Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978

Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew "The Secret of Shadow Ranch"

Fall 2004 Software
Ages: 10 - 16 yrs.
Price: $19.99
Platform: Windows 98 and Up
How hard is it to crank out title after title of an award-winning edutainment software series while making each new addition fresh enough to keep diehard fans coming back for more?

The masterful software designers at Her Interactive whose 10 Nancy Drew mysteries may be unequalled in quality, plot depth and creativity certainly know how hard. And their latest mystery, which takes the legendary teenage gumshoe out West to the Shadow Ranch in Arizona, shows some of the strain of keeping all the plates juggling for so long.

Like the other interactive detective games in this series, this one is both fun and challenging. Based on the best-selling Nancy Drew book of all time, kids assume the Nancy role and, again, find themselves caught up in the middle of another crime caper--this time marked by the appearance of a phantom horse that bodes bad luck to anyone who sets eyes on it.

Is it the spirit of the vengeful stallion of a hanged desperado of olden days, as the local ghost story tells it? Or a sinister plot of a modern bad guy? That's what Nancy aims to find out.

If you're a good sleuth, you might find the answer after 20-plus hours of roaming around the ranch via the game's remarkably realistic 3D graphics, gathering evidence, interviewing tight-lipped suspects and brainstorming.

There's the usual cast of suspects, including the handsome cowboy Dave Gregory, who suspiciously disappears whenever the phantom horse is appears, the tough old-fashioned cowpoke Tex Britten, who gives Nancy a hard time, and the gossipy ranch cook Shorty Thurmond, who gives Nancy so many chores to do that she hardly has time to investigate what's going on.

Some technical changes in this mystery might upset some diehard Nancy Drew fans. The new larger screen format, including a pop-up feature, is a little more complicated than the previous format. And the journal and all-important cell phone are now accessible by menu icons. The new cell phone connects to email and Web-surfing.

But the biggest trouble in this game is the chores. Puzzles and mini-games have been a welcome and relevant element of most of the Nancy Drew titles, usually providing not just an entertaining but small distraction but also important clues. The tasks you're required to complete before solving the mystery here quickly grow tedious, however.

For instance, Shorty won't talk until you pick a basket of ripe vegetables and set up the fire outside. Bring in any unripe vegetables--and there's no telling on the string beans like there is on tomatoes--he scolds you. Do it too often and he kicks you off the ranch!

Before you can build the fire outside, you've got to gather wood and fill a bucket of water. Finding kindling is easy enough, but chopping logs proves to be an annoying job of positioning yourself in realtion to the log and getting the angle of axe just right. It's all trial and error with way too much error.

Then there's repairing the basket, collecting eggs from the hen house, finding arrowheads, and the most tormenting task, baking a cake--a travesty which took more than a dozen tries!

While fun at first, too many of the chores and puzzles become mundane tasks that lend an authentic ranch-like feel to the game but take way too much time and offer little educational or crime-solving value.

That's not to say this game isn't another amazing Nancy Drew game. But let's just say there's a little too much ranch dressing on this mystery.

Don Oldenburg   ©2004 Parents' Choice
A former feature writer and consumer columnist at The Washington Post for 22 years, Don Oldenburg is the Director of Publications and Editor of the National Italian American Foundation, in Washington, D.C. He regularly reviews books for USA Today and is the coauthor of "The Washington DC-Baltimore Dog Lovers Companion" (Avalon Travel). The proud father of three sons, he lives with his journalist-author wife, Ann Oldenburg, in McLean, VA.

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