'SimAnimals' Puts Families in Touch With Nature

Families can get in touch with nature, literally, in "SimAnimals," a new forest simulation from Electronic Arts for the Nintendo Wii and DS.

Full of charming squirrels, playful bears, shy skunks and determined beavers, this game combines natural science with fantasy to create an immersive world that is hard to put down.

As you tinker within the different forest environments, ranging from woodlands to swamps to desert environments, you can use a cursor that looks like a floating hand to touch and pick up more than 30 forest animals and 80 plants. While pursuing the goal of making the forest happy, you learn about the interconnectivity of the animals and plants.

When you enter an environment, you see a bar graph on the top of the screen indicating that the environment isn't happy. As you do things within this location, your actions have consequences either expressed as happy-faced or sad-faced energy that aggregates on the happiness bar.

For an animal, happiness results when it finds enough to eat, builds a home, gets enough rest, finds a mate and has fun. For plants, it means having the right soil and enough water. Thus, if you put your hand over an acorn tree and shake it back and forth with the Wii remote, a seed might fall out. If you pick up that acorn and drop it on top of a squirrel, it will eat it and then emit happy energy.

On the other hand, if you pick up a skunk, whirl it around and fling it in the nearest stream, it will emit a sad energy. Likewise, if you scoop up a tree and plop it into a soil it doesn't like, it will release sad energy.

To help you, the game offers nature lessons and presents you with challenges that earn medals and unlock other animals and plants. You can choose which of these challenges to pursue. Most teach you more about how to interact with the animals and plants in a positive way, but a few have surprising consequences. For instance, if you pursue the challenge to make a skunk spray your hand, your hand icon faints and drops to the ground.

When you make the first location happy, the next unlocks. Each location features different animals and plants. But you will find that you may need to introduce animals and plants from previous locations. You can do this by using the game's backpack.

Your backpack can store seeds, animals that you have befriended and even a lake's worth of water. Befriending an animal is a process that involves feeding it and winning its trust so that you can pet and play with it. It may even turn over and let you tickle its stomach.

There are many things that make this game so compelling, including outstanding graphics, lyrical music and a fabulous artificial intelligence, but the most attractive feature is that this game lets you explore the delicate balances found in nature. You can learn what each animal and plant needs, how different animals react to each other and the effects of pollution on the forest. Electronic Arts consulted with an animal behaviorist so much of the information presented in the game is true to nature. There's even an encyclopedia that helps you figure out what animals eat and what plants need.

However, there are also fantasy parts of the game and they greatly enhance the fun. For example, you can wield lightning to destroy intrusive plants and there are fantasy plants that, when eaten, create wacky results including enlarging animals to three times their normal size. If you want, predators in this game can be "retrained" to eat plants instead of animals, so you can create a fantasy world where no animal eats another.

Because this is a nature simulation, plants and animals die. But because it's an E-rated game, fights between animals are shown as a cloud of dust with one animal simply disappearing. Procreation is shown as affectionate actions like rubbing necks, nothing more.

SimAnimalsis a wonderful nature game because it teaches by letting you learn through your actions. Because there is no "right" way to play in this giant forest, every time you start a new game it is different.

To play alone, you have to be able to read; but for younger children, the Wii version offers cooperative play for up to four players. This is a great way for a parent and a child to go on an interactive nature walk together.

RATING: 5 stars (out of 5) Best for ages 7-up From Electronic Arts, www.simanimals.com, $49.95 (Wii) and $29.95 (DS).

Jinny Gudmundsen is the kid-tech columnist for USA Today.com and Gannett News Service and is also the editor of Computing With Kids (www.ComputingWithKids.com ).