The Leapster brand name has been around a few years, creating hardware platforms that are designed to educate young children in interactive and entertaining ways. Using video games as their diplomat, children gain the ability to learn classroom skills while playing an entertaining game that revolves around popular TV, movie, and video game characters. Their newest handheld device, called the DIDJ, improves upon their old model in nearly every way.
From a physical stand point, the DIDJ system most closely resembles the original GBA with its “A” and “B” face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and a screen in the middle of the system. Similarly, the game cartridges load from the top of system, and it has an On/Off power slider, a volume slider, as well as a backlight slider. Each slider is a little hard to access, but it was probably designed that way because this unit will be in kids’ hands. Because the sliders are indented, a sturdy fingernail will be needed to flick the unit’s power on and off, as well as change the volume level. It is, however, very convenient to have the ability to change the screen’s backlighting at anytime. In comparison, the DS has this option, but the user has to access it during the system’s main startup screen.
Cartridge sizes are about the width of a GBA game but with the structure and thickness of a DS cartridge. A single bigger sized speaker is placed at the base of the unit in between the headphone input and AC adapter slot. Unlike the GBA or DS, this system also has a few extra buttons on its face: a Home button, which takes the user back to the initial start up screen, and a “?” button that gives the user a hint during gameplay. The later especially makes this device young-gamer friendly.
As a whole, the unit is built rather solidly and all the buttons perform very well. The clickiness of the top shoulder buttons are especially comfortable and satisfying to push. Using the d-pad is a little tricky when hitting an angle option like up-right, or down-left. But I doubt that this system will be releasing any fighting games, so don’t be worried about throwing quarter circle fireballs. My only real complaint about the hardware’s physical performance is its weight. Although it is about the same width of the DS and is a little thicker, it weighs significantly more than any other handheld system, including the first generation PSP. This increased weight may make extended gaming sessions a little more difficult, especially for younger gamers. However, having a heavier system is not all doom and gloom. Strangely enough, it makes the unit feel incredibly strong and durable, two features that can go a long way when considering the target audience.
A good chunk of the unit’s weight comes from the four AA batteries that are used to power the system. Unlike the previous green Leapster handheld, batteries are now evenly distributed on each side of the system instead of packing them all in the center. Negatively, opening up this battery compartment is rather difficult. Engravings on each battery compartment suggest using a coin to pry open the battery door. After several attempts, the coin trick felt like I was damaging the system and I quickly switched to a flathead screwdriver. This tactic worked much better. It is a pain to switch the batteries, but this will prevent youngsters from playing with batteries. Parents will need to swap them out.
Even without a game cartridge installed, the DIDJ still has three options when the power is turned on: My Didijs, My Didj, and My Games. The first thing the player will need to do is create a profile and Mii-like character called a didj in the My Didijs section. This didj then becomes that player’s gaming avatar, just like when playing on a Nintendo Wii. The My Didj option lets the player change options on the system like background color and education grade. My Games gives the player access to downloaded and cartridge based games. My only complaint is contained within the very first screen when the system boots up. The bottom of the screen clearly states to select a profile with the “A” button, but hit the “B” button to go back. However, there is no screen to go back to making this press B instruction pointless and confusing.
The system’s splash screen is surprisingly well done. Everything is easy to navigate and sports a very modern/futuristic look. Even the music that plays while navigating these menus sports a mysterious-space exploration theme. It reminds me a lot of falling down into a random dungeon or cave in any Zelda game, which is a very good thing. Turning on and shutting the system down, however, is not instantaneous. It may seem like an insignificant fact, but it really does hinder the portable access of this system. Waiting a good 10-20 seconds to reach the initial splash screen is a bit much.
Taking a nod to Microsoft’s Xbox 360, each DIDJ game has unlockable “badges” that are essentially a different type of gamerscore/achievement point system. Taking it one step further that Microsoft’s addicting achievement point structure, badges are turned into BITZ, which act as currency to buy new things for your game online. Each game uses BITZ differently: one game might add new animations while another might unlock more costumes. Just like gamerpoints, using this badge system will make gamers play each game in new and different ways to unlock more content. It is a great way to keep gamers gaming and self-extends the life of any cartridge. Using this feature in DIDJ is a most welcomed feature.
One aspect of this system that is marketed heavily is the ability to link this system to your computer to access more content and to personalize your child’s learning experience. Bundled with the hardware is a disk that contains DIDJ software and a USB cable to connect to your computer (PC or MAC). After you install the software, users can then go online to make and manage their DIDJ. For example, there might be a DIDJ game that is based around spelling. Parents can then go online and create new words for their child to learn. It is an interesting concept, but it begs the questions, how often will this feature really be used. Coming from a tech savvy gamer, I personally dreaded the fact of installing another program on my computer, hooking it up with a USB cable, making an account, and managing everything online. Not that this setup is broken, I would have very much rather preferred to just use a built in WiFi connection to log into my online DIDJ account. If homes are hooked up to the internet, they will most likely have a wireless connection. Tapping into this and doing everything from the system’s start up screen would have been a lot more convenient and user friendly. Connecting to the internet the old fashion way is fine but involves a little more effort.
Jetpack Heroes is a free downloadable game that comes with every DIDJ hardware purchase and uses your personalized didj as the playable character. Although this game is download only, the DIDJ currently has a library of about 10 games sold at retail with more on the way. DIDJ games come in a case that looks similar to a DVD case. Upon opening a game case, game cards are stored on the right side while the instructions are placed on the left, just like any retail video game for any system. This may seem like a minor detail, but the inside packaging is rather bland. After opening up Sonic The Hedgehog, I found it disappointing that the instruction manual is a basic black and white two-fold insert. It really isn’t much of an instruction booklet. Some of it is even in another language. Point being, don’t expect too much help when popping open a game case. Putting games back into their tiny holder slot is a little tricky too.
The DIDJ is definitely a more grown up system as compared to the last generation Leapster. With a targeted age group from 6-10 years of age, gamers can expect a slightly higher quality in gaming. Besides having a more sophisticated interface, the games themselves are more “games” than “learning tools” as opposed to the original Leapster too. This definitely provides a more entertaining experience and treats the younger gamer more maturely. For example, in the original Leapster version of Sonic X, players basically ran from the left of the screen to the right at a very slow pace, occasionally running into a math problem. Running fast, jumping on enemies, and fighting bosses were entirely absence from this game, which is shame because it should have been the focus. Instead in the DIDJ version of Sonic The Hedgehog, players are basically playing a modified version of the original Sonic that was on Sega Genesis many years ago. Running super fast, fighting Dr. Eggman, collecting chaos emeralds – its all here in this DIDJ game. The only difference is there are large gold rings spread throughout each level. Once collected, the player will participate in a spelling mini game. Following completion of the mini-game, the player is thrown right back into the action. Just like the badge system, the stronger emphasis on actual gameplay as opposed to cheesy tutorials is looked upon much more favorably.
Leapster has definitely created a more distinguished system for their younger gamers to enjoy. And enjoy they will thanks to all the new features that have been implemented into this product. Personalizing your gaming experience by connecting your DIDJ to your computer is a cool concept, but it would have been better to have onboard WiFi access. The touch screen may be gone, but the graphics and sound quality are infinitely better than the first generation Leapster handheld. The hardware itself is surprisingly sturdy, but the weight of the unit may be troubling for younger gamers. The new Badge/BITZ system is a much welcomed featured and is bounded to be a user favorite. Taking personalization another notch up, different face plates can also be installed on your unit giving it a more unique flair. Although there is a limited amount of games available, the DIDJ is a great alternative to parents who are looking for something more educational for their kids. It definitely has the possibility to produce an addictive mixture of education with entertainment. Costing less that a DS, the DIDJ might be the answer parents are looking for. Just be warned that there is still no multiplayer option, strictly making the DIDJ a solo gaming experience.
Check out the DIDJ website for more info.