Thursday, 21 August 2014

Review: Pokemon Art Academy 3DS

The Art Academy franchise has been around since 2009, first appearing on the Nintendo DS and then later on the 3DS in 2012. Pokemon Art Academy is a Pokemon themed version that aims to ostensibly teach kids how to draw their favourite Pokemon but by extension helps them improve their general drawing skills too.

When Nintendo sent us a code for it to try it out as part of their blogger programme, I was interested to see how the boy would get along with it. At seven he loves drawing; it's his second favourite pastime after laying recumbant on the sofa and watching, among other things, Pokemon on the telly. There are 40 lessons, spanning three skill levels and these are hung together on the conceit that the player has enrolled at Pokemon art academy to learn how to draw Pokemon in order to make Pokemon cards. In fact at the end of each lesson, you're shown your efforts on a virtual card, which is a nice touch.

The thing that immediately surprised me was how well both our older kids took to it- Fifi (5) was as interested in Pokemon Art Academy as the boy was. They were both keen to put the skills and techniques they learnt in game into practical use too, which has seen the sketchpads out for the better part of the last week.

We have a few books on how to draw comics and cartoons littering the house, some aimed at kids, some at adults, but by using this game, the kids have been more engaged than they have been by reading what is effectively a manual on how to do it. They think they've been gaming, I think they've been learning hand/eye coordination, spatial awareness and improving their concentration. One nil to me and Nintendo then. Good stuff.

Pokemon Art Academy is available now from all good retailers, it's currently £22.85 on Amazon

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Gym poseurs

I'm still in the middle of "get fit or die young" as wifey nicely termed it, which means I'm not allowed to have anything nice to eat* and have to sweat myself half to death 5 times a week at the gym. I've got myself some gym kit and if some of the tops are a little tight and unflattering, that's intentional to make me see what I look like and strive to work harder. It's working as the scales now show me as being a few pounds under 16 stone, which is almost two stones lighter than I was at my worst and comfortably the lightest I've been since I graduated.

I have my rituals and routines- I won't be found without a sweatband on my head and it's not because I like looking like a prat but because I'm a sweaty bloke and my eyes start stinging ten minutes into a workout as the sweat runs down my wholly not up to the task eyebrows. Normally I connect my Creative Hitz headphones and watch some telly via my phone on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Yesterday however I only had enough battery left to snigger all the way through Tenacious D's enormously childish album. My eyes inevitably wandered round the area in front of me and perhaps I should first take a moment out to explain how it all works at my gym.

I tend to spend most of my time on the cross trainer (500 calories worth of my time anyway) and these machines are in a big loose semi circle around the free weights/chin up area. I realise a lot of people go to the gym for reasons that are as much social as exercise but even so, I find myself increasingly distracted by what I think of as gym poseurs. They're the sort of person who will stand by the chin up bar for 5 minutes, flexing their arms and looking intent. Then they'll do 5 chin ups in quick succession, and stand around flexing and looking about to see if anyone noticed for the next 5 minutes. The lads doing it are pretty muscular, which makes it all the more baffling because in the 50 or so minutes I'm there, they seem to only do about 10 minutes of actual exercise. Maybe it's a little bit more if you include the stretching that's a by-product of looking about to see who's watching them do their 5 quick chin ups. Don't get me wrong, at my weight, 5 chin ups would probably break my wrists or something but it does seem decidedly odd. If they wanted to exercise hard and then go and do something else, they could be out of their in a small fraction of the time. I do realise that some stuff, particularly the weight related stuff, does require a period of recovery between reps but even so, the one chap who picked up the largest weight available, held it over his head and proceeded to walk around most of the gym, can only have been doing that for the attention surely?

Personally, I'd see it as a failure on my part if I had enough puff in my at any point of my workout to maintain a conversation with anyone. I'm also so badly coordinated that I have to concentrate on not falling off the cross trainer a lot of the time, especially if I'm doing something complicated like having a drink.

Are there any oddballs at your gym? I'd love to know...

*did I detect a note of glee when I was told each helping of bacon I have knocks an hour off my life? I'm not sure but I have my suspicions...

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Smartphone free home

I have the habit of randomly trawling social media and websites from my smartphone that I know is anti-social but helps fill the moments of tedium between bouts of intense activity. Recently, I've been exceptionally busy at work and have just finished a 16 day stint without a day off, so all I've wanted to do when I get home is sit down and not move until it's time to herd the children in the vague direction of bed.

The combination of the two above factors led the boy to plaintively state, "Daddy, you spend all your time on your phone and you're neglecting us." Point taken, even if his further analysis of what I could be doing instead did enter the realms of the surreal fairly quickly, including but not limited to:

  • Building a life size working TARDIS
  • Watching LEGO Movie for the 1,000th time
  • Take part in a 4 hour Mario Kart 8 marathon
  • Magic up a large LEGO set from nowhere and watch them build it
  • Providing an endless supply of sweets and making sure that sweet potato is off the menu
  • Take him to Forbidden Planet (at 6:30pm on a Tuesday evening)
It's difficult because the two eldest, the boy and Fifi, have never really been kids that play with toys. They rough and tumble with each other, build stuff with construction toys, play video games, watch telly, chase each other, dress up and do loads of stuff but given the number of action figures (Imaginext, Little People, Scooby-Doo sets, My Little Ponies, etc) they don't give them much attention. Young Ned is completely the opposite and it's a delight to sit and watch him play with his Octonaut set or his sisters Scooby-Doo toys and it's easy to join in, even if I have to be the zombies rather than any of the cool characters.

But I have made the concious decision to leave my smartphone in the bedroom while the kids are up and sink right back down to their level, no matter how hard it will be. The biggest challenge will be finding any point outside of work that isn't child filled since it's the school holidays and they're often still up making a fuss at gone 9pm at the moment.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Chessington's Azteca Hotel is open for business

A little over two years ago we were lucky enough to be invited to Legoland Windsor's hotel opening (you can read about it here) and now we've just been to the opening of the Azteca Hotel at Chessington World of Adventures. What's the connection? They're both part of the Merlin Entertainments group, I'll have you know.

Right, now your business lesson is over, down to the hotel related excitement. Chessington already has an onsite hotel, the Safari Hotel, and entrance to the new Azteca Hotel is through the spacious lobby of the existing hotel. I'd had to send the wife and family on ahead because of work commitments and the horrendous weather meant it was gone 10pm when I arrived. I didn't even notice I was checking in at the lobby of the Safari Hotel but it all went very smoothly and I found my way there without a single problem. The tours had finished by that point and people had begun to drift off to bed and the bar in the Safari Hotel but I did manage to meet Darren and Tom in the bar as they were finishing off their drinks and talking about the outrageous behaviour of various celebs and journos I unfortunately missed.

Even in the dark and torrential rain, the hotel looked pretty impressive and was lit up nicely. When I snuck into our room, I was immediately comforted by a familiar layout- exactly the same as the Legoland resort- with a separate "room" for the kids (a bunkbed and a pull out for a third child), a nice bathroom and a good sized area for the adult double bed.

We broke our fast the nest morning in the Temple bar and restaurant area, which keeps the Aztec theme going nicely. In many ways it reminded me a little of the ambience in the Rainforest Cafe- there were sound effects and what not that, given how relatively empty the place was as it was the press launch, made Ned jump once or twice! The food, hot (and cold) buffet style, was both good and easily accessible. For some reason the eggs were in the kids buffet section, which was at a kids friendly height, but other than that it all made perfect sense.

The hotel has it's own swimming pool, the Savannah Splashzone, which is definitely aimed at kids. Given all the entertainment laid on at the launch, and our relatively late start the next morning, we didn't get to test it out but it looks good fun, especially for an evening to properly wear the kids out before bed or work up more of an appetite for dinner.

Pre-booking at the hotel gets you the same early access to the park that people who pre-book park tickets get. This means you get into the park earlier than people who turn up on the door and may be able to bypass some of the queues for the more popular rides (at the peak of the day, the queue time for the Vampire was given at 100 minutes but I'm reliably informed by a friend with Merlin passes that this equates to about two and a half hours in reality). We got on the Dragon's Fury, which is a terrifying roller-coaster than spins the the seats around as well as hurling you around on a track. I was impressed with the boy for having the courage to go on it- he's only managed the Dragon at Legoland a couple of times.

You can find out more about the Azteca Hotel on the Chessington website. Be warned though, it's very popular already!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Hey hey hey, it's the #Nozstock review

" If you only see one group with a bearded bald man in a silver jacket doing pelvic thrusts whilst playing the synth this year, make sure it's Le Galaxie."

Ah Nozstock, Nozstock, so good they named it but once and I repeated that name for effect. If you're able to cast your mind back to last year, you'll remember we went to a rather fab boutique music in Bromyard, Herefordshire, last year. The boy particularly liked it and even wrote his own review, and so we went back this year for more of the same, only different.

Nozstock: party hard dude
Different because the kids were all a year older, the acts were different and we knew what to expect. The same because everything was in exactly the same place, and even the wicker Dalek had only moved a few metres from where it was last year. There is something comforting in knowing that everything has it's place.

We saw some great acts this year, and while the Fun Loving Criminals and Roots Manuva might have been the "big" names, there were plenty of other acts to get excessively excited about. In fact (and more of that later) some of those other acts got excessively excited themselves...

There are many things we love about Nozstock but if I had to put the important ones for a family in a list they would be:

  • Policed family camping- if you've not got young kids you're not getting into the family camp site (unlike Wilderness and Bestival);
  • Food and drink at a reasonable price- £3ish a pint, £3 for a burger, £8 for a good sized pizza, Nozstock doesn't take the piss;
  • Site maintenance during the festival- muddy patches were ruthlessly saw-dusted as soon as they appeared and crushed plastic was picked up regularly;
  • All the stages were relatively close together, which made mooching around much easier with three small kids;
  • The size of the festival meant we always got a great view of the acts performing;
  • The kids area had plenty going on and was really hands on;
  • Weekend tickets (Thurs-Sun) were £105 per adult, almost half the price of Bestival and £40 less than Wilderness.
We pitched up and pitched our tent on Friday lunch time in the bright sunshine. The sun stayed with us until mid afternoon, whereupon it began raining sporadically for the rest of the evening. Did this stop us? Not in the slightest, although it made cooking dinner on the camp stove slightly tricky.

But enough of the facilities! A festival is about festive stuff- music, entertainment and fun! Hurrah! And indeed we did have fun, by the bucket load. Our friend Lisa kindly lent us her Radio Flyer truck, so we carted the kids about in that when they couldn't be bothered to to walk and it also gave us a good way to demarcate our territory when it came to watching some tunes. I'll put my hands up now and say that my overriding plan for the weekend was to ensure I was at the right stage at the right time to catch the originator of Chap Hop, the immaculately presented Mr B. The Gentleman Rhymer and everything else was secondary but that plan didn't account for the great music we'd stumble across.

Le Galaxie- having as much fun as we were

The first truly magnificent band we discovered this Nozstock was Le Galaxie, an Irish disco group that sound as good in the studio as they do live (I've found some bands I've thought awesome at festivals in the past sound a little weedy on record which has been a disappointment). I won't beat about the bush, Le Galaxie were as good as anything I've heard since Scissor Sisters and had better beards to boot. They also gave absolutely everything in their performance, something we all appreciated, despite the slightly grim weather. If you only see one group with a bearded bald man in a silver jacket doing pelvic thrusts whilst playing the synth this year, make sure it's Le Galaxie.

Molotov Jukebox and Dizraeli and the Small Gods also made it onto our SONOS as soon as we got home and the boy even made wifey buy a Mr B. The Gentleman Rhymer CD as we couldn't find it on Spotify (it turns out you need the fullstop after the B, otherwise Spotify plays dumb). In fact the boy even wrote his own Mr B. tribute piece, which you can read here. He also did some tribute artwork which got the thumbs up for Mr B. himself:

We did of course have our now obligatory session of Ned falling asleep during some great music, as you can see from this picture:

But that was as much to do with the excitement as anything else. The weather on Sunday was glorious and the ground had pretty much dried out by mid morning, making the rain the day before a dim and distant memory.

I've put a few of our favourite acts into a Spotify playlist below (there is an official Nozstock playlist but this one is mine dammit). I will at this stage conveniently fail to mention that I almost took the boy into a a theatre production at about 11pm that was apparently called Art Wank and included the re-enactement of vintage Victorian porn. Whoops, and a big thank you to the two girls who warned we off it! Fifi went to a brilliant puppet workshop in the same venue the next day, which shows that there is something for absolutely everyone at Nozstock.

We shall be back next year!

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