Whenever a casual conversation happens to touch upon the subject of endangered species, it's likely that the poor old panda will crop up at some juncture. Although statistically the wild panda population is actually on the rise, the traditional perception of this cute and cuddly animal is one of pity – how many times have you witnessed a news report about pandas being too dim-witted to even mate with each other?
Should you be one of those people who go all soppy whenever such a report flickers onto your telly box, you may wish to satisfy the conservationist within you by playing Sprite Interactive's Cuddles the Panda. Tapping into the evergreen 'virtual pet' market, the game places you in charge of a newly born bear – clearly a momentous event if the aforementioned alarmist media reporting is anything to go by.
It's your job to nurture the newborn and ensure he (or she – although it must be noted that no matter what gender you initially select, Cuddles does not change in appearance) remains happy, well groomed and receives plenty of love. Should you fail in your duty, Cuddles will leave you rather than give up the ghost (the developer obviously didn't want to label players as 'panda killers'), and look elsewhere for affection.
To tick all the boxes you need to participate in a number of different activities. The most engaging is 'Kiss Chase', which sees your panda pet placed in a maze with the express purpose of planting as many smackers as possible on the massive furry face of his mate – who happens to be a pink panda with a nice big bow in her hair.
Bizarrely, should you designate your panda as female at the outset of the game, the object of their desire remains decidedly girly-looking. Does this represent a brave attempt to promote sexual diversity amongst animal kind, or is it just down to the laziness (or, to be fairer, time constraints) of the programmers? We'll let you decide.
Everyone knows a clean and tidy panda is a happy panda, so it's vital that you bathe and groom Cuddles as much as possible. However, should your pet start acting up, you can take measures to chastise them in the only way you know how – by giving them a little tickle.
Presumably the developer wanted to avoid the spectacle of an endangered species being clouted for bad behaviour, so instead we're expected to believe that a quick itch under the arms will be sufficient to penalise your unruly charge. (Handy hint: don't try and tickle a real panda, as it will probably rip your arms off.)
Another aspect of Cuddles the Panda that surprised us was how shallow and materialistic these bears are. If this game is anything to go by then pandas get a kick out of eating ice cream, appreciate receiving flowers and love to cuddle up to teddy bears at bedtime.
All of these items, and more, can be purchased in the shop using money you've gained as a reward for performing other activities. It would appear that a bit of retail therapy helps to keep your average panda happy and content.
In addition to all this pampering, you're given the option to enter your birth date and thereby obtain vital 'biorhythm' information. Quite what this has to do with raising a wild animal we're not sure, but we've little doubt that it will appeal to the intended audience – presumably young girls.
If you hadn't gathered thus far, Cuddles the Panda is extremely limited in scope. Like all virtual pets the appeal obviously lies in keeping your animal joyful and content for as long as possible. Sadly, the deeds offered are just too basic to provide any tangible enjoyment. The 'Kiss Chase' section is mildly diverting but soon loses its attraction, and the other sections feature no real gameplay at all – you're merely clicking an option and watching the resultant animation play out.
In terms of production, however, the game is hard to fault. Everything is clean and attractive and it contains some decent sound effects – including sighs of contentment from the panda itself, kissing noises and bath time water splashes. It's all sickeningly sugar-coated stuff, to be honest.
Although we only tested Cuddles the Panda on one handset – the Sony Ericsson W550 – we were alarmed to notice that the game crashed several times, usually when performing relatively straightforward tasks such as navigating the menu system. Obviously we can't be sure this is the case for other handsets and there's the possibility that Sprite Interactive will improve stability in future versions (the one we tested was 1.0), but it's perturbing all the same.
If you're not a pre-pubescent female with a penchant for cuddly animals, then Cuddles the Panda is unlikely to rock your boat. Action fans will be repulsed by the lack of instant gratification and puzzle fanatics will scoff at the complete lack of any demanding mental tasks.
As far as virtual pets go, this certainly isn't any worse that lacklustre rival programs currently on the market – but unfortunately it doesn't do anything significantly better, either.