Publisher: 2K Play
Developer: Black Lantern
Release Date: November 5, 2007
The Dora franchise has really taken off. It's one of the many recent children's shows that have done a pretty solid job of combining learning with cartoon fun, and while that formula isn't too new (we had "Sesame Street" in my day), it's definitely one of the few with some lasting power. It also has a really successful spin-off with the Diego character from the show, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone that there's already been a series of games revolving around both of those characters, with more titles waiting in the wings as I type this.
The transition from kid's program to video game isn't always smooth. They're typically developed as simple cash-ins for a popular franchise, and unfortunately, this title, Dora Saves the Mermaids, is guilty as charged. It's probably one of the poorest examples I've seen lately, and it has a very simple design, which shows that very little thought was given to the franchise on which it's based. Sure, it's a game meant for kids, but other titles have been successfully kid-friendly without feeling completely uninspired and devoid of content.
Dora Saves the Mermaids is basically a small collection of mini-games spread out across four worlds with an ocean theme. The plot, if you could call it that, seems to deal with environmental cleanup. It's not entirely clear what the actual story is; the cut scenes don't have any text or sound, and they're strictly relegated to small shots of still art from the show. That's just a sign of things to come because after you start playing, you realize that the gameplay doesn't add up to much more than the effort that was put into the cut scenes.
The mini-games are all pretty simple. One has the game automatically moving your character forward along a side-scrolling track, where the only control you have is to move up or down to avoid obstacles. At times, you'll have to jump over a long, unavoidable obstacle, done by tapping the stylus on the screen. You can only perform this jump when it's absolutely necessary, and if you don't time it right, the game will just hang there until you tap the screen, so there's no real skill needed, nor is there a sense of urgency, as the side-scrolling screen might suggest. Also, there are only 10 obstacles to each of these races, so Dora can call out the numbers to the player — presumably to help acquaint young ones with their numbers.
Another mini-game will have you collecting trash in various setups, but all using the same play mechanic. Typically, there will be a trash bag on the screen somewhere, and you'll pick up a pile of trash with the stylus and drop it into the bag. Occasionally, you'll need to match up a color of trash to the appropriately colored trash bag, but that's about it. It's mind-numbingly simple, and I can't really fathom what this is supposed to be teaching a kid, outside of how to throw your trash into a trash bag. Do parents really need a game to do this? I'm kind of hoping they don't.
One other game type will force you to use the mic, either to count to 10 or call out the name of a character to get it to do something or show up on the screen. You don't actually need to get the vocals right here; you can just make a noise, snap your fingers, or do anything that the mic will pick up as a sound. I could see the use in this mode for some of the Spanish bits that Dora will say, but since you can easily fake it, it's not really going to teach your child anything if she gets the sections wrong. If you're trying to get your kid to be bilingual at an early age and she ends up pronouncing "uno" as "una" or something, the game will give her a pass anyway, which is probably detrimental in the long run. It's a decent idea, but if there isn't an actual voice recognition system in place here, it ends up being pretty worthless.
That's about how all of the mini-games are in Dora Saves the Mermaids. Each one doesn't require much in the way of thought, it's pretty automatic and simple stuff, and while there are some variations on learning tools we've seen before, this is hardly the best outlet available for parents. If you have a kid who's a diehard Dora fan, then she'll probably get a kick out of this game for a few minutes, but parents should be aware that there isn't a lot for your child to do with this one.
For an average player, Dora Saves the Mermaids for the NDS takes about 15 minutes to see and play every single mini-game. If you're factoring in age, I could see it taking a bit longer, but I can't see anyone over the age of four taking more than an hour to play through every mini-game at least once. After that, there isn't anything else to keep them occupied. The only other option, outside of the main Story mode, is a Free Play section that lets you play any of the available games you've already seen in any order that you choose. There are no new games to unlock, no video/picture galleries, no multiplayer, and nothing in the way of extra content. It's a pretty barebones package, and it's a really lazy attempt at cashing in on the Dora brand. I'd probably feel a bit insulted if I had purchased the title, and I strongly suggest that parents find another suitable kid product or game instead of plopping down $20 for this one. It's one of the worst examples on the market of licensed video game fluff for children, and I definitely can't suggest it to anyone.