There’s a scene in the great British movie Whistle Down The Wind in which Hayley Mills and pals gaze at a sleeping man, whom they believe to be Jesus, with awe written across their features. Whether it’s an intentional re-creation of the many representations of the holy birth or not isn’t known for sure, but last week I witnessed a similar scene at the office when a certain purple fluffy dinosaur arrived on my desk and started speaking to the assembled crowd, which swiftly grew. Barney, or the Microsoft ActiMates Interactive Barney, to give it its full name, had arrived. And it was kicking ass.
This 45cm creature finally arrives in the UK this week, and while Gus Guts, a soft toy with removable guts, may be making all the headlines in toy circles, Barney should have no trouble knocking the stuffing out of its competitor when it comes to sales. For this is much more than a toy that talks to you. After all, as kids we all had toys that talked to us. They usually had a pull string in their back or necessitated being punched in the stomach before uttering one of five phrases which usually included “I love you”. But the all-singing, all-dancing Barney, light- and touch-sensitive, has a basic vocabulary of 2000 words and plays games, sings songs (including the Clean Up Song which exhorts kids to clean up their room and is a particular favourite of Barney-owning parents) and interacts with users who cover its eyes to play Peek-a-Boo.
As if that weren’t enough, Barney also interacts with an on-screen alter-ego in a series of CD-ROMs and a one-hour video that’s nauseating in its wholesomeness but is probably fantastic for parents who want to occupy their kids and teach them some manners at the same time. Then, with a group of kids dressed as a bunch of grapes and various other fruits, he joins in a song the chorus of which is “fruit and vegetables are always fun to eat”. Like I said, nauseating – but impressive.
The video uses children and a cast of characters to achieve a comprehensive learning package, one that includes songs and games geared to looking and listening, with subjects ranging from gardening and the environment to animals and libraries. But it’s a curiously dull affair with somewhat colourless backdrops and sets, and completely failed to engage the kids I used as testers, who are used to the likes of Sesame Street and looked like they couldn’t figure out why the otherwise pretty cool and smart Barney was even watching this programme, let alone singing along.
The interactive PC pack, Barney’s Fun on Imagination Island (like Fantasy Island without Ricardo Montalban and the short guy), uses a graphical interface based around six areas (pirate ship, castle etc) and well thought out games. Barney explains what to do, joins in, encourages and sings along. My feeling is that if he sat on my monitor, gazing at me lovingly and joined in with encouragement as I engaged in marathon sessions of networked Doom I would be happy. Sadly, I suspect “Your ass is toast, mutha!” won’t be in his vocabulary until Compton Barney is released.
Given its pedigree, it’s no surprise that, technically, Barney is a wizard of a dinosaur that leaves most grown-ups speechless. But what do kids make of him? Judging by his phenomenal success in the US they love him. And judging by the reactions of my testers – 14-month-old Ruby and two-year-old Max, he’s going to be just as popular here. Ruby, after a sceptical introduction, fell in love with his fluffiness and insisted on carrying him around even though he was almost a big as her and far too heavy (which proved his sturdiness after being dropped repeatedly on his head). Max, bemused but intrigued, was so enamoured that he ended up the proud owner of a brand new Barney. Both are reported to be doing well.
Barney costs 99.95 and launches this week. The ActiMates TV Pack, 49.95 each, and additional software titles, 29.95, are available separately.