|Platforms||Apple II, Macintosh, DOS|
|Buy from Amazon|
People generally sit down and play games for fun and entertaining experiences. In contrast, they generally only learn math out of necessity or for financial desires. Rarely does "math" and "fun and entertainment" interact to any significant degree, as shown by the vast amount of the population who despises the various forms of math, if not outright sucking at them. Certainly we can find math in some gameplay, given say a choice between various equippable items, but modern games readily simplify the process, giving clear comparisons if not outright displaying the superior choice. Games are certainly rooted in math, down to the programming, but players are absolved of such things, witnessing only the shiny results. However, a time and place exists for such contradictions as math and fun, and Number Munchers is just that contradiction.
Number Munchers was developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) for the Apple II, Macintosh and DOS. MECC assumedly created the game for use in schools, where their games often met audiences on 5 ½" floppies (along with other classics such as Oregon Trail and Lemmings). Having found a fully emulated version at http://www.virtualapple.org/numbermunchersdisk.html, I decided to revisit this gem and determine just how good it really is.
The game starts by giving a clear and workable menu. In addition to displaying our muncher in its full glory, we receive options to play, view top scores, read the instructions or quit. A crafty user also has access to a hidden options menu by pressing control+A, which allows modification of game settings or score deletion. Upon starting the game, the user has options to choose multiples, factors, primes, equalities, inequalities, or random.
Once gameplay begins, we control the muncher on a 6x5 grid filled with numbers. The objective is to munch the correct numbers and leave the rest. On multiple play, you get a number at the top and need to munch multiples of it. For factors, the opposite; for primes, only prime numbers. For equalities, you are given a number and need to munch the simple equations that equal this number. For inequalities, the equations that do not equal this number. This process is complicated by the Troggle monsters, who are also hungry and invade your grid space. These monsters can randomly change or create numbers and equations on the grid and will eat your muncher (or other monsters) given the opportunity. The initial Troggles are fairly slow and harmless, merely randomly wandering the board. Future Troggles are more sinister and will modify the grid or even directly chase the muncher. Luckily, the grid has temporary safe spots as well, designated as a more prominent outline of a spot. These will keep Troggles at bay, or alternately vaporize them on the spot if they manage to touch one.
Number Munchers is also mostly solid on presentation. The grids themselves may seem a bit bare and dull, yet it's hard to imagine ways of more effectively presenting the material. Well, the safe spot outlines could be more clear as they are not apparent in the heat of munching. Besides that, I suppose the visuals could be helped by adding various color schemes for each new set of three grids or perhaps some basic background textures, but this does not significantly negatively impact the game. The character modeling, however, is unquestionably top-notch. Both the Muncher and each Troggle are drawn unique, clear and vibrant. Simple yet effective, the art team created designs that could stand the test of time. After passing each third level, the player is also rewarded with a lighthearted cutscene, involving Munchers and/or Troggles in precarious situations. These cutscenes also allow the art team to show off a bit of their ability outside the confines of the basic game. In terms of sound, however, the game can only be considered a bit lacking. The actual game sounds are few and far between, with a sound for a munch, a sound for a monster devour and a sound for level completion. The cutscenes add a bit more, but the lack of any significant sound design puts the player into a bit too much of a solitary vaccuum. Granted, it may be useful to cut down on external distractions while one is both avoiding monsters and calculating in their head, but certainly something more could have been worked for a more complete experience.
But overall, the game leaves us with a very positive impression as MECC easily accomplishes its major goals and even some minor ones. With almost flawless integration between work and play, Number Munchers is no doubt edutainment at a high level, a game worthy of still being taught in the classroom and perhaps even snuck home. Borisov would be proud.