Educational games have always been a bit of a mystery. How do you mingle fun--that which makes children want to play games--with learning? Well, Nintendo's answer to this question apparently was Donkey Kong Jr. Math, a simplistic marriage of rather complicated math with the ever-popular (at least at the time) prince of the jungle, Donkey Kong, Jr.
Nintendo chose to present this game through two game modes, both of which bear strong resemblence to the stages in Donkey Kong Jr., sans Mario. There is clearly a main mode, then another less polished mode that was apparently thrown in because the developers discovered they could. The first mode is quite good, the second a bummer.
In the first mode, you are competing against another monkey to solve mathematical equations. Or rather, you are using equations of your own devising to reach a certain number. The number is displayed at the top center of the screen, your current number is on the left, and the opponent's is on the right. So far as I can tell, the only way your opponent will ever do squat is if you have a second player competing with you. This is actually quite cool should you possess a friend willing to play this relic, but rather a bummer if you happen not to have such a stroke of luck. Playing by myself, I realized the game soon grows dull, despite its potential. Basically, there are around 18 numbers to choose from, and the four basic math signs that stand for addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division. You use the numbers, then the sign that's appropriate.
The only problem is that multiplication and division alter the number by too much, addition and subtraction by too little. If you're not good with numbers in your head, this game will frustrate you immensely for a fair amount of time. Say you have 776 and the game starts you with 150. Since the numbers you can use are all single digits from 1 to 9, you have to decide where to go from there. Multiply 150 by 5 and you're up to 750, but that leaves you making up the 26 points by going through the tedious process of adding digits on one at a time, 9 here, 5 there. By yourself, this is an absolute bore. With a friend possessing mathematical skills similar to your own, it's much better.
But it all comes down to the fact that this game simply isn't a whole lot of fun. There's really no challenge other than repetition and who is better at math with high digits. The only way to die is to fall into a pit, something so difficult to accomplish that you must do it on purpose. And the penalty? You start over while your opponent keeps working toward his goal.
Clearly, the game is about learning. Still, that main mode can be fun for kids, a good way to learn if nothing better is handy. So on that front, it succeeds. Where it fails is in making learning truly enjoyable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the second game type included on the cartridge. Here, you have more advanced numbers and you must figure out their solution. The goal is to gain a high score. For each of 10 problems you solve properly, you get a point bonus. Give the wrong answer and it's onto the next round without the points. This is a nice idea in a way, and certainly motivation for two kids to improve, but for an adult it accomplishes little. The problems can actually be quite tough if you choose the upper difficulty levels, but still there's not really a point where you can't handle it. You can only do so good, see, and most people who are decent at math will soon reach the game's limit. After that, you realize you're just solving math problems and trying to convince yourself it's fun.
But it's not fun, especially due to the klunky system. Long-hand division, an art now lost in elementary schools, is so confusing that you feel like you need a math book. I've solved the problems successfully, but as a learning tool the game fails in that it doesn't provide instructions. You're supposed to jump into the game already possessing the knowledge of how it works. Pen and paper do a better job, save the motivation of score.
That all leads nicely into something you should also consider: this game is rare. It's extremely rare, in fact. I was fortunate to find it (in a way). Unless you get an emulated version, it's likely you'll never play this one. Therefore, the collector in you might want to pick it up. But unless you have a friend struggling with math and you want to finally trounce him at something--friends who are good at FPS titles tend to suck at math--or unless you're a collector or true Nintendo fanatic, this is one title you'll want to leave on the shelf.
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