Allie's Playhouse, The Musical World of Professor Piccolo. (educational software from OpCode Interactive) (Software Review) (Multimedia PC) (Evaluation)
by Scott A. May
Mention multimedia software, and most people immediately think of megabytes of graphics and full-motion video. For others, sound is the most dynamic side of the MPC coin. Few publishers exploit the audio potential of multimedia better than Opcode Interactive in its premier educational titles, Allie's Playhouse and The Musical World of Professor Piccolo.
Allie's Playhouse welcomes kids, ages 3 to 9, with a warm and lively collection of 16 interactive activities. Allie is a friendly green alien whose living room and kitchen are packed with all kinds of fun objects: musical instruments, games, animals, books, and pictures. To explore something, just click on it with the mouse. The program's curriculum of early childhood learning skills includes counting, spelling, world geography, telling time, sound and object recognition, problem solving, and creative expression.
Before entering the playhouse, kids first "pick a friend" from a group of six boys and girls. These digitized playmates serve as narrators, explaining rules and onscreen descriptions in detail. Allie is also on hand to offer words of encouragement and praise. Most activities offer kids free-form exploration, followed by a series of games to test their knowledge. The program's best sections include a music synthesizer, for recording and playing original tunes; Mr. Clock and Digi, talking analog and digtal clocks; Animal Farm, for sound and picture matching; a coloring book with optional printer output; and a tape recorder with 16 sing-along nursery rhymes.
The high-resolution graphics are appropriately silly and inviting (from a kid's point of view), but the CD-ROM features surprisingly little animation. As noted earlier, the program's greatest attribute is its outstanding use of sound--not just standard WAVE effects, but extensive use of MIDI instruments and true CD audio for full-throated speech and resounding stereo music. Few MPC products on the market make simultaneous use of all three sound sources.
Opcode's second CD-ROM product, The Musical World of Professor Piccolo, features even greater use of the full MPC sound spectrum. The program offers a comprehensive guide to music history, instruments, style, form, and technique. There's even a 12-step interactive course in music theory that takes you from the basics (notation, pitch, and intervals) to advanced study (rhythm, key signatures, chords, and dynamics).
Marketed for ages 8 and up, this amazing product is recommended for anyone who enjoys music, regardless of background or experience. About the only thing it doesn't do is teach you how to play an instrument. However, after a few sessions with your endearing host, Professor Piccolo (who sounds like someone's doddering old aunt, with a head cold), you might feel compelled to sit down at the piano or pick up a guitar.
Your journey begins in the center of Music Town, where various music establishments line the streets. The program distills musical heritage down to four fundamental styles: classical, choral, jazz, and rock. To learn more about a particular style, simply click on the appropriate club, symphony hall, or church.
Enter the Jazz Club, and listen to real jazz music--spotlighting individual instruments or the entire ensemble. You can also read or hear (courtesy of smooth CD-audio narration) about jazz history and what makes jazz unique. One of the best features common to each section is the step-by-step breakdown of song structure and formulas.
Other places to visit include the town library, where you can research musical terms and study entire instrument families. Here, you'll find one of the program's few discernible faults--a questionable lack of distinction between instruments used in disparate musical genres. To illustrate, the description and audio samples for organ are identical for both choral and jazz styles. Your final stop in Music Town is the games parlor, where you can test your knowledge of classical instruments, history, and music theory.
As MPC products go, both Opcode titles are extremely small: 9MB for Allie and 14MB for the Professor. Indeed, each program's heftiest allotment of CD-ROM space goes for audio tracks, totaling 65 minutes in the playhouse and 72 minutes in Music Town. Fortunately, there's far more to quality MPC programming than size alone. Opcode Interactive's foray into Windows multimedia is a rousing success, with hopefully bigger and better projects on the horizon.