Animal games seem to be the big new thing, especially on the family-friendly Wii. You can't throw a Remote in a shop without hitting one these days, with every major publisher putting out their own take on the safari-vet-sim sub-genre. Jambo! Safari is Sega's entry in the virtual-wild-animal-game stakes, and a resurrection of an old arcade title, but is this game one you'll want to cuddle or a beast to put out to pasture?
A title screen featuring a strongly American-accented announcement of "Jam-Bo Safari" doesn't exactly set the tone for an authentic safari experience, but it's a game that's aimed at children looking to train for a job as a park ranger at a fictional African safari park, so that's okay. Initially good fun, It's only after a few hours of play that the flaws start to creep in and take some of the shine off.
Your trainee ranger gets about entirely in a Land Rover (hurrah for corporate sponsorship!), never getting out of the vehicle except to change outfits and hairstyles (more on that in a bit). The game is rated PEGI 3+ and putting aside whether or not kids under 10 should be playing video games in the first place, having the primary control interface being via Remote and Nunchuk means this is a game that should definitely be played by parent and child together. The Nunchuk is largely used for controlling the vehicle and does quite a good job of it. You steer with the , accelerate with and brake/reverse with . Pressing will cause your Defender to drift and it all feels really nice, especially when you're chasing down animals -- which you do a lot of.
The park has three regions each split into three zones and it feels massive (it better considering how long the load times are when travelling between zones). There is a lot to do in the park: photography, tours, speed runs, rubbish pick-up, poacher trap-clearance and special missions, but oddly enough for a place focused on conservation it feels a lot more like a wild animal rodeo. There are sick animals to treat in the park (marked by convenient green "!" over their heads) and animal surveys to carry out all of which bizarrely involve lassoing them and reeling them in like so many land-fish. It's certainly more exciting than darting them and waiting for them to fall asleep, but surely chasing down an ostrich that's feeling poorly in a Land Rover Defender 90 (tm), throwing a rope around its neck, reeling it in and then throwing a net over it isn't proper animal husbandry, is it? It's no doubt the result of this originally being based on an arcade game, and in fact you (and optionally a friend) can simply drive around roping animals all day: the game drops into "Arcade Mode" if you do this unprompted and awards bonus points when you've lassoed eight animals, stopping if you do two in a row of the same species.
Right or wrong, ropin' them thar African dogies can be challengin' pardner! Once you close in on your quarry a targeting reticule will appear around it, at which point you need to start making circling motions with your Remote as if you're a proper cowboy. When the reticule turns white a gentle overhand swing sends the rope around the animal's neck - YEE HAH! Press to start reeling them in with the winch, keep 'em in your sights and do another overhand swing to throw the net on them (represented by a sheet of flame on the ground and a rocket trail over their head, as you would expect). The idea that your young trainee hasn't been given the job outright based upon the proven ability to drive, swing a rope and net a bull elephant at the same time is incredible, but if this gig doesn't work out there's always the circus! The roping and wrangling controls may sound complicated but they work really well and provide a decent amount of excitement, as failing to keep pace with the animal or overtightening the winch will break your line. For younger players (or if you just cannot be bothered with doing all that) there's an Easy Mode you can select at any time where all you need is a single throw of the rope and keep right behind the animal whilst all other actions happen automatically, but you don't get quite the feeling of accomplishment from taking down an angry lioness that way.
Speaking of which, surprisingly not all animals want to be wrangled (though some are apparently playful and up for the chase, indicated by emoticons that hover over their heads). Angry animals will actually charge your vehicle and even more amusingly can even flip it over! No harm done, but it's quite amusing that a lion will charge and flip your Land Rover, whilst animals you would normally regard as a threat like an elephant or a rhino will tend to run away. Don't worry about harming critters because your Defender (tm) will just bounce off everything like it's hit a concrete barrier (nice crash sound effects included). Once you've managed to rope your animal you get a nice cutscene of your ranger trainee standing there pulling the animal towards them (isn't this the part where the lion goes for the easy kill?) and then you get prompted to put your catch in the enclosure back at base for treatment.
Animal treatment is a big feature of the game: there are loads of animals with various ailments, but you can only have three back at base at one time. You can bond with animals by naming them and view information cards on the animals you capture, and there is something satisfying about treating poorly lions and such, but it's let down by bad game design. For some bizarre reason it was decided to make each and every aspect of animal treatment into some kind of mini-game which awards ranger points (we'll get to those in a bit) and is scored with a letter grade. The problem is that few of the animal hospital activities lend themselves to the mini-game format and just end up becoming really tedious.
Using the pointer and motions to grab thorns and pull them out, operate a scale to weigh an animal or take an X-ray work great, but other treatments fail. You'll be asked to apply antiseptic cream or muscle relaxant rub to a sore patch, but rather than just treating the obvious area you need to cover the entire screen. Soothing an animal by patting it involves clicking repeatedly whilst pointing at various flashing circles that appear until a "happy meter" is filled. Feeding involves clicking to grab food items off a conveyor and drag them to the animal's mouth, but the hit detection is so bad that sometimes you need to put it on their eye or their horns before they take it. All of these are timed and whilst there's no bad outcome if time runs out (the vet just says she'll do it), it does make it more of a chore than it should be. Even more annoying is that some animals need "additional recovery time" so you can't release them right away. You would think that the vet would just let them go when ready, but no, she radios you to come back and release them yourself! If you don't you won't be able to send any more animals back for treatment, so you'll do quite a bit of extra back-and-forth from the field to home base - though this is made a bit easier by allowing for instant travel between zones using handy maps at outposts.
The visuals are okay, with stiff but lifelike animal movement and behaviours, though the savannahs consist of green painted ground with the odd splash of virtual trees and shrubbery, meaning you'll have trouble telling the difference between a lake you can sink into and a muddy patch you can drive through. The generic African drum music is fine and animals make nice animal noises, but that and car sounds are pretty much it for audio aside from some rare use of voice samples which are mostly heard in the animal treatment facility ("this animal is sick!")
Given you're back at the central hub a lot, you'll find a couple of places to spend the ranger points you'll be collecting throughout the game. Points come thick and fast and are awarded for picking up special items like apples, butterflies, African masks and artifacts. Of course you get the most points for capturing animals, completing missions and various challenges throughout the game.
So what do you do with ranger points? Well, you can customise your Land Rover fleet (there's three additional cars to unlock) with fancy alloys, specialist tyres, new paint, decals and armoured bumpers (great for ramming giraffes on the savanna). It also seems someone took a page out of failed 1980s attempts to make girl games, because the main thing you do with ranger points is buy different hairstyles and outfits for your ranger trainee. This could be harmless enough fun if it wasn't so damn insulting: there are only four characters to choose from (two young men and two young women), three of which are white kids from the suburbs. Why the choice is so limited when the Wii comes with the excellent all-inclusive Mii editor is a very good question, especially in a children's title. On top of that are the "interesting" clothing choices: for the boys, pretty standard stuff like cargo "pants," t-shirts, vests and the like For the girls, your typical v-neck blouses and trousers that look like they're sprayed-on and, even better, midriff tops and mini-skirts - great for clubbing, not so great for a kid's safari game.
There's a few party games as well, but they're all pretty bad: ostrich racing features some rather broken motion controls where you hold the Remote sideways and move it forwards and back to get your ostrich running. This works occasionally once you figure out the amount of force to use, which isn't very often. Next is a stone skipping game - that's probably all you need to know about that. The meerkat game isn't too bad: meerkats run about collecting fruit (aren't they insectivores?) and you click squares on the grid to place arrows to try to direct them to your colour-coded burrow for points. Finally there's a football (soccer) game played with a giant football and your Land Rovers. It would work better if the ball moved more and if the goal didn't move at all, but there you are. One play of these is all it takes to decide that the effort wasted on these would have been better spent on QA.
There truly is a lot of activity packed into this game and you could easily play it for dozens of hours, but save often because the game is prone to crash from time to time. Crashes weren't duplicable, but happened after confirming the decision to exit a location like the Land Rover garage or when being prompted to restart a failed mission. In one case there was a loud tone and the only way to reset the Wii was to unplug the power from the mains; the other the screen just froze and the system could be powered off using the Remote. There are also some amusing bugs in the game where your vehicle can respawn after being flipped only to spin about in the air repeatedly (earning you a "big air" badge) before settling to Earth. Clearly the game was pushed through QA to make the shelves in time for Christmas, but that was probably not the best decision in this case.
As an arcade experience Jambo! Safari was a decent bit of fun; attempting to expand it into a home game hasn't been that great a success. Poor decisions in the wardrobe department, tedious animal treatment sections, useless "party games" and bad QA take a lot away from what could have been a pretty fun game to play with your kids. If you can pick it up cheaply you might have some fun with it - just be sure to tell your kids that most people working in African safari parks don't look or act like that.