The pandas are enough to elicit your attention, but whether or not they'll hold it depends on more than cuteness.
The panda cubs in National Geographic Panda easily rival the puppies in Nintendogs for cuddliness. But pets, even virtual ones, should be long-term commitments instead of passing infatuations. So while Namco Bandai's virtual pet game has the cuteness factor pegged down, the question remains: what other qualities does it bring to the table? A few, but not enough.
To start with, yes, the baby pandas in the game are extremely adorable. However, that's because the game really delivers with realistic visuals and audio. This goes beyond textured 3D representations of furry creatures. The panda cubs behave believably and, even better, adorably. They roll and gallop around their environments and let out realistic yelps. They also work their way to the tops of climbing poles and attempt to use whatever new slide or seesaw is installed in their outdoor park area. They coo when caressed, pat their tummies when hungry, languidly fall over backwards when being rubbed, run into each other, and take frequent catnaps. Mine love to catch a few minutes of sleep whenever they can.
The DS touch screen is the avenue for all player interaction. The input method is used for more than just petting the cubs. You can't teach the cubs to explicitly perform tricks, but you can help them. For example, when a cub starts to perform a somersault you can assist it by dragging your stylus in the direction you want it to roll. Another nice interaction is how a cub will look at and then reach out and grab food you hold in front of it. And when a panda climbs onto a log swing, it's up to you to give it a gentle push. The touch screen also gets a workout when the cubs need washing: players must cover the baby pandas entirely in suds and then rinse them off with a detachable shower head. The only pitfall in this otherwise successful control scheme is that dragging the stylus across any non-interactive portion of the screen will rotate the camera in a sluggish and inexact manner. Thankfully, players can also use the superior D-Pad for this function, but since the camera can only display either a single panda at a time or a zoomed-out view of the play area, it can still be troublesome.
The entire experience comes together when the open-ended gameplay pays off. I decided on my own to scratch an itchy spot I saw one of my panda's scratching himself, and the cub's own efforts to address the itch slowed down, as if he'd forgotten what he was doing. This reaction surprised me and caused a warm satisfaction. The game didn't give me explicit instructions on how to get the pandas to play the drum either, but reading the cubs' body language and intuiting what it wanted from me was a rare experience that, for a moment, rose my relationship with the cub above that of food-supplier and belly-rubber.
However, the lack of structure also means that National Geographic Panda holds up only when played for just a couple minutes every day. This is especially the case early on, when you've got just one panda and very few activities and toys at your disposal. As cute as the little things are, there's just not that much to do with them before you start repeating yourself. Feeding, washing, and playing with a panda can all be done in a matter of minutes. Even later on with three or four pandas, more toys, more environments, and more interactions, it's hard not to exhaust the basic list of necessary activities within just 10 or 15 minutes.
To counteract this, the game encourages shorter play sessions over many days. Utilizing the DS internal clock, National Geographic Panda doles out funds each real-time day you play. Food, toys, accessories, decorations, and playground equipment are all purchased out of this budget. Play too long during any one day and the expense of feeding the hungry pandas can become prohibitive, meaning less money put aside for expensive toys or whimsical accessories.
Sometimes a new day brings with it a free toy or room decoration, which is invaluable for pandas on a fixed income. And after a couple days, new pandas start arriving, maxing out at four black-and-white bundles of furry joy. The game unlocks also new educational readings each day. One-day sales and other special rewards also help mix up the daily routine. There's even a mail-order store that delivers high quality items several days after they're purchased, meaning players will need to turn on their DS several days later to see if their order has arrived.
Unfortunately, these long-term features are unlikely to win over players who aren't already enamored by the daily routine of pampering young pandas. Until the player is allowed to adopt an additional panda, purchase more toys, and take advantage of more activities, playing National Geographic Panda remains a very bare experience.
It's worth noting that National Geographic Panda for Nintendo DS comes with Secrets of the Wild Panda, a 53-minute DVD. Of course, National Geographic Panda isn't actually intended as an educational videogame. After all, the game does involve buying funny hats and cute clothes for panda cubs that never grow up. But since the bonus DVD is included with the game, Namco Bandai's title makes for an interesting proposition. It's a light but undeniably cute virtual pet game, and it's also a little bit of an educational opportunity. Oh, and there are pandas.