Toy Review:    VSmile

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Toy Review: V Smile

Electronic Educational/Edutainment Unit

By Vtech

Our Recommended Age: 4-7

Our Rating: A




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The concept is excellent: the V.Smile is an electronic learning system designed for children too young for traditional video games. The colorful unit plugs into the TV and accepts software in the form of cartridges (called Smartridges). Children use the unit's large, kid-friendly joystick to interact with the software.


Parents of young children, especially those with older siblings, know that their preschoolers are itching to play video games like the "big kids". The V Smile offers games that truly play like video games, but feature a distinct educational component at the same time.


The unit comes with one software title, a Smartridge called Alphabet Park Adventure. Additional Smartridges, many of which feature popular licensed characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Scooby Doo, are sold separately.


The package includes a joystick, but the unit can accept two, and the software titles allow for two-player games. An additional joystick is sold separately for approximately $14.99 US. The one-player games are sufficiently satisfying, however, and will certainly suffice at least for the time being. 


The V.Smile operates either on batteries (3 1.5V C batteries) or with an AC Adaptor. The fact that the AC Adaptor is not included in the package was somewhat disappointing. 


The unit connects to the TV via cables that plug into the video and audio input jacks. Some older TVs don't have a video IN and audio IN terminal, but the unit can also connect through the VCR.


Smartridges feature two types of gameplay—one is Learning Adventure mode, which offers learning games in the context of an adventure, and the other is Learning Zone, which features learning games that are played independently of the adventure. Two difficulty levels are offered (easy and difficult). Kids can choose to play as a girl or boy character, and two-player games are possible (you will need an additional joystick for this option). 


Alphabet Park Adventure, the included software, features a variety of games, found in the Toy Shop, Monsterville, Bug World, and more. Children play with "lives" in the form of hearts (when they lose their energy, they get bumped back in the adventure a little bit). Kids hop on trains, jump over toys, dodge obstacles, duck through tunnels, fly on a magic umbrella, and the like. Some of the games involve answering multiple-choice questions, and kids can use the color buttons on the joystick to provide answers. These buttons light up when it is time to answer a question with color-coded answers. 


The learning challenges are not entirely easy for younger preschoolers, even on the "easy" setting. For example, a game that involves alphabetic order confused our youngest testers. The mechanics of navigating are rather straightforward, and gently challenging. Many kids will need to replay levels quite a few times before getting the hang of it, but this mimics "big kid" video games (who sails through video games the first time they play?) and extends the life of the software. 


If your child is easily frustrated by the fact that he or she is bumped back when a life is lost, and/or if your child is having a hard time answering the multiple-choice questions correctly on the first two tries, you might want to turn to the Options section of the game. There is a "No Lose" setting that is a thoughtful option. As parents, we often tend to arrange that our children experience "errorless" learning. This is particularly important for children who are struggling with learning concepts. However, for the average child, some setbacks and "errors" are healthy and will help prepare kids for the real world. Of course, this is up to individual families, and Vtech's inclusion of two ways to play in terms of how many "chances" children receive is a smart move.


Compared to most software games designed for preschoolers, the Smartridges offer more challenge, and a bit of pressure can be a byproduct. For example, at one point in the game, a (toy) crocodile snaps at the character's heels. For this reason, in addition to the fact that some of the learning challenges are difficult, we recommend the product for children approximately 4 to 7 years old.


The graphics will not impress you like those of current video game units on the market, but most parents won't expect to be floored by graphics in a product with a $59.99 US retail price tag. Kid testers don't notice, although it did affect gameplay at one point when children needed to decipher pictures in order to determine which ones started with a given letter (one picture, for example, was apparently a queen—could have fooled me!). Another nitpick we have is the choice of words for beginning letters—kids need to find an object that starts with the letter "E", and "eye" is the correct answer. Something like "egg" would have been more intuitive. We have the same complaint with many electronic educational toys that teach the alphabet.


The unit itself is very well-designed, with easy set-up and large, colorful buttons. The joystick can be adjusted for left-handed children as well! Of course, a learning hardware system such as this one is only as good as the software it runs. There is room for improvements, such as a larger range of difficulty levels so that younger children will be accommodated, in future software titles developed for the V Smile. All in all, however, the V.Smile is an innovative, attractive product. The user's manual wisely opens with a few guidelines and cautions concerning the encouragement of healthy television habits. When used in moderation, the V.Smile is an engaging product for children ages 4-7.


Our Rating:



For more information, user reviews, or to buy: V-Smile
Reviewed October 2004
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