Dr. Panda has a great prescription for pre-schoolers

Developer TribePlay has a series of popular apps for youngsters featuring the cute character Dr. Panda. His original incarnation worked in a hospital, where the kids could help him take care of his patients. But the clever doctor has extended his empire since then, and running a restaurant is his latest business. And same as before, he’s calling on the children for assistance.

In Dr. Panda’s Restaurant, you’ll get to try your hand at a whole range of restaurant-related tasks. A variety of adorable animal guests need showing to their tables, and when they’ve finished eating the tables need wiping and re-laying, the dishes need washing and the rubbish needs to be sorted and put out for collection. But the central activity is cooking for your clients. There are many different dishes on offer from gingerbread men and fruit smoothies to stir-fries and pizza.

Dr. Panda's Restaurant

Each of the different recipes requires the player to carry out slightly different actions. To chop vegetables, you draw lines across them. To puree fruit you tip it in a blender and press the button. Building a gingerbread man involves dragging pastry decorations onto the dough. There’s plenty of variety, which will keep children involved, but sadly the potential scope for a little creativity is almost completely ignored. When you chop, you have to follow the lines. When you decorate your ginger figures, the decorations have to go in pre-determined places. The touchscreen controls are very forgiving, but it seems a bit of a lost opportunity not to allow a little more imagination in preparing and presenting the dishes, as some other cooking apps like Cookie Doodle do.

Those controls aren’t explained anywhere: there are no instructions or tutorial and indeed no traditional menu screen. You’re put straight into the action with guests arriving in their cars, waiting to be fed. For the most part this is an excellent interface decision that encourages little fingers and enquiring minds to explore the app to its fullest extent. And inquisition is rewarded with some fun secrets to uncover, like the tiny mouse who wears cheese on his head. But it’s marginally less intuitive than you’d ideally like for an open-world setup of this kind, especially if you’re not expecting it right at that start. The learning curve is pretty smooth though and it’ll quickly cease to be an issue.

The lack of a normal menu also means the app lacks the level of user options that you might expect. For example if there are options to mute the music and sound separately – or indeed at all – I couldn’t find them. And I’d have liked to, because while the sound effects are excellent, the music will please children but rapidly become repetitive and annoying to adult ears. The visual style is quirky and appealing, and kids of a certain age will absolutely love the way it looks.

Dr. Panda's Restaurant

I suspect that certain age is around the pre-school range of 3-5. Younger ones will find this a lot of fun but won’t be able to use it by themselves and may become frustrated. Older ones will find it too simple. It’s difficult to find children’s apps that appeal to a wide age range, but that relatively narrow band is symptomatic of a general lack of staying power. It’s a tremendously appealing app with plenty to do, but it lacks variety. Once the mini-games have been played a few times and all of the ten or so dishes on offer have been cooked, there won’t be a lot to keep children coming back to this. But it’s worth stressing that as long as it retains its novelty value, they’ll find it enormously entertaining.

The chore-based mini-games extend the shelf life a little, but they’re very simple. However, they also ensure that there’s a little education in the entertainment, too. Kids love to try and help around the house, and this app teaches them a bit about how meals are prepared and, importantly, about how you have to clean up afterwards.

The designers behind Dr. Panda’s Restaurant have clearly thought long and hard about how best to make an app that combines everything a child could want into one place. With its games, exploration, education value, bright graphics and crisp sound it blends together all the things that kids find fun and that parents will want to see in an app for young children. The trouble is that while it offers everything, and to a high standard of quality, it just doesn’t offer quite enough variety for real long-term value. But at a mere $2, perhaps it doesn’t have to.