Leapster Learning Graduates Into the New System

For kids who have grown up playing video games on the Leapster, the next stage in educational gaming has arrived.

Called the Didj Custom Gaming System, this handheld platform is Leapfrog's attempt to provide its core audience with a gaming system that will keep Leapster graduates happy. The jazzier looking system is meant to be played by kids ages 6-10 and must compete with the Nintendo DS for kids' gaming dollars. Let's see how it stacks up.

The Didj is smaller in size than the Leapster but retains some of its familiarity by using the same button setup with a multidirectional button, "Home" and "Help" buttons, and the two "A" and "B" buttons. But it adds upper right and left buttons, a configuration that is similar to the Nintendo DS. However, unlike the Nintendo DS and the Leapster, the screen is not touch sensitive.

So how do you play on this new Didj system? You revert to the old push-a-variety-of-buttons scheme, typically found in earlier game systems. Cutting edge? Not exactly.

But what the Didj does offer that is progressive is the ability to customize your gaming experience, both in how you play and what educational content the game drills.

As for customized gameplay, depending on the game, you might be able to change the look of the background in the game or the in-game avatar. Perhaps you can add special powers to your character. Each of the Didj games is different, and offers its own customization.

In terms of customizing the educational content, the Didj games cover math, spelling and language arts for grades first through fourth, and for each game, you can select what skills you want drilled. For example, if the game is drilling multiplication, you can choose which numbers you want in the problems, or if the game is covering spelling, you can choose which words to practice.

To use the customization, you must load the system software on a computer and then connect the Didj to the Internet using a USB port. The Didj will go to Leapfrog Connect, a special Web site that allows you to control what is on the Didj. From Leapfrog Connect you can upload the points (called Bitz) that you have earned in the games and exchange them for items to use within the games.

You can also download some free items for use in your Didj games. This site is also where you control which educational skills the games drill, and for some games, the place to create your own avatar that will appear in the game.

Leapfrog has made its name by creating fun ways for kids to use technology to learn, and Didj continues this mission. As kids get older and more savvy about technology, their expectations about what games should deliver increase. They want better graphics, and the Didj provides that with clean, crisp visuals. They want faster-paced gameplay, and the Didj delivers that as well, particularly in the "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" game (sold separately for $29.99) where you play as Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker and wield your lightsaber as you fight evil droids.

Since this is a new system, the question of how good it will be ultimately depends on how good the games are that play on the system. Jet Pack Heroes, the free game that comes with the system, is mediocre at best. It plays like a slow-moving Mario-type side-scrolling game where the educational content has been placed on top of the gaming experience. You stop the gaming to answer educational questions.

Educational content works better when it is baked into the gameplay and doesn't feel like an add-on. But what is worse is that the game has no save points as you play through its 15 levels. While the game keeps track of your educational progress and the points you earn, you must start at level one and replay the levels whenever you start the game. For kids on the go, where gaming is a diversion to pass the time, this is a turn-off.

Leapfrog has released 10 games to play on the Didj, each selling for $29.99, including ones that feature Indiana Jones, Star Wars: the Clone Wars, Sonic, Nancy Drew, and others. In one called Super Chicks, girls make friends, shop, and become heroines by rescuing citizens. While cute, these rescue missions are somewhat repetitive and the game seems pricey for the amount of content. Ditto with the "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" title, where there are only four levels of gameplay.

While the Didj has potential to be a fun educational gaming system for young elementary school kids, this first wave of games aren't very impressive because they lack depth and have unfriendly save features.

RATING: 3 stars (out of 5) Best for ages 6-10 From Leapfrog, www.leapfrog.com, $89.99.

Jinny Gudmundsen is the kid-tech columnist for USA Today.com and Gannett News Service, and is also the editor of Computing with Kids Ezine (www.ComputingWithKids.com ).