Monkey Overboard!
Strange adventures for strange kids, arrrgh!

I have witnessed the integration of developing primates with the silicon and plastic constructions of our darkest nightmares: The future is here, and it's got talking giraffes, hyperactive monkeys, a weird-ass dancing Russian polar bear, and a skeleton king with a cutlass.

See also...
... by Thomas S. Roche
... in the Scope section
... from November 19, 1999

I'm talking, of course, about Zowie's Redbeard's Pirate Quest and Ellie's Enchanted Garden. These are a couple of electronic game boards that plug into your PC so that as the kids play with the figures and toys on the game board, stuff happens on the computer. Besides being strange and inventive kids' games, Redbeard and Ellie are a step away from keyboard culture and even the tired old joystick -- the interface, for all practical purposes, is the game. That's the same way it works in a child's mind: A model of a pirate's ship is transformed by brain power into the real thing, rather than being abstracted out of some meaningless string of keyboard commands.

It could just be because of the XY chromosomes I joyfully sport, but it's a pirate's life for me. Arrrgh! I joined Errol, Ollie, and Nika to help the ghost of Redbeard find his stolen treasure before his arch enemy, the unfortunately-named Duke of Bone. Along the way, I was assailed by Madame Xing's sea monsters (blew 'em away with a cannon!), engaged in swordplay by the Duke's pansy skeleton sailors (slashed 'em into bone meal!), and I handily navigated the treacherous ice maze of the Polar Bear King, who talked suspiciously like the Russian cosmonaut in that old episode of Gilligan's Island.

Sensors in the game pieces tell the computer exactly where your pirate is on the touch-sensitive deck that enables you to move the action figures on the ship to engage in virtual swordplay. Place your figure at the wheel of the ship, and he appears there on the computer screen. Turn the wheel right, and the ship goes right -- toward the Skeleton Sea, perhaps. There's also a telescope that allows you to spy on the Duke's skeletons as they approach you. Stick a pirate next to the cannon, and you can fire at the sea monster that's terrorizing you -- you can even manually twiddle your angle and elevation while frantically pumping the red button. Arrrgh!

Or, to use an example from Ellie's Enchanted Garden, jiggling the monkey icon makes the little bugger start dancing just like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls. Ellie herself is the most bad-ass chica I've run across in quite some time. She's got strangely inverted pigtails, wide-legged Levi's, and those big poofy purple suede shoes the skate punks are always wearing -- and she sports a baseball-sleeved ultra-retro clip-art T-shirt that, in a strange bit of developmental flash-forward, looks like something you might take note of on a slam-dancing twentysomething punkette at an L7 concert. Just before she puts her boot in your nuts.

So what is she doing with these losers? I mean, Lily the giraffe is kind of sweet, but what's with the bird and frog, Panini and Fontaine, respectively? They are not cool at all, they don't do anything but squawk and make surreal comments when you least want them to. And how about that crazyass freaked-out nut-case of a primate? "Hi, I'm Bingo," says the monkey. "Do you like to dance! Dancing, dancing -- I LOVE to dance! Whenever I hear music my feet start a tappin' and before you know it my entire body is moving to the music." Dude, chill. Just chill. Here, have a Valium. Have several. Ellie, if I were you, I'd elope with the giraffe. Seriously.

Like most kids' entertainment, the whole thing is pretty psychedelic and bizarre to the point of absurdity. It's a little like being trapped in Japanese anime. But there's some cool stuff here, including an adjustable background you can slide over to magically transform the garden into a whole new place. Then there's the Crystal Viewer that lets you see what's under the ground, like you have X-ray eyes. You can play hopscotch, hide and seek, or jump rope.

But the problem with Ellie's Enchanted Garden is that you can't actually do anything except play games. And a game about playing games is just too reflexive for my tastes. Things would be a lot more interesting if you could integrate the two games -- if smelly old Redbeard could run his pirate ship up alongside the Enchanted Garden and scream "Arrrgh, avast ye scurvy monkeys! Prepare to be boarded!"

Yeah, 'cept Ellie would kick his pirate ass. And there'd be a new pirate queen on the high seas. Arrrgh!

Aye, landlubbers, Redbeard Roche be far and away the scurviest sea-dog that ever sailed the seas of the Spanish Main. Arrrgh!