JumpStart: Pet Rescue is comprised of five compelling worlds brimming with learning lessons and activities for preschoolers. The tasks and mini-games within are designed to improve pre-reading skills, memory, creativity, listening and motor skills. Rated Early Childhood by the ESRB there is certainly no objectionable content. However, I am not an educator, and being so ill-equipped to assess the educational value of the game I had to resort to simpler measures. Namely, invite my niece and nephew, ages 4 and 5 respectively, (and henceforth known as G and T) over to play the game.
The game offers a robust character created element, with customizable “Jumpees” that have far more creative potential than Miis. Jumpees, once customized, can be altered as the mood strikes from the Dressing Tent within the game. There are three available game slots, which (aside from seeming like an arbitrary number) means that up to three kids can have their own Jumpee and game save.
The game is broken into Story and Explore modes. Story Mode gives your child consecutive tasks, effectively a gameplay tutorial, with plenty of wiggle room between the mini-missions. Each of the five Discovery Worlds features a story designed to guide children through the steps of collecting parts of the storybooks that will bring the lost pets out of hiding. Most often, the player is told to go meet up with a character, and Pet Rescue makes even the finding fun with a trail of letters to follow. The kids delighted in meeting characters like Eleanor the Elephant.
Explore Mode still tasks the player with rescuing all the lost animals, but without the guidance of Story Mode. I recommend Explore Mode for kids aged 5-6, or only after the child has played a bit of the Story so that they can learn how to interact with the environment and characters. While I was surprised to see how quickly the kids understood the game controls, they got the most out of Story Mode which in addition to covering the basics and adding the fun of “missions” explained some tools that were easily overlooked in Explore.
Completing tasks rewards the player with parts of storybooks that once assembled unlock a story. Once a book is completed, the child is prompted to go to the library and select it from their shelf. They can then turn the pages and follow along as it is read aloud, which tempts a pet to appear, unlocking the ability to access the Pet Tent. In the Pet Tent, pets can be adopted and named, and they will follow the child’s avatar around the gamespace. Players are instructed in care for the pet, from selecting the food the pet likes best to bathing and brushing them with the right grooming tools. As if running around with a cute puppy alongside isn’t fun enough, it is also possible to play games with the pet and teach them tricks.
Accessing the different neighborhoods is a breeze with the map in the lower left, as is returning to the player’s “house”. The house can be decorated and customized, pretty whimsically at that. G opted for a pink and purple kitty cat house, while T went with Lego architecture. The 3D world of Pet Rescue is remarkably well-rendered and generally given the sort of attention I didn’t really expect for a game targeting preschoolers. In place of phoned in graphics is a wonderful level of attention to the sort of things kids delight in. Robust avatar creation, designing the “home” and details like a slide lined with butterflies and wildlife.
The cursor is big, easy to see, and the menus are intuitive. It is possible to use the nun chuck in tandem with the WiiMote, though T and G played with only the WiiMote. There was minimal use of the motion controls (shaking to complete billboard paintings and the like), and since the shaking is pretty fun it would have been nice to see it incorporated more. The controls can be very challenging when the player is tasked with selecting items onscreen. T and G were aces at navigating using the d-pad, but when they had to select items onscreen using a point and click of the A, things tended to stall. Bearing in mind that T has been successfully playing games with a keyboard and mouse for a couple years now, I lay the fault with the WiiMote. I suspect the decision was made to use the controller in this way to advance motor skills, I just wish the tool was more forgiving (don’t even get me started on how the controller designed so that anyone can play games is what hurts this great game most). In the end, my best recommendation is to place your Wii sensor bar lower rather than higher, so that at least the kids aren’t constantly having to aim skyward.
An age range like 3-6 might seem narrow, but in practice it was easy to see that certain game elements appealed to the elder T and different ones to G. G favored the videos, which are cute and singalong, but couldn’t hold T’s interest. T was enamored, however, with The Learning House and the games there. Both enjoyed the virtual rewards for completing tasks, which included items like CDs to be played in the jukeboxes and letter object “decorations” placed on colored squares around the neighborhoods.
There is plenty of content here, enough it seems to keep a child entertained from age three all the way through to six. The charm of Pet Rescue lies in the ability for kids to become completely sidetracked in riding on slides, swimming in ponds and playing with rescued pets. Engrossed in the gamespace the learning games mesh smoothly, and the short, focused, tasks are very compelling. However, the occasional element of exploration is jarring, like the inability to view the inside of a newly decorated home. Even as a boring grown-up, this seems like an oversight. That, however, is picking nits as Pet Rescue is a playful, engaging and yes, educational, game experience that I expect we’ll be playing even past the recommended age. After all, (and maybe it’s just that gaming bug) even I had to make a Jumpee and rescue all those pets!