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Go on green adventures with Heroes Joseph Szadkowski, THE WASHINGTON TIMES PUBLICATION: Washington Times, The (DC)
SECTION: FAMILY 

ROMPER ROOM
DATE: May 3, 2009
Page: M16
Extend a child's Earth Day activities with Habitat Heroes (www.habitat heroes.com, free with registration), a global social-networking Web site designed for ecowarriors of all ages, but geared for the younger set. 

Sharon Lowe, an Australian mother of three, worked with environmental experts to develop an online destination that would teach children about the Earth, conservation and preservation. The result is a top-notch playroom that serves as an effective information and teaching tool. It will work for toddlers to tweens, keeping them engaged and learning. 

Looking like a Disney Playhouse wonderland, Habitat Heroes is a great starting place for fun mixed with meaningful discussions on a variety of environmental and eco subjects. As children grow with the game, they will walk away with environmental messages through the series of challenges. 

After registering with the site, the player doesn't choose just any avatar to play a series of ecology-based games and quizzes - he gets a creature on the endangered species list. For example, there are only 3,600 black rhinoceroses alive today, so only 3,600 black rhino avatars are available on Habitat Heroes. Once an animal is chosen, a fact box pops up, including animal habitat location, activities, food, weight, facts and extinction factors. 

Children enter Habitat Heroes at the Waterhole where they then embark on a worldwide journey as they visit Africa, the Middle East, America, the Arctic, Australia, China and India. Each environment has two games, two quizzes, and fun facts and a quizmaster character to find. Answer the quizmaster's question correctly and win a new inventory item - from a habitat enhancement to food. 

Games require that players perform an action using the mouse or keypad. Game play may be too challenging for younger players, however having challenges at different skill levels allows the game to be intriguing to a larger audience, and to grow with young users. 

Africa's challenges include Rhino Rescue, in which players use the mouse to aim and shoot nets to capture poachers, or the timed Play Pumps Water Wheel challenge that requires players connect water pipe sections to bring water to a village. 

Quizzes offer five multiple-choice questions that cover a wide variety of subjects, but match the environment the player is in. For example, when visiting the Play Pumps area, questions are about water, its importance and how there is really not enough of it in the world. Some disturbing facts are offered, such as the number of children who die due to lack of clean water, so parents may want to be ready to balance those answers with some positives. 

At the end of any challenge, game or quiz, the player collects Creature Cash and some new eco facts. Creature Cash can be used to purchase clothes, food, new habitats and amenities to trick out a cool polar bear den. 

Habitat Heroes also includes a chat area that parents must give permission for children to enter. The chat area is only open when site overseers are monitoring the environment, offering an extra bit of security. 

There is a ton to learn on many different levels while playing Habitat Heroes. I learned one environmental challenge in Africa is caused when weathering and erosion cause rocks to disintegrate and decay, leaching harmful concentrations of minerals into the surrounding soil. 

Areas I particularly liked included visiting India and seeing the different saris at the Sari Shanty and the Taj Mahal where I learned that India banned tiger hunting in 1970, launching Project Tiger in 1972 to protect its native Bengal tiger. 

While traveling this virtual world, stop by Australia and visit the Underwater Camera Quest, created with the Australian Conservation Foundation. Here visitors choose one of the habitats found around Australia, from snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef to scuba diving under the sea. 

Players study the guidebook to learn about animals in that habitat and then start swimming to find animals and take pictures, being careful not to run out of air. 

   

Some of the games, such as Connectcatastrophe and the Sushi Adventures in China are hard. However there are plenty of games for the younger player, too, making Habitat Heroes a place for the young and young at heart to enjoy. 

Game Bytes
Here's an abbreviated look at some multimedia titles for everyone in the family. 

* Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure (from Electronics Arts for DS, $29.99) - The fashionably dressed wield enormous power in this fantastic game that mixes block-swapping conundrums with side-scrolling combat. 

Meet the elderly Henry Hatsworth, a proper Brit who knows how to wear a bowler, and the most popular member of the Pompous Adventurer's Club. His explorations are legendary and he is now after the mythical Golden Suit, which translates into a player controlling Mr. Hatsworth within a pair of worlds, through five dangerous locales and 30 levels of action. 

On the top DS screen, we get the traditional fighting, jumping, climbing, boss battles and gem collecting one would find in the typical platformer. It's good stuff that also includes his use of a robot suit, a secondary set of projectile weapons and cashing in found riches for upgrades. 

The gaming twist begins as Mr. Hatsworth defeats some of the enemy creatures. They become trapped in cubes that move to the puzzle realm, which resides on the bottom screen. A player must finagle the blocks to match three in a row. Keep the pieces from filling up the board, which pushes the creatures back to the top screen where they can attack again. Making block matches releases special powers that can be used in the top screen to defeat monsters permanently. 

Although the game uses little of the touch control scheme, it's the kind of experience a DS owner dreams of with a fun story, a decent level of difficulty, those screen-splitting visuals and an accessible control scheme to keep him very involved. 

* Bonsai Barber (from Nintendo, for the Wii, downloadable WiiWare for 1,000 WiiPoints) - A player must use his finest pruning and styling techniques to satisfy a bunch of finicky foliage in this too weird, too cute first-person grooming game. 

According to a newspaper story found at the start of the action, a new barber - the lucky player - has arrived in town. His shop immediately fills with customers, including Mr. Stickle, an angry stalk of celery, and Maizy, a piece of sweet corn with too much frizz on top. 

Armed with scissors controlled by a Wiimote (with a touch that a surgeon would admire), the barber follows a customer's orders with help from a translucent template, chopping off leaves, twigs and branches in design with the required cut. 

Don't let the hand-drawn, 2-D design distract from the game's beauty as the veggies and fruits extend some sass, show bursts of emotion and can be a bit fidgety during the process. 

Tools available include an electric shaver, a comb (to force branches in place), a water bottle (to immediately regrow branches in case of a too-close cut) and even some paint buckets to frost the finished Pompadour. 

Once a cut is complete, the barber gets a star rating and, for no particular reason, must bang a gong to call in the next lucky customer. 

Only five customers can be served per day, but that doesn't mean the fun has to end. A potted plant is always available to practice more than a dozen styles. Or, open a scrapbook to view customers' presents and bios, awards, postcards and photos of recent triumphs. Those photos can even be e-mailed to friends via the WiiConnect24 system. 

If I include the fun found when a group of family members hang out for the limited playtime, 10 bucks is a reasonable price to pay for the silliness of Bonsai Barber. 

* Send e-mail to jszadkowski@ washingtontimes.com. 

Caption: [NO CREDIT] 

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