With the introduction of VSmile TV Learning System, VTech is trying to break into a new demographic for video gaming: preschoolers. Hoping to appeal to preschoolers as young as 3, VSmile touts learning through video gaming and showcases a controller with outsized buttons and an over-large joystick.
The system, which evokes memories of Nintendo 64 with its tinny music and less-than-state-of-the-art graphics, plugs directly into modern televisions. The gameplay is also retro, as kids play through side-scrolling games that require them to walk, crawl, jump and dodge. However, instead of Mario and the gang, kids now play as Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse, Scooby-Doo, and even Spider-Man.
But here’s the rub: the gameplay is too difficult for the preschool crowd. Kid-testers younger than age 5 quickly lost interest because they didn’t have the hand-eye coordination and patience required to make characters jump at just the right time to land on moving platforms.
The system provides a two-player option, but VTech missed the boat here too, because instead of having them play at the same time, it makes each child wait to take a turn.
The system comes with “Alphabet Park Adventure” software. The adventure part of the software offers some educational aspects, but they are clearly secondary to the gaming aspects. A separate section called Learning Zone offers stronger educational content. The same holds true for Winnie the Pooh: The Honey Hunt, a software title that is sold separately for $20. In the adventure mode, most of the learning is as mundane as guiding Winnie the Pooh to honey pots that have a letter, color, shape, or number.
Unlike Leapster, a better gaming system for young children, there is no tutorial mode to explain concepts when children are struggling.
Bottom line: With the current software, this system isn’t a good fit for preschoolers, but can be fun for 5-7 year-olds looking to play video games. You might want to consider it if you have a child who is between 5-7 years old and he/she has older siblings who are gaming—this is a way to help the younger sibling fit in. However, if your objective is to provide quality learning in a gaming format, choose Leapster instead.
All tech products are judged on a five star scale by looking at the following factors: fun, education, ease of use, value, and technical.