Review: Math Blaster: Episode 1 (Sega Genesis)

In this review, things add up in the Sega Genesis game Math Blaster: Episode 1. We find out how well this education game plays.

This game was released in 1994. It is a port from the DOS version. It is sometimes called Math Blaster: Episode 1 – In Search of Spot on other systems. The game also kicks off a surprisingly large series.

The plot is, generally speaking, revolving the kidnapping of Spot. Blasternaut must rescue Spot from the clutches of the Trash Alien.

As you might guess, the game revolves around mathematics. What that difficulty is depends on what difficulty setting you selected before the game start. The first few difficulty numbers challenge players to solve addition problems. As the difficulty progresses, players can find themselves taking on subtraction, multiplication, and finally, divisional problems. You can also select the number of Blasternauts you wish to bring with you on the adventure. they are pretty much just free lives.

In the first level, you are zapping trash in space. Of course, you aren’t just mindlessly blasting garbage. You’ll periodically be given math problems. The key is filling in the question mark space. Once you figure out the number, you’ll need to shoot the piece of trash with that number.

Along the way, you’ll occasionally encounter enemy ships. The choice you have is to either blast the ship with your firepower or raise shields after they take a shot at you. It’s either those two options or take a hit and lose fuel. If you lose fuel completely, it’ll be game over.

Occasionally, energy spheres will travel across the screen. Zap one of them and you’ll replenish your shields a little.

The ultimate goal is to solve enough math problems to make it to the next stage. Complete a stage and you’ll get to a bonus level. In this bonus level, you’ll get to shoot random asteroids as they fly by. The more asteroids you blast, the more points you get.

In total, there are three stages to complete. Complete the third stage and you’ll make it to round 2.

Round 2 is probably the least intuitive mission in the game. The goal is to fly up to the top of the cavern through the openings. The problem is that the openings are guarded by energy fields. You’ll notice either a number or math problem on either side of the opening. The idea here is to solve both problems on either side. Once you solve both problems, you need to get a number between those two to get to the next level.

An example of this is 2 X 5 and 3 x 5. The answer to the first problem is 10. The answer to the second problem is 15. So, you need to get a number between 10 and 15 to pass through easily. The reverse is also true. An example is 23 + 15 and 20. The answer to the left math problem is 38 while the answer is already given on the other problem. So, you need to get a number between 20 and 38.

So, the next problem is getting that number just right. Each level features large drops of water that are either positive or negative values. This affect the number you have on hand. If you have 15 and touch a +6 water drop, your number will change to 21. If you have 25 and you touch a -12 water drop, your number will change to 13. Generally speaking, the bubbles do generally lead you in the right direction of the solution, but random numbers do throw you off as well.

As you travel up, you’ll advance to stage 2 and stage 3. Complete all the levels in stage 3 and you’ll advance to the final round.

The final round tends to be more annoying than anything else. You’ll appear below the flying saucer flown by the Trash Alien. The space craft features a math problem board and four chutes. The board presents a problem and you need to fly up the corresponding chute. Do so enough times and you’ll advance to the next stage. Complete all 3 stages and you’ll beat the game.

Of course, standing in the way is the random pieces of space garbage. Every time you touch some garbage, you’ll lose health. If you fly up the wrong chute, you also lose energy. You’ll even encounter the occasional alien that will also cost you energy. While you do have a blaster, it is pretty hard to control given how large your character is. Often, a good strategy is to fly up into the correct tube as quickly as possible before the trash gets to you.

It’s easy to see the intent on making things like math fun here. Education games have a pretty bad reputation sometimes with so many flops out there. In the first stage, it is quite apparent that the goal is to get math problems in front of players to make them more math literate. While the couple of elements to spice things up do end up being more of a distraction than anything else, learning math winds up being the main focus.

The problem I have here is that, once you get past round 1, the game becomes less about math problems and more about side scrolling action. The later stages of round 2 become so cluttered with enemies, I find myself thinking less about the math and more about basic survival. By the time I reached round 3, stage 2, the game became more or less an action game with a splash of math.

Another problem with this game is a very common problem with a lot of education games. The game play winds up being a little on the bland side. In all fairness, trying to make math problems fun is a tall order to begin with. Unfortunately, this game doesn’t really make a strong case that it can be very fun. While the minigames can be passable, that’s all they wind up being. The first game is probably the most successful of the three at turning numbers into a fun exercise. After that, the game’s fun factor just starts dropping off from there.

A third problem with this game is what a lot of others have noted: length. Spend about an hour playing the game and you’ll either beat the game or lose. As a result, the quantity leaves a lot to be desired.

On a related note, there is no ability to save and no real way to save your score. Once the game end, the high score you worked hard on getting poof’s with your game. This is a rather big disappointment in my view.

Another minor issue I have with this game is that the difficulty settings could have been better presented. Instead of just a plain number, it could have been “Add #”, “Sub #”, “Mul #” and “Div #”. Abbreviations or not, it would have been much more useful than a number between 1-12. This is, after all, a Sega Genesis environment, not a DOS environment here.

Generally speaking, this game already has a tall order in bringing fun into education – especially math from my perspective. It started off decently enough, but then gradually slid off the rails. The only redeeming factor is that you don’t have long for this game to go off the rails because it’s also quite short. Unfortunately for this game, length also isn’t this games strongest suit. The difficulty could have been better presented. The lack of any save functionality didn’t really help matters any here. In this games defence, I’ve seen worse out there, but I’m not convinced I had the greatest time in the world with this one either.

Graphically speaking, this game is very middle of the road. The redeeming qualities here are the cut scenes that do make this game seem reasonable. The animations are reasonably smooth, but some of the sprites are borderline last generation quality. So, it’s fairly mediocre.

There is no music to speak of in this game. Now, on the one hand, being distracted by overly complex music while solving math problems isn’t the greatest thing in the world. On the other hand, something very basic in the background wouldn’t have hurt either. Either a slow drum loop or even something ambient probably would have been a good choice here. I think it would have been better than nothing. The sound effects are actually pretty good in the mean time. The voice samples work quite well and the other effects are pretty crisp. So, that is the upside here.

Overall, an education game is pretty difficult to get right. While the game starts off decently enough, the quality gradually starts to drop off from there. The difficulty settings leave a bit to be desired and the length doesn’t do the game any favours. While there is minor entertainment value to be had, it is challenging to find it at times. The graphics are fairly middle of the road. While the sound effects are nicely done, there is no music. Overall, a very average game.

Furthest point in game: Beat the game. High score: 87,420

General gameplay: 17/25
Replay value: 6/10
Graphics: 6/10
Audio: 2/5

Overall rating: 62%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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