The Didj ups the ante on gameplay mechanics and graphics so that the games look like the handheld games that you might find on the Nintendo DS or Sony’s PlayStation Portable. But unlike those other handheld games, the Didj games weave educational content into the video gaming.
The Didj is smaller in size than the Leapster but retains some of its familiarity by using the same button setup with a multidirectional button, home and help buttons, and the two “A” and “B” buttons. But, it adds upper right and left buttons, a configuration that is similar to the PSP; and unlike the Leapster, the screen is not touch-sensitive.
What’s interesting about this Didj system is that you can customize some of its content. The games cover core educational content in math, spelling, and language arts for grades first through fourth, and for each game, you can select what skills you want drilled. For example, if the game is drilling multiplication, you can choose which numbers you want drilled, or if the game is covering spelling, you can choose which words to practice.
You can also customize other aspects of the gameplay, depending on the game. You might be able to change the look of the background in the game or the in-screen avatar. Perhaps you can add special powers to your in-game character. Each Didj game is different, and offers its own customization.
To use the customization, you must load the system software on a computer and then connect the Didj to the Internet using a USB port. The Didj will go to Leapfrog Connect, a special website that allows you to control what is on the Didj. From Leapfrog Connect you can upload the points (called Bitz) that you have earned in the games and exchange them for items to use within the games. You can also download some free items for use in your Didj games. This site is also where you control which educational skills the games drill, and for some games, the place to create your own avatar that will appear in the game.
Leapfrog has made its name by creating fun ways for kids to use technology to learn, and Didj continues this mission. As kids get older and more savvy about technology, their expectations about what games should do also increases. They want better graphics, and the Didj provides that with clean, crisp visuals. They want faster-paced gameplay, and the Didj provides that as well, particularly in the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” game (sold separately for $29.99) where you play as Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker and wield your lightsaber as you fight evil droids.
But Leapfrog made some tradeoffs when designing this system. Unlike the Leapster, this system does not have a touch-sensitive screen on which to play. Instead, the Didj uses a variety of buttons, which creates a complex button-pushing system of game mechanics. In “Jet Pack Heroes,” the free game that comes with the system, the game does not save your progress as you play through the 15 side-scrolling levels to save Energy Buddies from bad guys. While the game keeps track of your educational progress and the points you earn, you must start at level one and replay the levels whenever you start the game. For kids on the go, where gaming is a diversion to pass the time, say in the car on the way to soccer practice, this lack of saving if a turn-off. The “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” has a similar feature of not saving sublevels, and only saving when you have completed a full level, which causes you to replay areas you have already beat.
Since this is a new system, the question of how good it will be ultimately depends on how good the games are that play on the system. “Jet Pack Heroes” is average fare. It plays like a slow-moving Mario-type side-scrolling game where the educational content has been placed on top of the gaming experience. You stop the gaming to answer educational questions. Educational content works better when it is baked into the gameplay and doesn’t feel like an add-on.
Didj is releasing with ten games, each selling for $29.99, including ones that feature Indiana Jones, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Sonic, Nancy Drew and others. In “Super Chicks,” girls make friends, shop, and become heroines by rescuing citizens of this world. While cute, these rescue missions are somewhat repetitive and the game seems pricey for the amount of content. Ditto with the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” title, where there are only four levels of gameplay.
At release, the Didj has potential as being a fun educational gaming system for young elementary school kids; but some of these early games seem to lack depth and have unfriendly save features.
All tech products are judged on a five star scale by looking at the following factors: fun, education, ease of use, value, and technical.