Magic School Bus: Oceans
I was born during the year the first Magic School Bus book was published. During my first years of my life, Ms. Frizzle and the children of her class room took me on adventures into the human body, taught me about dinosaurs and stoked an interest that continues to this day in science. The series has expanded since the original publication, moving into chapter books, DVDs and even taking on new subjects like history. The combination of fantastic adventures and sound science has proven to be a very successful one, and now the series is expanding with its first entry on the Nintendo DS, Magic School Bus: Oceans.
As the title implies, this is a release all about the oceans. Players find the familiar students of The Friz’s class in trouble – the science fair is tonight and they’re behind on their oceans project. In a wetsuit walks Ms. Frizzle, and with no discussion of permission slips, she herds the students onto the bus for a trip from the shore to the sea floor.
Each of the game’s six stages work the same way. From the driver’s seat of the bus, players select the area of the ocean that they want to explore. During your initial playthrough, you’ll have to unlock each zone by earning points in minigames, but once you complete the game you can go back to any zone whenever you want. Players start out on the coast inspecting crabs and sea urchins, but later chapters offer more exotic sea creatures like sharks, sting rays and giant squids. With a small toolbox players can utilize, each zone offers four sea creatures to inspect using tools like an x-ray or camera to get a better look at them, inside and out. There’s also an encyclopedia entry for each and a bit of trivia too, so kids will have neat little facts about two dozen sea creatures to impress with if they take their notes.
In addition to this, tapping on any of the creatures on the screen leads to an additional minigame. I thought there were some missed opportunities here. There are a small handful of games in all, and the points accumulated in these allow you to unlock the depths of the ocean. Some of them are very good – one that casts you as three different members of the food chain teaches at a very basic level how an ecosystem works. But for the most part, I felt there were some missed opportunities here. The games are very basic and don’t always seize opportunities to be more educational. In one game, players shine a flashlight into a dark ocean floor, catching a glimpse of a creature hidden in the shot. After playing for a bit, players are then tasked to identify the creature. This is a perfectly fine task that fits well with the game, except that the game doesn’t expose players to any of the creatures except during this mode, essentially testing them blind. I found the mode very discouraging and stopped playing it. Perhaps if there were hints next to each selection to help players identify it the mode would function better.
Another mode I found somewhat frustrating is one that tasks players with tracing three unique parts of fish within a time frame. Again, a perfectly reasonable game mode, but one that doesn’t work well in execution. The biggest issue is technical – the game’s tracing mechanic is very demanding, and if you slightly deviate from the line, it resets. If you weren’t under a time limit it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but since you are it can often lead to failures.
Magic School Bus: Oceans is a decent enough product, but I didn’t feel that it seized enough of the opportunities afforded by the license. Characters from the books only make small appearances, even Ms. Friz. The collection of games grows stale by the final areas and very few of them actually push science at players. The Magic School Bus is all about stoking the imagination and curiosity of readers, and the very best parts of this package do that. Unfortunately, the best parts are fewer in number than the weaker portions. Magic School Bus: Oceans will keep kids busy for a few hours, but it won’t capture their attention long term.