- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

Children take control of the wild in SimAnimals Africa (Electronic Arts, $29.99).

The latest adventure in the franchise finds a player managing an ecosystem much more aggressive and exotic than the one seen in the original SimAnimals.

Built for Nintendo’s hand-held console, the game requires balancing food supplies, engaging more than a dozen species, and protecting and sculpting the terrain to succeed.

Miniature megalomaniacs in the family get a bird’s-eye view of the action and are assisted by an African gray parrot named Mahiri as they attract animals to areas such as a volcanic desert, savannah and river delta and keep everyone fed and feeling warm and fuzzy.

The latest game offers manipulation of animals including meerkats, elephants, gazelles and a selection of insects such as bees and grasshoppers.

Like the last game, the top screen highlights a map or attributes of an item or creature when it is clicked on the bottom screen. The touch screen gets a workout as the stylus is used to view all of the landscape, access objectives, pick up or pet creatures, shake foliage, stow items in a backpack and even set off a beast’s special power.

Powers include using a hippo to dig for treasures, having a gorilla pound its chest to scare animals away or prompting a giraffe to grab fruit from a tall tree.

Mission objectives vary; for example, a handler might need to attract some aardvarks. That requires finding a withered tree and shaking it so it falls down. Once down, the tree turns into a decayed log and soon after a termite mound. That certainly will satisfy an aardvark.

The game’s cute “Lion King”-style graphics and robust habitats as well as the DS’ functionality impressed my young tester. Be it picking up a dandelion and blowing into the microphone to spread its seeds, grabbing water from a river to create a mini-rainstorm to replenish a tree or recording snippets of dialogue to have the parrot mimic, there’s plenty of interactive action.

Customizing creatures’ nicknames, adding icons to find them again and a two-player mode add to the replayability. A pair of handlers who each have a game cartridge can work together to achieve objectives or trade animals and items.

Learning time: The game is caught between teaching about nature and pure cartoon fantasy. It’s great to read facts about the various creatures — did you know crocodiles have enough fat in their tails to go for two years without eating? — but the game might then have junior spend time rubbing an elephant’s belly or watching a rhino dance.

As with the original SimAnimals, parents will need to step in and clearly separate fact from fiction for the younger player.

Age range: An 8-year-old with a fascination for the animal kingdom will find plenty to do.

One detail to keep in mind: Animals procreate, and it’s often instigated by the player. Within minutes of introducing a pair of meerkats — drop one onto the other; hearts pop up to denote an attraction — one gives birth to a new little fellow. There’s nothing graphic, but it will need an explanation.

Also, it is commonplace to feed fish to a hungry cat or grab a handful of pretty butterflies for a meerkat’s lunch or watch a growling lion stalk and pounce on another animal. It’s the laws of nature and while the action is never bloody, it might shake up a youngster.

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]

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