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100 Classic Book Collection (DS)

Features: This cartridge contains a virtual bookshelf of one hundred complete classic novels and plays. Featured authors include: Austin, Dickens, Carroll, Bunyan, Hardy, Wilde, Shakespeare, Bronte (x3), Wilde, Stevenson and Verne. The DS is held sideways (like in Brain Training) and the stylus is used to 'flick' to the next page, to make the experience more like leafing through a hardback. You can even play background noise to mimic sitting in locations like a forest or a coffee shop.

The cartridge has room for around another ten books which can be downloaded via a wi-fi connection. Once read, these can be deleted to make room for more but currently there are only ten to choose from anyway.

Comments: This is almost brilliant. Portable devices for reading e-books are still relatively expensive and unusual but there are millions of DSs in the UK. People of all ages have them and are used to carrying them around and taking them on holiday. Why hasn't anyone thought of combining the technologies before? Why are we only now receiving the benefits of the first DS book experiment?

The reason e-book readers haven't caught on is that they're too expensive for people to risk taking to the beach or using in the bath. There's also the suspicion that e-books will be almost as expensive as physical books and come with the joys of DRM. Suddenly, for only £20, all of us with a DS can carry around a library in our pocket containing a vast swathe of books we meant to read at some point but haven't quite got round to: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Kidnapped, Alice in Wonderland, the list goes on... Brilliant!

Well, as I said, almost...

This is still very much an experiment. The designer seemed to think the reason that e-readers haven't caught on is that we like the physical feel of books - the shape, the page turning, the ability to sit them on a shelf - and every effort has been made to duplicate the book experience. In pretty much every instance, this has made the DS experience worse.

For instance, even with the smallest font size, The Three Musketeers has 5000 pages, so turning each one with the stylus would be immensely irritating. Happily, though, this particular problem can be avoided by using buttons.

Surely having to read the titles of books sideways on a bookshelf is a matter of necessity rather than design? Why simulate it? A virtual stack of books doesn't topple over if you remove the bottom one. Once again, the problem can be overcome (by turning the DS round) but it's another bizarre experimental choice.

Also, does anyone really want to have their DS play background noises to simulate an airport lounge (complete with bing-bongs)... or a moving train... or being slowly baked alive...? The last one is supposed to be a 'hot summer day' but you could have fooled me. Thankfully, these ambient sounds don't need to be switched on, nonetheless their inclusion at all is something of a mystery.

The major issue, however, can't be avoided. By forcing users to hold the DS like a book with the two screens showing different pages of text, 100 CBC ensures that each line of text is very short. This takes a lot of getting used to. It's not so bad with some books - Around the World in 80 Days and Huckleberry Finn are fine to read - but books with long words and rambling sentences (try some Poe) are hard work when there are only two and a half words per line. It's like trying to read table tennis.

This is a shame, since there is a lot to be said for the reading experience otherwise. The contrast level with a DS Lite on its lowest brightness setting doesn't cause eye-strain. It's also possible to read in the dark. Why there isn't an option to hold the DS the normal way up and have slightly longer lines of text is yet another mystery.

The only real use of the DS's abilities to enhance the package is the option to download fresh books. It's fantastic that extra titles are available but there are no promises that the selection will increase. Also, the feature seems rather tacked on. Although the books all come with introductions and author biographies, these aren't available before download - there's just a list of titles and file sizes. Since the downloads are free, this isn't a disaster, but it's not hugely informative.

If you're thinking of buying a DS to get an e-book reader on the cheap, then you'll be disappointed. The 100 Classic Book Collection isn't brilliant. It is, nevertheless, almost brilliant. If you have a DS already, this is a great way to sneak a stack of books around with you wherever you go - a stack of books with very small pages but that take up almost none of your baggage allowance and that you can read in the dark. If you want to catch up on your classics, it's definitely worth checking out.

Conclusion: Despite the curious presentation, this is still a library in your pocket.

Rating: 4/5.

War (DVD)

Starring: Jason Statham & Jet Li.

Rated: 18.

Story: An FBI agent (Statham) hunts a rogue CIA assassin (Li) who murdered his partner. They both end up in the middle of a gang war between Triads and Yakuza in San Francisco.

Comments: Looking through some old reviews, I chanced upon my comments on Running Scared. Remember that one? Nope, I'm not surprised, I didn't really either. It's a by-the-numbers crime thriller with an ending so stupid I had to wipe it from my mind.

Then I watched War.

Woh, deja vu. (Though thankfully it wasn't Deja Vu deja vu. That would have been even worse.)

Yep, the film is OK but many of the elements feel included simply for the sake of it. In particular, there's a dull and superfluous car chase somewhere in the middle that's completely pointless. Nonetheless, War would be decent enough if the makers hadn't felt compelled to round it off with some unlikely revelations.

Imagine a world where at the end of Aliens the queen learns to tap-dance, where Love Actually culminates in a shoot out with vampires or where the final fight in The Matrix involves animated penguins.

Fortunately, War doesn't come from that world. It does come from somewhere fairly close by, however. To quote my Running Scared review, "There's a plot twist ten minutes from the end which is so sharp it dislocates the plot entirely. It essentially re-writes everything which has gone before, causing it to make much less sense. The resulting conclusion feels like it was stolen from a generic action movie." Since War is a pretty generic action movie to begin with, this isn't such a disaster but it doesn't exactly help matters.

Statham and Li make it all passable but even the added presence of Robert Downey Jr, Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock wouldn't make it great.

Conclusion: Shoot, hit, hack, drive, boom... forget.

Explosions: Two (because you can't have an action film without multiple explosions).
Car chases: One (because you can't have an action film without a car chase either, apparently).
Meetings in a strip club: One (because... well, take a guess...)
Cool, exciting plot twists you don't see coming: Two. (That's double the statutory requirement!)
Reasons you don't see them coming: One's rubbish and the other's insane.

Rating: 3/5.

Baby Life (DS)

Baby Life on Nintendo DS
Rated: 3+.

Story: You're a nursery organiser who's adopted a nine-month-old baby. You have the joy of looking after the baby, going to work to look after the baby and some other babies and then coming home to look after the baby.

Suffice to say, to play this you're going to have to like babies (and be under twelve and female, but that's another story).

Gameplay: First you must answer some multiple choice questions to create your unique baby. Then you must feed him/her, clothe her, play with her, clean her and get her to go to sleep. A couple of taps on the touchscreen calls up a map of the house, allowing access to the different areas, such as the garden for playing and the kitchen for feeding.

You can 'talk' to your baby by drawing various symbols. The baby then smiles, cries or looks blank, seemingly at random, forcing you to do everything you can possibly think of to make it happy, just to be on the safe side. Then it cries anyway. This is scarily realistic.

Every day you must head off to the nursery and spend some time keeping between two and four children happy. The nursery is depicted by a series of 2D rooms. Thought bubbles appear above the kids' heads, showing what they want or where they wish to go. You have to tap the objects or drag the children about in the most efficient manner possible in order to keep everyone content. The four rooms available each involve slightly different tasks and stylus movements but the gameplay is very similar.

Success at the nursery leads happy parents to shower you with gifts. These are mostly new kiddie clothes and toys, such as a music player to make your baby dance and a remote-control dinosaur.

Over time, your baby grows and develops. The nursery sessions get longer.

Save System: Regular auto-save.

Comments: A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on gender stereotyping, speculating how my children might react to Baby Life. The PR people sent me a copy to test my theories.

I got my predictions dead wrong and the kids went almost totally with stereotype. The boys took one look at the pink box with a hideously cute baby on the front and said, "Did they make a mistake, Daddy, and think you were a girl?"

Sproglette, meanwhile, gazed at it in awe and longingly muttered, "It says '3+' on it. Does that mean I can play it? I want to play it. I'm four. I can play. Let's go and play it..."

She's never shown any interest in touching a DS before.

As I suspected, playing it myself was like a traumatic flashback to a time of sleep deprivation and slime. I kept glancing at the virtual clock, wondering how soon I could get away with bedtime. If you have a partner or spouse who's keen on having another child but you're not so sure about the idea yourself, you might want to get them playing this for an hour or two. Chances are, before long, they'll be swearing and yelling, "Go to sleep, you annoying baby! I've already fed you five times and changed your nappy. It's time to sleep. I don't want to play with a cuddly sheep any more! Why won't you go to sleep? I just want to go and sit down with a glass of wine... sob..." (If it backfires and your partner sits glued to the screen, sighing things like, "Look at the way she dances. Isn't she cute?" there's no harm done - you were probably stuffed anyway.)

Sproglette loves playing with her baby. Now I've got her past all the text-heavy tutorials, she takes great delight in feeding him and cleaning him and chasing him round the garden with the dinosaur. She giggles at him dancing and makes him wear a silly hat. Sprog2 (6) has even started showing an interest. Whether Sproglette will ever let go of the DS long enough for him to have a shot is another question, however.

Sproglette isn't so keen on the nursery sections. They're a little beyond her at the moment. To be honest, they're not great anyway. The gameplay and graphics wouldn't trouble a Commodore 64. Worse, they don't always seem to notice player inputs, leading to confusion and frustration. Quite frankly, they're dull and slightly broken. Happily, it's possible to skip them but the downside is that this unlocks fewer new items to use in the home.

Essentially, Baby Life is about pottering around a house with a baby. Boys will be instantly put off by the box art but any girl who is drawn in by the cute toddler on the cover is liable to have some fun.

Conclusion: Certain girls will love it. For everyone else, it's more of a contraceptive than a game...

Graphics: The 3D graphics in the home are impressive. The 2D graphics in the nursery are pretty good... for 1987.

Length: Theoretically, it could last a while.

Rating: 3/5 (on the basis this isn't a videogame but an interactive, virtual doll).

Facebreaker KO Party (Wii)

Rated: 12+.

Gameplay: Choose from one of a dozen comedy stereotypes (nerd, cool black guy, psycho Russian, etc) and enter boxing tournaments which are merely a succession of bouts against the other characters.

Although the fighters are depicted in 3D, the fights are essentially two-dimensional. You move left and right using the thumbstick and then waggle the wiimote and nunchuk furiously to attack, while occasionally stabbing at buttons to block and throw. You can punch high and low and mix up a selection of quick, hard and special attacks. These attacks have a scissors/paper/stone relationship.

Fully draining an opponents health bar results in a knock-out. Three knock-outs wins the bout.

Save System: Auto-save after each bout.

Comments: Considering the Wii comes bundled with a game that offers not only boxing but four other sports as well, a stand-alone boxing game needs to be pretty special to justify its existence. To this end, Facebreaker adds some flashy graphics, comedy and a deeper combat system. Unfortunately, in ditching Wii Sport's first-person perspective for a standard side-on beat-em-up view, the game loses most of the connection between the player's movement and the action on the screen.

Yep, that's right, get READY to WAGGLE!

There is some strategy to the fighting but often everything moves too quickly to clearly spot what's going on. Sadly, the single-player game provides little incentive to persevere and get to grips with the system. Multiplayer games, meanwhile, turn into a frantic display of arm-flailing as participants struggle to grasp the mechanics. Since the game is obviously intended as party entertainment, this is a problem. It seems Facebreaker's main purpose is as something to play if you've got friends round and they've had enough to drink to make Wii Tennis a danger to your light fittings.

Two people can play a wacky variant with added power-ups and minigames. Four people can take part in a tournament. Only two players can actually play at once, however, and as the bouts can become protracted, the remaining players are liable to be sitting around for a while. Bear in mind that they'll spend this spare time rifling through your DVD rack looking to see what else there is to play...

Conclusion: Mildly amusing for not very long.

Graphics: The fighters look impressive and the animation is good but there's not much else to it.

Length: Very short.

Rating: 2/5.

Bath toys

A selection of bath toys.

Cost: Somewhere from very cheap to a small fortune.

  • Usually between 1 and 5 cute, plastic creatures with a nautical theme.
  • May include something clockwork with flippers.
  • Will almost certainly involve some means of soaking a parent with water.
Gameplay: Pouring, squirting and bobbing.

We have some large penguins that open up and stack inside each other. The kids like hiding other things inside them and making me guess what's there. 'Water' is nearly always a safe bet.

Object: To keep the children distracted while they get clean (preferably without flooding the bathroom).

Game length: Somewhere between 5 minutes and half an hour.

Number of players: 1-3. Even having three children in one bath can be fairly cramped. More than that simply isn't going to leave much room for the toys.

Age: Up to about 7.

Comments: Most bath toys come with instructions to wash them with disinfectant regularly. With small children to care for, this is unlikely to be one of your top priorities. Stuff will start to grow on the toys.

Hard plastic toys get black grot in all the nooks and crannies. There are a lot more of these nooks and crannies than you would imagine. Scrubbing them with an old toothbrush helps but is unlikely to get them entirely clean. If water gets inside, they've pretty much had it.

Soft, squeezy toys are worse. Sure, it's fun for the kids to squirt water out of the hole in the bottom, but it's next to impossible to get all the water out at the end of bathtime. After a few months, the kids will be surprised when it's no longer water that they're squirting but green slime.

Clockwork toys can go rusty and seldom seem to work well in the first place. We've had ones that barely managed to move through the water and others which capsized in even mildly choppy seas.

Add to these problems the fact that smaller children will tip all their toys into the bath and then poo in it, and you have to wonder whether bath toys are really worth it. It's maybe best to stick to a collection of plastic bottles with easily removable lids. They may not be shaped like smiley dolphins but they still pour, bob and squirt, and when they start to get grotty, you can simply recycle them and replace them with fresh ones.

Conclusion: Suitable junk works just as well as anything you can buy (unless you actually enjoy guddling about in disinfectant with a toothbrush).

  • Bright.
  • Colourful.
  • Fun.
  • Require lots of cleaning...
  • ...and then go grotty in a couple of months anyway.
  • Some old shampoo bottles are just as much fun.
  • The shampoo bottles are cheaper.
Rating: 2/5. (Old shampoo bottles: 5/5.)

Skate It (Wii)

Rated: 7+.

Story: The city of San Vanelona has been hit by a series of natural disasters. All is not completely lost, however, since this has handily created some excellent impromptu skate parks. Practice your skills, get filmed pulling some tricks and then join the professionals, performing acts of skateboarding derring-do around the world.

Or, if you're as uncoordinated as me, wrap yourself round a railing and then bump down some stairs on your face. Over and over again.

Gameplay: You must skateboard around large levels, completing challenges to unlock new events and locations. Challenges usually involve racking up a certain number of points by landing enough tricks within a time-limit, in an unbroken run or on a particular piece of scenery.

There are three available methods of control.

  • The wiimote can be used on its own, rotating it to steer, tipping it forwards and backwards to tip the board, and flicking it and waggling it to do tricks.
  • The nunchuk can be attached to the wiimote, allowing the thumbstick to be used for steering.
  • The wiimote and Wii Balance Board can be used together. Steering is achieved by leaning and tricks are pulled by putting weight on a particular part of the board. The wiimote's buttons are used for things like kicking off and braking.
Save System: Autosave after completing tasks. The save file takes up around 125 blocks of the Wii's internal memory, though, compared with 1 block for most games. You may need to clear some space.

Comments: When the controls for the Wii were first demonstrated, gamers the world over dreamed of myriad possibilities: sword fights and light-sabre duels, torch pointing and drum playing, billiards and basketball. All kinds of things.

Unfortunately, the wiimote isn't actually up to most of these things and plenty of games limit themselves to using the buttons with a touch of gimmicky waggling thrown in. Apart from shooting games, two years on, Wii Sports, Wii Play and Wario Ware remain the best examples of the wiimote being put to good use. As for the Balance Board, the most entertaining use for it I've heard of since Wii Fit came out is in Rayman Raving Rabbids TV Party - that apparently allows me to toboggan down a virtual mountain using only my bottom to steer.

Fun as that sounds, I suspect it's not really the zenith of intuitive and accessible gaming that people were expecting. Suffice to say, no one seems to have delivered on Nintendo's early promises for the Wii...

Woh, hold on a minute. Look at this! Skate It has three different control methods and they ALL use the Wii's various controllers in imaginative ways. Tilting the wiimote backwards and forwards and seeing the skater on screen react accordingly recaptures the magic of playing Wii Tennis for the first time. Leaning this way and that on the Balance Board to steer, then pressing hard to jump and flip, is fantastically fresh and exciting.

Well, for a bit...

The problem is, whichever way you play, Skate It is at least twice as hard as any other skateboarding game. Using the Balance Board is about four times as hard. Just skating in a straight line can be hard work and tricky. Pulling off stunts at the same time without either a real or virtual injury, is almost beyond my worn and exhausted housedad body. I can't imagine children much under twelve coping with it at all.

More than that, the controls can be imprecise. Performing specific tricks consistently (either by foot-pressing or frantic waggling) is next to impossible. Luckily, this doesn't affect gameplay much, since in most challenges, any old trick will do.

You can skate around looking for the challenges but it's much easier choosing them from the menu and jumping straight there. Handily, you can also set a marker at the beginning of a good line and teleport straight back with ease if you mess up the run. Together, these things cut down on frustration considerably but make the game feel disjointed. There's no great compulsion to master the controls and keep going.

Nonetheless, if you have a Wii, a Balance Board and a gnarly teenager in need of distraction, then Skate It is worth a look. If you don't know a manual from an ollie and you're a little lacking in coordination you might want to stick with a rental or avoid it entirely.

Conclusion: The most thoughtful use of Wii controls yet... but you'll need to like skateboarding quite a lot to persevere.

Graphics: Good enough. There's a long draw distance and the animation is fine. Unfortunately, some of the locations are bland and ugly.

Length: That depends. If you got into, you could spend a long time perfecting your tricks. It's just as likely you'll give up in despair after half an hour, though.

Rating: 3/5.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (VHS)

Starring: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Rizzo the Rat, The Great Gonzo and (a presumably extremely cash-strapped) Michael Caine.

Rated: U.

Story: It's Christmas Eve in nineteenth century London and Ebenezer Scrooge (Caine) is as mean and miserly as usual towards his bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit (Frog). When he returns home, however, Scrooge is visited by a succession of spirits who show him his past, present and future in an effort to reveal to him the error of his ways and release his inner Santa.

Comments: Yep, it's Christmas already. Our tree is up and covered in tinsel. The first cards have arrived. The plastic birds which tweet carols have fresh batteries. I even made the mistake of buying some gum-backed strips of shiny card, teaching the children how to make paper chains and then leaving them alone for half an hour. I came back to discover they'd been rather enthusiastic and the entire lounge was buried under strings of slimy, paper loops which had been licked to within an inch of completely dissolving.

Last year, our advent viewing at Sunday lunch was the BBC production of The Box of Delights. This year we dug out The Muppet Christmas Carol. We put it in the slot with some trepidation, unsure how the production would have aged and mildly concerned that the tape might have biodegraded.

Luckily, the film is still fantastic (and, somewhat to our surprise, our videoplayer still works). There's plenty of slapstick, some funny lines and a good helping of the original book. Scrooge and his family are played by real people and the spirits of Christmas are specially designed creations. The rest of the cast is made up of the regular muppet crew.

The most noticeable difference between the film and the book (apart from Tiny Tim being a cuddly frog, obviously) is that Jacob Marley has a brother, Robert, to fit the two grumpy, old muppets into the show. Gonzo also narrates as Dickens himself with Rizzo acting as comic sidekick.

The main downside is that it's a musical and a couple of the songs aren't that great. Well, actually, none of them are particularly good but most have interesting stuff going on in the background. Caine can't sing, though, and occasionally struggles to act. (Although, in his defence, he does spend most of the film surrounded by scene-stealing muppets, so he was probably more than happy just to get out with his sanity and a pay-cheque.)

All in all, The Muppet Christmas Carol has stood the test of time well but, weirdly, it also looks older than it really is. Go figure. Maybe it's the fuzzy VHS-o-vision, maybe it's cloudy memories of watching Miss Piggy as a seven-year-old or maybe it's merely the sad realisation that they don't make them like this anymore. Who knows? Search it out and remember how kid's films used to be.

Conclusion: Better than a whole host of CGI movies involving cute, furry penguins/squirrels/sharks/robots/zebras/llamas/wombats. (Delete as appropriate to whatever you've had the misfortune to watch recently.)

Explosions: None... just a flaming rat.
Roasted chestnuts: Some.
Christmas: Lots.
Snow: Heaps.
Swedish chef: Not enough.

Rating: 4/5.