch it (a rare event, I think), it also serves as an educational tool for parents, too. Watching Eebee and Kristy interact is practically a script for parents to follow in interacting with their own children. I was impressed at how Kristy encouraged Eebee without doing too much for him. It reminded me to pull back a little and let Mira explore in her own way more. Extras on the DVD include interviews with the experts who put this DVD together, explaining the developmental principles behind the action.

As part of this set, we also received an Eebee's Adventures soft vinyl book called Bath Time. This book is designed for the bath, and includes two squeezy areas that suck in and then squirt out water. Mira thought the bath book was fun, although her older sister had more fun squeezing the squeaker in the book continuously.

Overall, I'm impressed with Eebee's Adventures, and I recommend the Figuring Things Out DVD for those with young toddlers. There are two other DVDs in the collection, along with other books and toys, including an Eebee plush doll.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Dad's Corner: LEGO Batman Review

Since I've got a lot of gifts to review at the moment, Aaron has happily play tested another video game for the family.

So, I'm back to review another video game for dads, moms and their kids. This time out, I got to put my hands on a copy of LEGO Batman for the PS2, which I was greatly looking forward to. Why? Well, because I love superheroes. I love LEGOs. I love video games. And I loved the first LEGO video game put out by Traveler's Tales - LEGO Star Wars (both volumes, actually). On the other hand, I was not so much a fan of LEGO Indiana Jones, so the question going in was "Will LEGO Batman deliver?"

Well, deliver it did, and I frankly cannot get enough of this game. LEGO Batman is fun, quirky, engaging, has tons of replay value and manages that wonderful line of being both easy enough to let inexperienced gamers play, but having challenge enough for experienced gamers to enjoy the game.

The game is outright goofy. You're playing as LEGO versions of Batman, Robin, their allies and their enemies, for crying out loud. The cut-scenes, establishing the story are done all in mime, and have numerous silly elements (Robin is a particular source of comedy here). And the game itself isn't too terribly complicated. There are four buttons used: One to fight, one to jump, one to activate your character's special power or interact with the environment, and one to switch from Character A to Character B. That's it.

You also can't die. I mean, you can be defeated, exploding into a little pile of LEGO bits. But you don't die. You just lose a little bit of your money - found in the form of round LEGO studs. That's it. So, no matter how bad you are at playing video games, you can get through the game eventually.

Another wonderful thing about the game is that you always have a partner. (Batman and Robin, go figure.) And the partner does lots of wonderful things to help you. But you don't have to rely on the AI - oh no, a second player can hop in to the game. Even better - that second player can drop in and drop out as needed. So, if dad is playing the game and your kid gets home from school, he can join in. But when it's time for dad to go help with dinner, dad can drop out and the kid can keep playing. It's a lovely feature that was introduced in LEGO Star Wars, and I'm glad to see that it remains.

All of this establishes why the game is fun and easy, but what about the replay value? Well, I'm glad you asked. The game is broken into three storylines, one focusing on Batman and Robin chasing down the Riddler and his allies, another chasing down the Penguin and his allies, and the third going after the Joker and his men. In the main storylines, you play as Batman and Robin, and get to use various gadgets and special tech suits to chase down the baddies. Once you finish any of the three storylines, however, you get to flip the story. In each scenario, Batman and Robin arrive as the villains are already in the middle of the crime - but how did the villains get there? Well, once you've completed a storyline, you get to play as the villains and find out the other half of the story. Tremendous fun, and since you're dealing with LEGO figures, the amount of guilt you might feel for doing heinous acts to the helpless citizens of Gotham City is fairly minimal.

But as much fun as the villain arcs are, the real beauty of the game comes from "Free Play Mode." As you play through the story, you'll notice that there are areas you can't get in to, or items you can't reach, all because you have the wrong abilities at the time. In Free Play Mode, you get to come back through the game with any characters you have already unlocked - hero and villain alike. Rather than being restricted to Batman and Robin and whatever Tech Suits you find in that level, you get to bring in a team that includes Batman, Robin, all their tech suits and a whole host of villains. I enjoy playing through the game's stories, but Free Play Mode - and trying to unlock every hidden thing in the game, is where I really find my fun.

Overall, I love this game. I felt like LEGO Indiana Jones didn't work, but I'm enjoying LEGO Batman even more than I liked LEGO Star Wars. And while thirty-something dads can love the game, it'd be a great game for most kids as well - especially kids who are fans of Batman.

So, to sum up:

The Good: LEGO Batman is fun, easy to learn, and extremely forgiving to new players. The Free Play mode and villain storylines add a lot of replay to the game. Two-player cooperative play is extremely easy to use, making it a great game for families.

The Bad: Some players might find the game too easy. Also, going back through the levels to find hidden items might not provide a different enough experience to make replaying the entire game rewarding for all players. Also, while the violence and destruction are against LEGO characters, buildings and landscapes, the game is largely about beating up your opponents and destroying the landscape.

The Ugly: Even in Free Play mode, figuring out how to locate some items might drive some players insane. Also, the goofiness of the game might not fit for people expecting the feel of Batman from this summer's The Dark Knight.