________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 17 . . . . April 29, 2005


Didi & Ditto Kindergarten.

Montreal, PQ: Kutoka Interactive (www.kutoka.com), 2004.
1 CD-ROM $29.95.

System Requirements:
Windows: Windows 98, 2000, ME, XP; CPU: Pentium II 300 MHz; RAM: 128 MB; Video and Sound: DirectX; CD-ROM: 12X; 40 MB of hard drive disk space.
Macintosh: System 9, OS X, CPU: G#; 300 MHz; RAM: 128 MB; Video: 800 x 600 and 24 bit color; Sound: Standard Macintosh; CD-ROM: 12X; 280 MB of hard drive disk space.

Preschool-grade 1 / Ages 4-6.

Review by Julie Chychota.

**** /4

Although the majority of Kutoka's interactive CD-ROM adventures so far have concentrated on a six-to ten-year-old audience, the multiple-award-winning company has created Didi & Ditto for the kindergarten bracket. Yet four-, five-, and six-year-olds will have so much fun exploring Didi & Ditto's colorful, dynamic world that slightly older siblings and friends might beg to get in on the action, too. While the game's structure takes the form of a traditional heroic quest, it is not gender-restrictive: the adventure will appeal equally to girls as well as boys. Collectively, engaging characters, bright settings and a creative approach to activities advance beginners' math and reading skills; a secondary outcome sees children hone their basic hand-eye coordination and fine motor movements. With three levels of difficulty for players to choose from, the game accommodates a range of learners who vary in their ages and competencies.

     At the outset, the program prompts a player to make two important choices. First, one must choose to play the game with either Didi, in red, or Ditto, in blue. These twin beavers possess distinctive personalities and idiosyncrasies. Being female, Didi has a higher voice, and, because she tends to be impatient, there is often a sharp edge to it. In contrast, Ditto's voice sounds muffled. He is a great deal more hesitant than is his sister. Both twins, however, have a great sense of humor; they frequently laugh, Didi with a "ha-ha," and Ditto with a "hey, hey." If ever a player is uncertain about the next move during the course of the game, he or she can click on Didi or Ditto for a clue. Second, a player must select one of three levels of difficulty: "easy," "not so easy," or "hard." After making these selections, the player clicks on the "Go" button to launch the five-minute QuickTime movie that introduces the adventure.

     The plot, itself, is simple enough for the targeted age group to follow. When Zolt, a vegetarian wolf, fails to finagle a carrot from a meadow rabbit, he turns his attention to the turnip with which Didi and Ditto are playing tennis. Before Zolt can grab the turnip, however, that very rabbit snatches it. When, instead of the rabbit, Zolt inadvertently traps one of the beavers in a hollow log, he seizes the opportunity, demanding a ransom from the other twin: six fruits and six vegetables in exchange for the captive sibling's release. The animation concludes with the player looking over the shoulder of Didi or Ditto -- whichever the player chose earlier -- at the top of a hill overlooking the color-drenched Jako's Valley.

     From this vantage point, a player may scroll over the screen with a computer mouse to discover eight very different clickable geographic regions: the beaver's lodge, the meadow, the forest, the farm, the waterfall, the swamp, the mountaintop, and Blue Bear's cave. There is no prescribed order in which players must visit these spots, and so children can follow their fancy. Each location possesses characters, sights, sounds, and activities specific to it. For instance, Ouisy, the prairie dog with a voice as "wheezy" as his name suggests, lives on the farm; he specializes in phonics lessons, relying on scarecrows to assist him. Deep in the forest, Hootdini the Owl asks players to match all manner of variegated leaves and petals to the plants from which they originated. Elsewhere in the forest, mushrooms make suctioning noises as players gather them up and place them in wagons. Another noisy spot is the meadow with its swarms of buzzing bees and popping rabbits. Moreover, every one of these regions is rife with the hues of the rainbow. Of course, this kind of close attention to sensation and perception is Kutoka's hallmark.

     Additionally, Jako's Valley offers players opportunities to win fruits and vegetables through challenging activities in each of the eight areas. There are 14 activities in all, 12 of which yield food rewards. Brief demonstrations precede some of the activities, but not all. In their quest to collect produce to set the captive beaver free, children practice and perfect their numerical and linguistic skills in age-appropriate contexts, that is, in settings that contain objects and pastimes both familiar and attractive to them. For example, Blue Bear teaches players the alphabet by letting them burst balloons inscribed with the alphabet, and Tiny Turtle blows bubbles with a straw to teach them repeating numerical sequences. Kindergarteners will also enjoy catching and matching exercises involving numbers, letters, and one-syllable rhyming words. As an added bonus, players will probably commit to memory six fruits and six vegetables that range from the commonplace, such as apple and carrot, to the exotic, like cantaloupe and artichoke. After the player has garnered the 12 items, the game concludes with a two-minute animation.

     Although most of the activities are highly structured, Kutoka incorporates just the right amount of flexibility. With respect to beginning phonics, level 1, for instance, the player has not a one-in-five, but a two-in-five chance of selecting an item that begins with whichever letter Ouisy displays. In addition, if asked in mushroom gathering to arrange the mushrooms from shortest to tallest, a player may situate the tallest mushroom in the last wagon first. The player decides in falling leaves which leaf or petal to reattach next. In fact, half of the activities gravitate away from a strictly linear schema and instead permit or invite a non-linear approach. Furthermore, a player can opt to return to specific activities apart from the game which ensures that he or she receives the fullest value of the product.

     No Kutoka adventure would be complete without its signature feedback. The game celebrates a player's correct answers with triumphant, trumpety sounds and characters who nod their heads or exclaim "yes," "yeah," "good," "right," "terrific," and the like. Even when a player makes a wrong move, the game provides affirmation. Characters may shake their heads "no" or politely repeat instructions. The harshest criticism this reviewer encountered was "Oops, you made a mistake. You'll have to start again," which is mild enough not to hurt the feelings of even the most sensitive child. While a few activities require the player to start over if he or she makes an error, most allow the player to continue without penalty. Still other activities will constrain the action so that a player cannot actually slip up in the first place. For instance, if not arranged according to the order as requested, the mushrooms in the forest will not stick to the wagons nor will Blue Bear's alphabet stones stay put on their shelves in his cave. In any case, whether negative or positive, verbal or non-verbal, Kutoka crafts its feedback carefully and tactfully.

     As far as accompanying documentation is concerned, Kutoka has outdone itself on this one. The "Instructions Guide," an HTML file, is exceptionally thorough and definitely recommended reading; it covers navigation, activities, characters, and technical information (the last also appears on the game's packaging). With its directions on how to move between the various screens and keep track of progress, helpful hints, and list of keyboard commands, the navigation section eliminates the frustration that might happen in "trial-and-error" play. Furthermore, the guide synopsizes each activity's learning objectives and three levels of difficulty. In the Chicken Coup arcade, for example, players release eggs from the hens directly into baskets below in level 1 while levels 2 and 3 challenge players' predictive ability by requiring them to allow extra time for the eggs to roll down two chutes and four chutes, respectively, before they reach the baskets. Consequently, knowing the differences between the levels should make it easier to determine when players should move on to the next level.

     Remarkably, the program files profile not only Didi and Ditto and their antagonist, Zolt, but also most of their large supporting group of cast members. Considering that every character has its own distinct voice and mannerisms, to introduce this amount of detail into the adventure is no small feat. Apart from the characters who host the activities, such as Hootdini, Ouisy, Tiny Turtle, Blue Bear, Hip Hop, Grumpy Bug, and Frank Frog are Venus and her fellow biddies, Couki the dog, hopeless romantic Belinda Bug, and riddle-loving Comedy Ann. Hip Hop, the meadow rabbit, also teaches players about contrasting prepositions like up and down, near and far, and in and out. For the most part, the creatures in Jako's Valley get along with a minimum amount of conflict, and a maximum amount of cooperation.

     Like the Mia CD-ROMs before it, Didi & Ditto is both Windows and Macintosh compatible, and its installation is quick and hassle-free. One should ensure QuickTime is loaded onto the computer, for it is essential to run the introductory and concluding animations. Once a player is familiar with the game, it is possible for him or her to skip the initial animated sequence by hitting the spacebar. This reviewer recommends saving the current game frequently because then, should the game freeze unexpectedly, players will not have to start all over at the beginning -- especially if they were already near the end. Just a few quick reminders: first, in order for the F1 key to call up the carrying sack and its contents, players may have to depress the F Lock key on their computers; second, players should watch closely where the pointer turns from its purple default color to yellow to detect clickables. Brief delays may occur if a player responds more quickly than the program expected, for example, in correctly placing an item in the carrying sack. All together, whereas an adult can finish a game in approximately one hour, children would probably take longer, depending upon their ability to control the mouse, as well as their ability to stay put for an extended period.

     Despite Kutoka's reputation for attention to details, there are a few noticeable little oddities. For one thing, the resemblance of the carrying sack to a bikini top is rather bizarre. Second, for the activity in Blue Bear's cave, the first level involves alphabet balloons while the second and third levels switch to alphabet stones. Since there is no obvious advantage to the substitution, it is unclear why the game breaks with consistency; after all, balloons are objects more connotative of birthday parties than are stones. Third and finally, in the Buggy Ride arcade, the 3D animation falls a bit flat in one spot; there is no preliminary example as in the Pond Crossing and Chicken Coup arcades; and the instructions should warn players to "Jump" or "Duck" well enough in advance of encountering an obstacle. Nevertheless, one can readily forgive these little indiscretions because this CD-ROM delivers on its promise to teach in an entertaining way.

     One thing is certain: Montreal-based Kutoka has done its research. It knows its intended audience, that is, both the children who play and the adults who have the power to purchase. Responsible adults will appreciate the fact that Didi & Ditto complements the classroom curriculum, but they will also appreciate the non-academic values it models, such as a spirit of cooperation and an attitude of anticipation when it comes to learning in general. Children, on the other hand, will discover that learning is enjoyable -- and hopefully, that it is rewarding in itself. As the company's tag line succinctly states: "Kutoka | Think. Play." (www.kutoka.com). For their thought-provoking, entertaining antics, Didi and Ditto deserve the same favorable welcome in homes, schools, and libraries that Mia previously received.

Highly Recommended.

Julie Chychota makes her home in Winnipeg, MB, and works at the University of Manitoba and Red River College.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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