Looking for something different, fun, and educational? This CD-ROM works children's brains in fantastic ways as they learn to distinguish sounds and musical instruments. The premise of this musical game is to save the Nutcracker by earning nine magical keys through a series of activities.
At the main screen of the program, children are welcomed to the "magic house of music" and presented with a number of activities to choose from. Many of these are games and puzzles and, certainly, the program's most entertaining and educational offerings are the puzzles. The Nutcracker Game presents eight musical puzzles featuring an equal number of songs from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Children listen to the music (it could be the Russian Dance, March, and so forth) and then decide which four musical instruments are used in the song. For example, kids listen to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and they experiment with the given musical instruments, placing them on the stage and deciding whether they are the correct instruments. In this case, the vibraphone, saxophone, bass, and violin are the instruments used, but it may take children some time to figure this out. In the process, they learn to distinguish the unique sounds of various instruments. Another similar puzzle activity is entitled the Children's Album Game. This features eight musical puzzles using eight pieces of music from Tchaikovsky's Children's Album, such as the Neapolitan Song. This set of puzzles is trickier simply because the number of instruments playing in each song is unknown.
Another fun and challenging game is entitled The Nuthouse. In this activity, children listen to one of eight different pieces of music from The Nutcracker (such as Dance of the Reed-Flutes and Waltz of the Flowers), and then decide which of the eight "crooked mirrors" is playing a distorted version of the song. Most children who own a fair number of children's software games will find The Funky Monkey game (which involves repeating notes on a vibraphone) and Musi-Cards (a memory game with sounds and pictures) rather familiar fare. However, they are both well done and can be played at a number of challenge levels. Find Me on the Tree challenges children to match short musical pieces at different challenge levels. Loopy Tunes doesn't require too much skill or time investment but it does introduce children to the concept of musical loops.
One of our favorite activities, and one that younger children will likely enjoy the most, is The Orchestra Game. This wonderful gem of an activity asks children to match musical sounds to musical instruments. Each time a match is made, an animal or character moves onto the stage and plays the instrument. Here, a mouse plays the cello, a hippo plays the harp, a zebra plays the bassoon, and so forth. Once all of the instruments and players are on stage, the entire orchestra plays a song. Each instrument or group of instruments is highlighted as the piece plays. This is a wonderful exercise in sound discrimination. Children hear and see the parts that make up the whole. The same animals and their accompanying instruments appear in the game's Musical Encyclopedia. A short verse is recited for each instrument (such as "Who's cute with a trunk and a flute?" for the flute-playing elephant) and information is offered about each instrument (such as the fact that a piano is actually one of the percussions). This latter offering is text-only, so unless children are fluent readers, they will need someone to help them.
A Music Trivia game features multiple-choice questions that test children's knowledge of music, instruments, and facts surrounding Tchaikovsky. Some of the activities are strictly informational and require kids to read text, such as Tchaikovsky's Biography and the history of The Nutcracker Ballet.
Kids can travel to the Listening Room and listen to all of the musical tracks featured in the game. Here, kids choose a labeled disk and drag it to the gramophone to listen to their favorites, such as the Chinese Dance or March. It is wonderful to witness young players becoming acquainted with the songs through the puzzles, and then recognizing and enjoying them in the Listening Room!
Young testers came away from their first experience with the game not only with a better musical vocabulary, but also able to distinguish the unique sounds of a number of musical instruments. They continue to enjoy the game, repeating puzzles and games.
Note that this review is for the 2002 edition, which is an updated version of the original release.