What have we made Andy (aka UKNESBoy) do this week???
There is a lot to be said in the usage of video games and linking this to education and the
learning of today’s youth in a meaningful constructive manner. Google Scholar shows that
“videogames and education” yields 37,000 differing posts on the matter from esteemed
educational bodies all over the world noting its positive attributes and at times dire
consequences. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re sat on, with the right game then
video games are as good a learning tool as any encyclopedia written or lesson taught in
schools. However, education often has the somewhat unfair tag of being unpopular or
boring, with video games being a more pleasurable way to spend time so why not combine
both education and (video game) entertainment into one desirable product? Nintendo tried to do this this way back when in the early library of the NES, with its educational title Donkey Kong Jr. Math, which is the subject of today’s review. Is it worthy of an “addition” to your library, or does it “subtract” the fun out of learning? More maths-based puns later on…
Donkey Kong Jr. Math was released on the NES in Europe in 1986 and classified as
“educational entertainment” – it even notes on the box it was part of the “Education Series”.
However in the US it was the only title released under the education series, and is more
niche than the less-than-impressive two titles released under the “Robot Series” of games
that Gyromite and Stack Up was. It is disconcerting than in the attempt to amalgamate
education and entertainment, there were more titles for a robotic accessory than for
“edu-tainment”. Anyway, the idea of the game put simply was to solve maths problems in
order to win. Yep, nothing more sinister or as involved then that. All your favourite
mathematical treats are here, addition, subtraction, multiplication and don’t forget division!
Gaming is often criticised for not being a valuable learning tool, however, Donkey Kong Jr.
Math attempts to blow that theory right out the water. Key word being, attempts.
When you turn on the game, as per other black box titles on the NES you get straight to the
start menu where you pick from three glorious game modes – Calculate A, Calculate B and
+-x/ Exercise. When you pick exercise A, you’re greeted with Donkey King holding up a
number, and a random set of numbers spaced across 6 vines alongside mathematical
symbols across the bottom. The goal is to swing the character, Donkey Kong Jr across the
vines selecting your number, then the symbol on the bottom and picking the next number,
then the symbol and so on and so on until you get to the number that DK is holding at the
top. It really doesn’t get any more taxing or difficult as that. It may tax the brain at times to
get to the number but it really doesn’t tease the brain matter as much as a well-thought
platforming level that you could get from a level created in Super Mario Maker designed by a 5 year old who was blindfolded.
You solve puzzles until you win a certain number and then…that’s it. Calculate B is the same as the first game mode but the number DK holds is much higher so it requires even more thought than before. The only good thing is that after each sum you get a total thus far so you know how close you are to the total and an idea of how to proceed. However, it is laborious and does take away a lot of the fun that if the game was designed different could have made the point of the game a lot better. The mathematical symbol Exercise mode you are presented with a sum and you have to solve it, but in such a convoluted way that again it could have been more fun if better executed. You climb up the vines that go up from 1-0 which changes the digit in question at the top right of the problem that needs solving but it doesn’t tell you if you are on the right path to solve the equation, so in effect you go up and down the vine till you obtain the correct number. The vines relate to which column the unit value pertain to such as tens, hundreds, thousands etc. It sounds more complicated than it is, but then again it is less fun than it sounds.
The game features one and two player modes, of which if you are playing the two player
mode then you have to solve the figure at the top of the screen quicker than your opponent – should you do so you’re rewarded with a point. The overall gameplay does resemble that of Donkey Kong Jr so if you are familiar with the game mechanics of that then it transposes pretty much the same as Donkey Kong Jr. Math which is not a bad thing, which in a platforming game works well but when trying to solve maths problems, then it doesn’t work as well. Another aspect of the gameplay is that your mathematical quiz master Donkey Kong can ask for negative numbers which again adds a level of unnecessary challenge. Music and sound effects, it’s not the most inspiring with the most basic of tunes and gruff sound effects to boot. It is OK. However, if you are intending to play this, it is recommended to have a good playlist going or at least having an audio-book on solving Pythagoras’ theorem using Pi with an abacus whilst standing on your head.
It was a novel idea of Nintendo to combine the fun of video game entertainment with
education, and was also good to use a tried and tested character of Donkey Kong rather
than using someone completely random. As so often in life however the idea doesn’t quite
pan out in its execution. To start, Donkey Kong Jr moves so slowly that you try pushing your
d-pad down harder in the scant hope he moves quicker but to no avail. Climbing from vine to vine is tedious and the fact is the position of the mathematical symbol moves having picked it up, so in essence when you pick your number then symbol, the next number could be across the screen which takes time and makes the process more laborious then most. The gameplay is not the most engaging and having played the game for a while for this review, it didn’t have the impact or result that now this reviewer is somewhat of a mathemtical genius (arrgh dammit! – Ed).
Sure, use Donkey Kong as a hook but if the gameplay was more engaging and better
executed then who knows? It could have led to more educational titles on the NES. At the
time, the game did not yield a great reception and it is easy to see why – you don’t need a
calculator to add up that boring gameplay and clunky controls, times with simplified boring
questions equals a game that not only gave edutainment titles a bad name but also is a
game to avoid if you want to play a game that gives the impression of making you learn.
Read an encyclopedia or play with a calculator instead, your brain will thank you later…