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On educational games part II: Is edutainment really shovelware?

This is a sequel to this post, which details when I played an old PC educational game for the first time to kill a ghost and ended up being very impressed and relaxed by it, despite its age.

Last week I bought a number of other educational games at a thrift store for very cheap, including a few licensed games. A lot of people seem to lump in all edutainment with shovelware and disparage the genre as a result, but that's not really true. Here's what I thought of what I bought, most of which I didn't play as a kid:

JumpStart Preschool: All New '99 Edition (1998, Knowledge Adventure/Animation Magic): Genuinely great. Despite obviously being a preschool game, it never feels like it was made by a team that dumbed itself down for 4 year olds. Instead, as seems to be par for the JumpStart course, it feels as if the developers thought of ideas they themselves thought were interesting and yet could easily be molded to fit an educational curriculum. It's a staggeringly diverse game with activities including hidden object finding, connect-the-dots, and matching different parts of a character's outfit – all of which have shown up in casual games for adults without anywhere near the great animation and voice acting. I love the banter between the characters in the classroom hub, as they act like real kids despite being cats, rats, and elephants (


). Even the songs are delightful rather than cloying. Interestingly, this game was developed by Animation Magic, the Russian company behind the infamous CD-i games Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon; I have no idea how they suddenly went so right within the JumpStart franchise.

Reader Rabbit Math (1999, The Learning Company): A very good game with some big flaws. Despite being in the title, Reader Rabbit is barely in the game; this is actually a blessing as he is an annoying character. Unlike JumpStart Preschool, Reader Rabbit Math does not work as a casual game. If you play on the hard difficulty setting, like I always do, you have to think quickly or else you'll be bounced back to easier topics. It's fun, but it's also flawed because the activities end far too quickly – by the time you're about to be addicted you've already cleared the level. The other major problem is that the villain, Captain Ratbeard, is far too good for this game. He's voiced by Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario, Luigi, Wario, and Waluigi, and Martinet portrays him as pretty much Wario with a hunger for cheese instead of gold. Ratbeard is such a minor character, but Martinet towers above the rest of the cast in his scenes, so I wish he had far more screentime.

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Reading Blaster 2000 (1998, Davidson & Associates): I played many Blaster games as a kid but I never seem to have played this one. I enjoyed it. Its satire of the media is hilarious, it has great characterization, and two of the levels are really addictive – one where you destroy asteroids while keeping them away from missing letters in a word, and one where you pick out a monster with the right look and personality from the audience. It also has a great choose-your-own-adventure story which has chapters you collect as you finish games. Unfortunately, with the four levels being the same every time you play the game, it gets repetitive. The repetition doesn't bother me that much since I don't have much time to game anymore (only a few hours per week, and only on weekends), but it might bother others.

Richard Scarry's Busytown (1999, Boston Animation): Now here's where the quality gets iffy. I did actually play this game as a kid, but it looks like it was a different version with much worse graphics. I'm glad I don't have much nostalgia for it as it's actually a mess. It has no idea what age range it's aiming at – some aspects are meant for toddlers, like the seesaw and the book of nursery rhymes, while others are at no less than a 2nd grade reading level, such as the delivery game. Was it a game that people played exclusively with their older or younger siblings? At least the art looks like it came straight out of Scarry's books and the activities appear to be very true to them, which is more than I can say for the next game I'll be talking about…

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Curious George Learns Phonics (1998, Houghton Mifflin Interactive/Vipah Interactive): I played a Curious George educational game as a kid (it probably wasn't this one), so I was looking forward to playing this, but it's so bad. A lot of people think educational games are nothing more than workbooks that are wrapped up in a "game" format, and thus really unfun. I vehemently disagree with that notion applying to JumpStart, Reader Rabbit, or Reading Blaster, but it is absolutely true for Curious George Learns Phonics. The only part that can really be considered a game rather than a learning exercise is the Pac-Man type minigame, and why play that when you can just play Pac-Man or one of its incalculable clones? In addition, the game feels like it just had the Curious George license slapped onto it without any further effort. George only appears in the cutscenes, the other characters don't look like H.A. Rey's art at all (he used mostly angular character designs while the game's characters are rounder and blander), and, most stupidly, more than half the characters are animals. This last fact completely misses the point of Curious George, which is that he's an adventurous monkey in a world filled almost entirely with stuffy humans!

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (1995, Davidson & Associates): This has absolutely no reason to exist. The book in its original form is so brilliant in its minimalism that any attempt to expand on it would completely diminish its strength – never mind that the added features, such as the jump-rope songs, are pointless on their own. How Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Reading Blaster 2000 were made by the same team can only be explained by the former probably having a shorter development cycle due to having a well-known license. The only redeeming factor to Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is the fact that Ray Charles narrates the book within the program.

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So from this small sample, it turns out that educational games have the exact same problem as pretty much every other video game genre: licensed games suck so much more than non-licensed games. I have a feeling that, in addition to the anti-intellectualism instilled in so many gamers, the reason why educational games have such a bad reputation among many people my age is that so much of what their parents got for them consisted of terrible licensed games.

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