- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2008

Children can befriend one of China’s legendary bears with National Geographic Panda (for Nintendo DS, Namco Bandai Games, $29.99). This virtual pet simulator mixes nurturing a cuddly pal with enough educational content to teach owners something about the Ailuropoda melanoleuca.

The title gets right down to the action. After finding one of the lonely, realistic-looking giant pandas in a rather large, stripped-down pen at a wildlife park, new owners name the bear — in my case a her — and quickly interact. Petting, coaxing and occasionally poking become favorite pastimes at first as the stylus becomes a hand to touch the DS screen and the bear.

Of course, one can’t treat a panda like a poodle, but there are similarities available and delivered in the basic care department. Specifically, feeding the animal bamboo (dangle a piece in front of her) and other treats, providing water, stimulation with toys and even bathing her. The panda also can be moved outdoors to play on a slide, tire swing or even climb a pole. All the activities are carried out using on-screen icons and the stylus.

Owners are given a daily monetary stipend to buy supplies (a meager $300) that barely covers the animal’s insatiable hunger and thirst. If a virtual visit to the general store or hardware store does not secure the perfect item, players can use the mail-order service (it takes a few virtual days).

Once the animal has been taken care of for a few days, a new panda pops up in the yard. Eventually, the owner is responsible for four bears.

Although the game is loaded with warm fuzzies, there really is just not much to do. Unlike other pet simulations that involve taking pets on complex walks in the park, entering shows to win prizes or competitions to get cash, handling a panda is a bit more mundane, but still plenty cute.

Learning time: The key to National Geographic Panda is the fine line between maintaining a multitasking child’s interest and actually teaching him. Interest might wane in the game, but in the Panda room is an inconspicuous National Geographic poster. Click on it to find 24 educational articles (gradually unlocked during the action) as well as plenty of real photos. Topics range from breeding in captivity to conservation to the legends behind pandas.

Also, owners must manage their money — always in short supply — and resources. They manipulate plenty of statistics menus that would make an accountant in training happy.

Additionally, the packaging includes a DVD with the very informative hour-long program, “Secrets of the Wild Panda.”

Age range: Younger children will quickly fall in love with their pandas and will spend a decent amount of time caring for them. Parents should jump in and read with them the National Geographic articles and also explain the importance of reverence to nature and all of its creatures.

Final advice: It’s not as robust as Nintendo Dogs, but when is a kid ever going to get the chance to make friends with a panda?

Game Bytes

Here’s an abbreviated look at some video games for the entire family.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (for Xbox 360, Microsoft Game Studio, $39.99). — Nintendo 64 legends Banjo the bear and his obnoxious bird Kazooie return in a mission-packed, three-dimensional computer-animated epic.

It’s another feud with the rhyming witch Gruntilda that draws the pair out of a comfortable retirement. This time, the Lord of the Games steps in to mediate and requires the hostile parties to settle their differences with contests held in the colorful and busy Showdown Town.

Before I could start bellyaching about playing another wacky, character-driven platformer, a big grin grew on my mug as I discovered the incredible variety and depth in this third-person adventure.

Major action is based on building vehicles. Young inventors will savor the diverse options as they acquire components to design transportation contraptions for land, sea and air.

Character interactions (Mumbo Jumbo, among other old friends, is back) lead to missions and side quests using the vehicles. That could mean anything from a simple race to dunking a fireball in water with a truck to getting a large egg to boil by delivering it into a volcano.

Once again, collecting Jiggies (more than 100 for the plucking) also plays a major role in the game. Banjo helps characters and is rewarded with one of the coveted puzzle pieces to open doors and find new challenges.

A multitude of locations to explore, multiplayer options and a cooperative mode keep players busy. Online tech extends to uploading a video of a latest accomplishment or vehicle design for others to admire and copy.

The latest epic devoted to Banjo-Kazooie will put a sparkle in an inquisitive child’s eye, some new critical-thinking skills in his noggin and even give him a lesson in reading blueprints. Yeah, it’s one of the best family-friendly games of the year.

Age of Booty (for PlayStation 3, Capcom, $9.99) — Budding pirates learn the intricacies of virtual pillaging and plundering with this strategy-drenched, real-time multiplayer game.

Set in the era when swashbucklers controlled the high seas, the action involves maneuvering ships over large, watery hexagonal grids filled with hostile vessels, lost cargo and towns for the taking.

The goal is to capture and control a certain number of ports to win each engagement while sending attacking enemy ships to Davy Jones’ locker.

Ships and friendly ports can be upgraded after amassing loads of wood, gold and rum, and finding the occasional power-up (I loved invisibility) can turn the tides of war.

Factions are created with teams consisting of up to four scalawags (in the room, online or computer-controlled) as they set sail to master 21 challenges (spread over three difficulty levels) amid 29 detailed maps.

Real mateys and opponents give the game extended life, along with the ability to create detailed, customized maps.

For the price, the downloadable Age of Booty is a visually slick and surprisingly fun representation of an ever-evolving board game.

Joseph Szadkowski’s ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to [email protected] times.com.

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