When should you introduce your child to a TV games console? I planned on waiting until my son was four to begin his console education. We'd start with old Atari titles from my childhood, before slowly working through classics from the likes of Sega and Nintendo and bringing him up-to-date. But that all went out of the window when we were sent the LeapFrog LeapTV games console to review.
For the uninitiated, the LeapTV is a new games console which has been designed for children who are too young for a traditional games console. It's been described as a bit Wii and bit Xbox Kinect, because it includes a motion controller and a camera which puts children into the games and gets them moving.
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But for parents eyeing up the LeapTV as a potential Christmas present, its the educational aspect of the console which is probably key in their decision-making. That's because every game on the console has been both educator-approved, and includes elements to help young gamers learn about subjects including Maths, English and Science while playing.
What's in the box, and is setup child's play?
The LeapTV passed its first test with flying colors. We were able to get it up-and-running in under 10 minutes, and that included pausing approximately every seven and a half seconds to answer the recurring "is it ready yet?" question from an anxious-to-play three-year-old. He went quiet once given the quirky shape-changing controller to play with, even though it hadn't yet got its two AA batteries in.
The simple setup involved connecting the console to the TV via HDMI, attaching the LeapTV camera and popping it by the TV, and then plugging in the power. A very simple menu then walks you through the process, including pairing the bundled controller, connecting to the internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet, and setting up profiles for your little ones, including info like their date of birth so games can be set at the right level of difficulty.
The only delay comes if you don't already have a LeapFrog account and need to go and register one on another device. While you could skip this process, it would mean missing out on the bonus free Pet Play World game. This would be a shame as it introduces gamers to the three ways to play on the Leap TV: Body Motion, Classic Controller and Pointer Play.
In Body Motion games, kids' actions are incorporated into the game via the camera which is optimized for them. If you want to join in, all but the most vertically-challenged adults will probably need to be playing on their knees. Classic Controller games involve using the controller buttons in a more traditional manner while in its boomerang shape, and for Pointer Play you press a button to click it straight and then wave it around like a Nintendo Wiimote.
The main interface is a simple carousel of the games you've either got installed on the 16 GB internal memory, or inserted. A nice touch for younger gamers who aren't yet reading is that menu options are also spoken, and they'll also get told what sort of gameplay a selected title uses, and whether they need to transform the controller. A handy "?" button can also be pressed for more information, while a parental section lets you manage user profiles, and all the menus look clean and sharp, showing off the HD 720p graphics.
The serious business of playing
After being told that he needed to use the controller to select which game he wanted to play, my son Emmett instinctively jabbed the chunk of white plastic into the TV screen. Ouch! I guess he's used to prodding at which of his favorite apps he wants to play with on the iPad. Anyway, after a little lesson in how to use the analogue thumbstick and buttons to make selections, he was soon able to navigate his way around.
The first game Emmett was itching to play was LeapFrog Kart Racing: Supercharged! After selecting his racer of choice (Mr. Pencil) and track in a very Mario Kart manner, he then had to answer six basic math questions to "tune up" his kart. After getting most of the questions right, he was soon bouncing his way around the track using motion controls. Within a few tries, with the math questions getting more age-appropriate, he'd got the hang of steering and was having fun.
Next up was Pet Play World, where you get to look after and play with multiple pets of your choice (dragons and monkeys are on offer along with cats and dogs). Here, a number of mini-games show off the various ways to play LeapTV. In Salon gamers have to jump around on-camera to turn off flashing lights and wash their pet, and Sprint sees users answer questions before playing a basic platform-style game. These games were a hit, partly I think, because of how well LeapTV responds to children's movements. If they were faster and harder to control, I'm sure we'd have encountered more frustrations.
When I finally got to play the LeapTV for myself, I was surprised at just how slow and basic everything felt, from the speed of gameplay to the quality of graphics. However, I think that's by design rather than a limitation of the hardware's 1 GHz Quad core processor and 1 GB RAM. Controls which felt sluggish and unresponsive to me, had been just right for my son. Similarly, the basic graphics were bold and clear for him to see, which I guess is the whole point. Being so optimized for little ones, this isn't a console you'll enjoy gaming on by yourself, but it can still be fun to play with them.
The selection of titles on offer will likely also hit the spot with younger gamers, and the chances are some of your child's favorite characters will be represented. There are games featuring Disney's Sofia the First, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Spiderman plus Pixar favorites including Nemo, Mike and Sulley from Monsters Inc, and the gang from Toy Story amongst others. Despite the console looking like a portable CD player (remember those?) these games come on cartridges or, from December, as digital downloads.
Learning or just having fun?
As we've already made clear, the gameplay and graphics of the LeapTV are not a reason to opt for the system over another console, not by a long stretch. But the guaranteed educational aspect of the games could well be! That's because every single game on the system incorporates key elements of learning from across a broad curriculum.
The educational aspects of games also develop with your child, so whether they are three or eight years-old, they should get an appropriate challenge. In our experience this worked well, and while on some occasions the questions were too difficult for Emmett, the next time he encountered them they'd have leveled-down and become a bit easier.
But it's not just young minds that get a work-out, as many of the LeapTV games involve physical movement seen by the motion-sensing camera … and they left me exhausted just watching. Being a typically lively child, games which involved jumping around obviously were some of Emmett's favorites. Games like the LeapTV Sports and Dance titles, which teach mathematics and reading in the process, really are something you can't get on most tablets.
It's interesting to see how these learning aspects are incorporated into games, too. On some, like Kart Racing or Sprint within Pet Play World, it can feel like a chore which has to be completed to get to the traditional playing part. There was more than the odd occasion in which Emmett tried to hand over the controller saying "you can do this bit" when we reached an educational section. However, in others, like Pet Play World Salon where it's a core part of the game, it seems to work much better.
An educational professional who happened to be visiting us while we played on the LeapTV said they thought it was great to see educational games on the TV, and were impressed by the level of learning that was going on. However, they did later say that in games in which the educational parts feel less integral, you might as well be letting a child play on an appropriate game on a typical console as a reward for doing their homework.
Keeping parents happy
While parents who buy the LeapTV will no doubt be please to see their little ones learning while having fun, the lack of parental controls could be a concern for some. Once up and running, the LeapTV is there to be played with, with any installed games or cartridges that are lying around available. It's worth noting though that while the console connects to the internet there's no browser to worry about, or any way for users to communicate with others.
I was slightly disappointed that parents are not able to set time limits for gaming sessions, allow a set amount of gaming time as a reward for completing a chore, or control settings via a smart-device. These are all features which are becoming more common on kid-focused tablets. Then again, you're most likely to be in the same room as your young children as they are playing on the LeapTV anyway.
We were not able to try out buying and installing digital downloads of games as that side of LeapTV is not yet live. It should be turned on in December when users will be able to make purchases of digital downloads (which will include games, music and videos) direct from the console itself.
Our experience of the LeapTV was a generally positive one. I liked that my son got to enjoy playing video games, but without the worry he was going to encounter inappropriate subject matter. The educational and movement aspects of games also helped alleviate the feeling of bad-parenting that you get when seeing your three-year-old clutching a game controller.
Despite a few early frustrations when he couldn't control games as well as he'd like (he's still at the lower end of the LeapTV target three to eight-year-old demographic) Emmett also seemed to get a kick out of playing on the TV. However, whether it was a kick worth the US$150 for the LeapTV console, $30 per cartridge game, and another $30 for a second controller to allow multiplayer gaming, I'm not quite so sure.
That brings me on to the question of whether you should buy the LeapTV. If you've got a child who is too young for a traditional console, maybe three to five years old, but who is desperate to play video games on the TV, or that you want to experience video games, this is a great worry-free way to do it. They get to play on the TV, and you get to smugly know they are actually learning.
However, if your would-be gamer is that little bit older, or has already experienced video games elsewhere, the LeapTV might not cut it with them, even if you would prefer to see them playing on this over another console.
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