It's never easy to venture into another realm, whether it's a new career, relationship, or, in this case, something much more terrifying – reviewing video games designed for kids. After all, as a thirtysomething gamer who's been at this for more than twenty years, it's no simple matter to start diving deep into games with the word "Nickelodeon" in the title when I'm used to explosions, blood, swearing, and general mayhem populating my interactive entertainment. However, I'm also a new Dad, and I've got a feeling that Nickelodeon is going to be playing a much bigger part in my life than it ever has. So in the interest of sifting through mountains of shlock to find the best games for my little guy to play, I'm embarking on a new segment of reviews that'll very likely be confusing and in many cases a bit disturbing.
And so it begins with Avatar: The Burning Earth on the Nintendo DS. Evidently, there's an animated series that airs on (yep, you guessed it) Nickelodeon, starring a character named Aang, who's got a giant smile and an arrow tattooed on his bald head. As the story unfolds, this youngster is in training to learn how to use all sorts of innate abilities that he's not yet fully in control of. Unfortunately for him, his training schedule is rudely interrupted by an invasion by the Fire Nation, the mortal enemies of his clan and clearly bent on taking over the known world. Called to action before he's truly ready, Aang and his buddies jump into the fray nonetheless to dispatch their enemies and save the world.
Clearly, Burning Earth is capitalizing on the dedication of the show's young fans, and while it doesn't embarrass itself or insult gamers, it's not going to be near the top of the list of must-have titles for youngsters this holiday season.
Being a DS title, you'd expect some serious interaction with the touch pad, but in reality, Burning Earth plays pretty much like a good old beat-em-up. Players move around via the D-pad and go on the offensive with two different attack buttons, and other than the occasional mini-games that pop up along the way, the stylus will remain neatly tucked out of sight. You're able to control four different characters over the course of your adventures, each with their own special abilities. Aang, for example, can knock over enemies by summoning the wind, while his buddy Katara sports water power (particularly handy against Fire-based foes). Another pal Sokka has some nifty machete and boomerang weapons, and Toph can maneuver the terrain and toss rocks to vanquish attackers. At various times, each of them fight alongside Aang (although you never have more than one friend helping you out at a time), so you get to mix up your style even though the method remains the same – button mashing.
Only the youngest of gamers will be challenged by the combat difficulty, as there are ample items available to restore health and it's not until fairly late in the game that bosses will take more than a few minutes to dispatch. As long as your little ones can handle the sometimes-unwieldy navigation of the levels, it's doubtful that they'd get lost or stuck at any point. There are a couple of flying missions that offer a decent change of pace, which, when combined with a nice variety of environments, keeps the action interesting enough to soldier on.
Of course, length is always something to consider when kids are in the mix. Unlike Dad, Junior can often spend plenty of hours a week playing a single title, and Burning Earth is an undeniably short experience. I tore through the entire game in around 5 hours, and would be surprised if it took anyone else a whole lot more time than that. If he's particularly dedicated – and you don't force the little guy to play outside for awhile - it's possible to wrap the game up start to finish in a weekend and still have time left to watch the show on TV. Clearly, Burning Earth is capitalizing on the dedication of the show's young fans, and while it doesn't embarrass itself or insult gamers, it's not going to be near the top of the list of must-have titles for youngsters this holiday season. Rent, don't buy, and be sure to have something else lined up quickly.