RAINY DAY SOFTWARE
Theodora Wood looks at a wide variety of educational games to keep you occupied during those endless summer holidays.
SUMMER HOLIDAYS are the time of the great outdoors, when activities centred on the computer seem less attractive than in the winter months. Rainy days, however, can be rather daunting, so this month I examine some packages to amuse and interest as well as being of some educational value, for all ages between three and 80.
Mr T's Measuring Games from Ebury Software explores the concepts of size, taller/shorter, and higher/lower for children aged between three and six. Growing Races shows two objects on the screen; as the child watches, one increases in size and the object of the game is to press SPACE when their size is identical. Starting with two stationary objects, the game progresses to two moving objects, which makes it rather more difficult to assess the moment when the size is identical.
Climbing and Growing displays animals on steps which can be made to shrink or grow, go up or down the steps until they fit the space exactly; the child has to press SPACE when they do that and, if correct, the animals are filled in with colour.
For both games a menu can be reached by pressing Q, where difficulty levels can be set between one and nine and sound and colour turned on or off; otherwise the difficulty increases according to the child's skill. The booklet with the package contains plenty of hints for other activities and how to use the program with children of that age group.
A useful feature is that CAPS SHIFT/BREAK does not crash the program, so little fingers can explore without fear of that. Measuring Games is attractive in its format and easy to use with very young children.
Look Sharp from Mirrorsoft is another fine example of Gordon Askew's skill with graphics on the Spectrum, as seen previously in The Humpty Dumpty Mystery. New packaging provides an A5-size semi-hard cover. Two programs are provided, Old Macdonald's Farm and SORT. Old Macdonald's Farm tests visual skills in three areas - memory, odd one out and snap. For section one, memory skills are tested by showing a picture of four animals placed in different positions on a square; pressing any key makes the animals disappear and then the child has to press a key when a picture appears which matches the animal portrayed previously in that position.
If an incorrect response is given, the whole picture is shown again. For odd one out, Macdonald moves along the top of three pictures; pressing any key will stop him above the picture which is the odd one out.
In Snap, two pictures are shown, each changing in turn as in a game of Snap; it can be played either as a one- or two-player game and a picture of Old Macdonald is built.
SORT presents a situation where a space cadet must pass observation tests, based on the visual skills found in Old Macdonald; the tests are visual perception, visual discrimination and visual memory. The main menu allows a choice of practice at any of those which can be easy or difficult, and the fourth choice is the full test. The visual perception test is a Snap game with a difference, for there are two rows of three pictures and the child has to press any key to indicate any match - of rockets, little spacemen and spaceships.
Correct responses allow the blue rocket score to lift off while the red rocket indicates incorrect responses. Visual discrimination asks the user to pick the odd one out of the six pictures shown; that can be difficult and careful selection is needed. The last section, visual memory, asks the child to remember the nine pictures in their correct positions and the picture is shown again with 'press any key when ready' if an incorrect response is made.
Quizzes can be an interesting way to pass an hour or two and there are two new programs, Hotline and Startrucker, which are both based on the quiz format. Hotline from Chalksoft is designed to appeal to ages eight to 80. One notable feature is the new approach to packaging shown by the glossy book-jacket-type cover and the accompanying booklet. Previously Chalksoft programs have been minimal in their packages, with a cassette supplied with inner cover, and the new-style packaging must reflect the growing professionalism of some of the smaller software houses, taking their presentation into line with the major publishing houses like Longmans. That obviously increases shelf appeal on the stands of W H Smith and the major retailers.
The program is a quiz based on multiple choice of four questions. Once LOADed, there is a start menu which allows the user to play with the current set of questions or LOAD a new set of questions from the outer side of the tape; they are starred according to difficulty level, ranging from one-star (easy) to six-star (genius) covering much options as Cowboys, Pirates and Mastermind.
Option three leads to the special menu, where seven more choices can be made. The number of questions in each set for a Hotline quiz can be limited between five and 20; new questions can be added to the current set or a completely new set could be created.
The new sets can be SAVED for future use. Options for LOADing a new set of questions or returning to the start menu are also available. The provision of those options ensures that Hotline is versatile and lends itself to repeated usage. As such, the program does not depend for its range of difficulty levels on the questions provided, so that any child who is able to read would be able to use the program and any kind of question could be provided, although multiple-choice answers are not the best vehicles for odd-one-out type questions, which have to be unambiguous.
The motivation scenario, however, requires a little more thought; the aim of the game is to answer a number of questions correctly - five to 20 - and complete the link between the two red telephones at the top of the screen. The penalty for failing to accomplish that is a flashing explosion and a skull appearing on the screen. The program notes explain the conceptual nature of the Hotline - "To maintain world peace, the Hotline telephone link between the world's leaders must be kept... but the line has broken and the world is on the brink of disaster... each correct answer repairs another section of the Hotline, until the White House and the Kremlin can speak together again."
To be effective as a motivation scenario, Hotline relies on fear of world disaster; a thousand other scenarios could have been chosen as a quiz background which might have been more desirable; also £11.25 it a high price to pay for quiz facilities which can be found in such programs as Whizz Quiz and Jungle Jumble, by Clever Clogs and Computertutor.
Aimed at the nine-plus age group Startrucker, from Clever Clogs, shows the same endearing qualities of a mixture of pokes and questions, on-screen happenings and keyboard use as of previous publications. The company has also smartened its packaging but the formula is roughly the same.
The motivation scenario for Startrucker is to arrive in a position with the spaceship Jupiter near Earth with no points left and 100 credits. If the force field has also been built-up a leap into hyperspace is executed with flashing lights and colours. Points to buy credits and build up the force field are awarded by correct answers. One hundred questions are provided and they can be changed; Clever Clogs is also soon to release tapes of questions on science, arts or general knowledge, with 600 questions per tape with full compatibility with any of its quiz programs.
Adventure programs can provide plenty of reading practice. Zoo from L'Ensouleiado Software, takes the form of an interactive storybook. As the title suggests, the subject matter involves a visit to a zoo; at each stage the child has to decide which animals to visit next. This zoo is different, however, as none of the animals is in a cage and hazards can include dozing snakes and hungry dolphins, as well as a donkey with a sweet tooth which refuses any food except chocolate.
Illustrated with line drawings, Zoo simulates a day at the zoo with decision-making at every turn, suitable for seven and eight-year-olds, although not likely to retain interest over a period of weeks. It is an interesting formula, however, which could be developed for all kinds of scenarios.
Castle from L'Ensouleiado Software is aimed at the age range 11 to 15. The text-only adventure game is located in a mediaeval castle, based on Walkworth Castle, and the user has to explore the castle and make a full plan of the layout, as well as locate the treasure.
Before a move can be made the player has to identify the current location from the description given - a full list of terms and a grid map are provided - or answer a question about castles. If the answer is incorrect things can happen, such as being marched back to the main door by men-at-arms.
Castle provides the user with a fascinating way of learning about mediaeval castles, as well as having the usual ingredients of an adventure game, with up to 84 locations. Good value for money, Castle could be the first of many history games in this format. A visit to a castle during the holidays could be a great deal more informed after using the program and it would be useful in school project work during term time.
L'Ensouleiado Soft ware continues the history theme in Cortes for 13- to 15-year-olds, which enables the user to role-play the part of Cortes, the Spanish Conquistador. The player has to make decisions on the information given and will gain or lose points according to those decisions. Equipment checks and crisis reports keep the player alert as to the state of the army and horses and also provide reminders as to the importance of such activity in leading an expedition, as well as illustrating the impact of an alien incursion on native culture. Maps of the area are also shown. The author is a history teacher at a comprehensive school in Cumbria.
For those of a more scientific frame of mind, ETST Software has produced a package to teach the first stage of electronics. Learner's Guide No 1 makes no concession to enjoyment as it is a straightforward learning package aimed at those who feel a desire to learn about the subject.
The subject matter covers material from the O level syllabus in control technology - the atom, the lattice, the P-N junction, functions of the P-N junction in the semiconductor diode, and Ohm's Law. A 24-page booklet in rather small print outlines the subject matter and each section ends with self-assessment questions. The explanations are clear enough and I found little difficulty in understanding the terminology. The computer program reflects the instruction given in the booklet, with the added advantage that the diagrams are animated, which is of great assistance in understanding such concepts as the behaviour of electrons in a doped silicon lattice and forward and reverse bias.
One criticism, however, is that the screens of information scroll without user control and, although a re-run can be made, it would have been useful to have the facility to 'Press any key when ready' as technical information requires some study. The program is recorded on one side of the tape only and it would have been better to have had the SAQs on the other side, rather than in the booklet.
The package has its practical side also, because with parts included it is possible to demonstrate the principles contained in the booklet and the program, forward and reverse bias, a continuity tester to test conductivity of household materials, an OR gate and an AND gate. It is the practical aspect of the work which really illustrates the working of the theory, as in a science lesson.
Learning to wire the components and identify them is of great assistance in attaining a thorough understanding of the working of the theories and can form the basis of further practical work. My local electrician priced the components supplied at £3, so a price of £5 for components supplied by ETST to build an electronic communicator between different rooms in a house or to call up to seven people does not seem unreasonable and, having followed the learning package, is entirely feasible, as the circuit diagram is very clear and straightforward, once the components have been identified.
It is not recommended for those who do not enjoy the idea of wires trailing round the house but would be an interesting project to follow when other pressures of study were less exigent. ETST is preparing another package to cover the transistor as the basis of Learner's Guide No 2.
Looking back at these packages, from the most professional-looking design boxes to the simple cassette case, it is apparent that, as with books, you cannot judge a program by its cover. It would seem also that part of the reason for higher prices is the packaging which, although attractive on a shelf, does not necessarily mean that it is better value in educational terms.
Mr T's Measuring Games
Old Macdonald's Farm
Learner's Guide No 1