Children manage an ecosystem and get closer to nature's critters in SimAnimals (Electronic Arts, for DS, $29.99; and for Wii, $49.99). The popular Sims franchise targets younger players as they become keepers of a forest and directly help its inhabitants survive.
The lofty challenge for both game systems features hands-on interaction with more than 100 types of animal and plant life using the DS stylus with the touch screen or the motion-sensing Wiimote for Nintendo's entertainment console.
The player first monitors a sparse green area along with a meter that measures the overall "happiness" of the environment. Small creatures such as a squirrel, bunny and robin quickly begin to wander into the area looking for food, shelter and affection.
Warming up to the little fellows involves dropping a nut or berry, eventually feeding them out of an on-screen hand and even petting them once they are comfortable — just watch for heart icons to pop up, showing approval.
The eats are freshly grown and picked from the burgeoning plant life.
Vegetation is a key component of the action as the player must constantly replenish trees and flowers, water the plants, or shake off seeds or pollen for food and replanting.
The stylus and Wiimote cleverly work as eyedroppers to siphon off water from a lake and create a rain cloud for watering.
Another key is strategically moving plants and animals around (literally lift and move them) to ensure a sound ecosystem with balanced resources. That is explained down to what soil type and plant might thrive (Wii only) with on-screen prompts and a slew of icons to give players clues as to what they should do next.
For example, plant a certain number of carrot patches to attract two rabbits or knock down a tree to build a shelter or create a lightning strike to burn away dead foliage.
Once an environment maxes out its happiness meter, a new area opens — about a dozen are available — for the player to manage, ranging (depending on the version of the game) from castle ruins to a pasture with a stream.
Not providing a proper living area or not cleaning up pollution will cause animals to leave and plant life to die, all punctuated by some very somber orchestral moments.
In the DS version, a player can blow into the handheld's microphone to create wind — more of a deterrent for animals than helpful.
The Wii version immerses a player in three-dimensional environments and animals really cry out when being picked up. Navigation is more difficult to manage thanks to the amount of shaking needed and the imprecise Wiimote controls within often-cluttered work areas.
Learning Time: The action verges on an educational experience for the Wii, but does not quite deliver for the DS version.
Each creature, piece of foliage and vegetation can be highlighted to reveal a number of statistics or, in the Wii, also found in a Forest Encyclopedia. Entries include a common name, images of what it likes to eat, where it sleeps and a meter to show how happy it is. For example, the entry on porcini mushrooms says, "Porcini is Italian for 'piglets' and buds of the mushroom are said to resemble baby pigs."
It prefers grassy soil and hogs nutrients.
Specific mission goals require logic. Take the case of getting a beaver to build a dam. The player feeds the beaver to make him content, must get him a stick (knock down a tree, shake a stick), drop him near a narrow part of a stream to dam up and watch a lake develop.
Most important is for parents to get involved and explain to their children that petting wild animals or disturbing a habitat in real life is not a good idea.
Age range: An 8-year-old who loves to read, play with cute animals and knows that species procreate (snuggling and heart icons lead to offspring) will most appreciate the game.
Parents certainly should join in the Wii version as the multiplayer mode can become absolute chaos. Up to four players can simultaneously control the screen and the flow of the action. A leader is needed to take charge of the exploration and set some rules.
Final advice: With the likes of the Viva Pinata franchise and Nintendogs around, it's tough to recommend the too-simplistic SimAnimals. Once the environments are thriving, there's little left to do but admire one's work.
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