While most videogames these days are either targeted to the hardcore, older audience that personifies the average gamer, there are a number of games that are accessible for younger gamers. But even most of these are designed for the action figure crowd and aren't intended for pre-preschool kids. But now along comes Dora the Explorer: Journey to the Purple Planet, the only PlayStation 2 game that's been given the "EC" rating (Early Childhood). The game is available exclusively from Toys 'R Us -- and thusly Amazon.com since they carry its online sales -- so don't go running to the big kids' videogame stores for this one.
Dora the Explorer: Journey to the Purple Planet opens with Dora and Boots meeting up with some aliens from the Purple Planet. The aliens' spacecraft breaks and topples over, so it's up to Dora and Boots to help their new alien friends get back home, and so off they go. The game is actually based on an episode of the same name, so it's possible your kid will know the backstory already.
The general gameplay involves moving from point A to point D and crossing points B and C along the way. The traveling aspect is simple movement along a rather well-defined path, where green space gems are able to be collected along the path to help kids receive a constant feeling of accomplishment. There's a bit of exploration you can do here, but the optional paths are rather short so it's easy to find the main path again, and almost every section moves from left-to-right. In other words, younger audiences shouldn't have too much trouble finding their way to the next area, but parents might want to stick around and see how they do through the first section or so on their own. None of the exploration gets much more difficult as the game progresses, so if they're fine at the beginning, the kids should be able to make it through the entire game without much trouble.
The aforementioned points B and C are small puzzle sections, where players have to match colors, perform very basic videogame actions (jump to platforms), solve simple puzzles or something similar. As it's intended for a very young audience, much of the game's design revolves around helping the youngsters through puzzles as much as possible, offering up as many hints and as much encouragement as possible. In the case of puzzles where you have to select from a number of options, the game will let the player choose over and over until they make the right selection, restating what sort of selection they need to make each time ("That's not the blue light. Help me find the blue light!" for example).
For other challenges, where it's possible to miss a timed action, the game will allow you a few chances to complete the task and then automatically finish it after a few failed attempts, allowing players to move on. For example, on one section of the Green Planet, your alien friends have taken a slide covered in slime and gotten stuck. Dora slides down the slide, and as you pass the aliens you need to press the action button in order to unstick them. If you miss any the first time through, you'll start at the top again so that you can pick up any leftovers. If you fail the second time through, you'll automatically collect them all on the third pass.
The game also prevents players from being able to actually die or ultimately fail in any way. When crossing Turtle River early in the game, pressing the action button to jump between the backs of turtles at the wrong time just shows Dora balancing as she can't fall or make a mistimed jump - it's impossible to fail. Likewise, walking into the Sticky Sands in the next section of the game will just have Dora jump back out again - you aren't penalized at all for walking in stuff, but you're encouraged to avoid it.
Control-wise, Dora the Explorer: Journey to the Purple Planet is basically as simple as possible. The left analog stick controls movement - which is paced rather slow to allow for easy control - and all of the face buttons act as a singular action button. It's contextual, so while it normally causes Dora to jump, if you wander over to a treasure chest, pressing any of the buttons will open it. Likewise, any button will pop bubbles when you're near them, interact with objects and so on and so forth.
Though the simplistic control scheme is very easy to grasp and the puzzles and such are generally very straightforward, there's still an oddly confusing segment or two. At one point on the Green Planet, you need to use elevators to scale a very large hill, and the puzzle in this is that you need to place a certain amount of your alien friends on each elevator. You just need to press the action button once per alien that you want to move onto the lift, but you need to stand on a green patch of slime near the elevators to issue the command. It's sort of weird and as the game doesn't really point this specific spot out, it might be a little hard to figure out for younger players as it's basically trial-and-error until you get them to move. Most of the rest of the game is quite explanatory in what you need to do, but this part stuck out a bit.
The game's presentation will likely be fine for kids, though from a critic's standpoint it's problematic in a few areas. All of the voice acting is done by the real folks who voice the show, so this obviously matches really well. It's a show designed for very young kids, which means they repeat a lot of names and such to help with memorization, so there's inherently going to be a lot of repeated phrases in the game. Some are simply repetitive without needing to be, however. During one segment, players need to pick out a constellation by choosing the next-closest star until all of the lines are completed. After each correct star is chosen, Dora congratulates the player with "Great job! You're really good at connecting the stars!" A change or two in this sentence would have helped since she'll wind up saying that exact phrase six or seven times in a row if there aren't any mistakes.
The worst part though is that the game doesn't have an autosave feature. This means that after each segment of the game, the player will have to choose to save and then choose the "Yes" option to OK the overwrite of the existing save (it defaults to "No"). As the dialog here will likely be confusing to any kid that would be able to even read it, parents will either have to teach their kids how to properly save, or will have to sit with them and help them save after each section. It's a reasonably lengthy game - easily five hours or so if you're breezing through it as fast as possible without bothering to explore, so it could take kids twice this length, easy. The point is, kids will have to save to ever finish it, and parents may not want to stare at the screen for hours on end. Autosave seemed like a fairly mandatory feature here, and sadly it isn't included. So basically, parental supervision is required for the game, which may or may not have been part of the parent's plan.
One thing that every parent must consider when buying something for a young child is whether or not it's age-appropriate for them. Dora the Explorer: Journey to the Purple Planet tests what would seem to be rather standard lessons from the show, so if your child is capable of playing along with the tasks on the TV show or those in Sesame Street or some such, they should be fine. They'll need to be able to count to five, remember an ordered sequence of four colored bars (a small game of Memory), time simple button presses, choose colors and shapes when they're called out and identify appropriate objects out of Backpack. Kids obviously learn at different rates so it would be impossible for me to say that this game is targeted a 2-year olds, but it's certainly possible that some 2-year olds could handle it on their own. It's very likely too simplistic for 5-year old kids though, so we'd say a nice median target age would be 3. And if your kid is having troubles with the game, you can always shelve it for six months or a year and pull it out again when you think they're ready.
Lastly, it's worth noting that this game seems to serve as more of a practice for basic skills rather than something that will help teach them to kids. If a child doesn't yet know how to count to five, this won't help them learn to, but if they're in the process of learning, it could serve as fun and interactive practice.
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