Review: The Very Hungry Caterpillar's ABCs (WiiWare)

Often imitated but never duplicated

Everyone knows that caterpillars are excellent at education by munching, mostly because of the work of Eric Carle. 30 million copies of his book The Very Hungry Caterpillar have been sold worldwide since its release in 1969. Now, the distinct artwork and simple teaching style of the classic come to WiiWare in the form of The Very Hungry Caterpillar's ABCs, and they are just as effective at aiding young readers now as they were forty years ago. If your child is in the phase during which Elmo is taken seriously and helping Dora explore is still an academic challenge, this game will be very helpful in familiarising him or her with the foundations of literacy. They won't be directing a starving insect to eat the alphabet; instead they'll be exploring the wonderful world of preschool-level word identification. There are four activities for the kids and an additional "for the parents" menu so you can monitor their progress.

You control the game by simply pointing and clicking with the Remote. The Wii has opened up a whole new avenue of learning with its simple to understand controls, and this game is a perfect example of how. With a little instruction, an average four year old should be able to learn to operate the game all by himself or herself with no problem.

The first activity lays out the letters of the alphabet in a grid and the player is gently invited to pick one. Once one is chosen, the soothing voice of the narrator repeats the name of the letter and shows a picture of a word that begins with it. For example, clicking "Z" will show a zebra, and each letter has a couple different words associated with it. There is nothing to really play in this mode; it's just the simple fun of choosing letters and learning words.

The next activity is a vocabulary quiz. The game will state a word and ask you to choose the correct picture. This prompts jubilant positive reinforcement, with confetti flying across the screen and an enthusiastic "Good job!" from the narrator. An incorrect answer only leads to a gentle "That was close!" or "Keep trying!” The game keeps track of how well your child scores and saves the data in the parents' menu.

Children will most likely love the Animal Stamps section, in which they choose a stamp from the bottom of the screen and decorate a picture however they like. There are many types of stamps, and new stamps will appear each time they use one until they've reached the maximum number of stamps that can be used on a single screen. Once a picture is completed, it is displayed full-screen, and then automatically saved for use as a screen saver. You can set the amount of time the game has to remain idle for the screen saver to activate in the options menu.

The final activity is called Colour, Colour, Colour. In this game you use the cursor to erase a chosen colour, revealing a hidden picture. Simply choose a colour and wave at the screen randomly until a picture emerges. This is the one part of the game that a child may have some trouble with, because it doesn't reveal a picture until you've erased enough of the chosen colour. The cursor doesn't erase in a traditional way; it does so in star-shaped stamps that prevent you from completely clearing away the unwanted colour. This will likely lead to a child seeing that the picture is a tree, for example, and not understanding why the game won't let them continue on, simply because they missed a small part of the outline that isn't very distinguished in the first place.

The visuals are top-notch and perfectly suited to aid young readers. Of the myriad games that boast "charming storybook visual styles", The Very Hungry Caterpillars ABCs is one of the best. The illustrations of Eric Carle have been celebrated for decades, and the pictures are simple but engaging, stimulating the imagination and opening the pathway to learning. Small details like the leaves of trees moving slightly bring the game alive. The music and narration are sweet and soothing and evoke the fun of early learning. There's a nice variety to the tracks, and they perfectly compliment the bright, textured art. The narrator herself will become a familiar friend to young readers, always helpful and never even the slightest bit negative.

There is additional downloadable content available for three of the games, and it comes at a steep price. For 700 points you can add a verb-focused set of 30 words to the Alphabet and What Is This games. For another 700 points you can add animals that live in the forest and sea to your set of stamps for the Animal Stamps game. The additional content is aimed at a slightly older audience of five to six year olds, some of whom would probably run and hide from having to play such a game. By that age, they may be able to handle more complex activities, so they'll probably see this as too easy and boring.

Conclusion

The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s ABCs is one of the best edutainment games available on the WiiWare service. Your three to four year old will love it and will absorb the basics of letters and colours in a fun way. With book sales declining, it’s nice to see that the hungry caterpillar can live on and continue to educate children in this new age of tiny computers and motion-sensitive home gaming consoles. Anyone older than four will likely be bored to tears very quickly, so just keep in mind for whom this game is intended. The colour-erasing game doesn’t operate as smoothly as the rest, so expect to have to help the kids if they get stuck. The downloadable content has a steep price for what you’ll be getting, and we recommend that you pass on it unless your child just can’t put the game down.

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