Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 124 / DECEMBER 1990 / PAGE 78





Easy to understand, a cinch to use, and recognizably educational—since the early days of educational software, these qualities have contributed to the widespread popularity of drill-and-practice programs. Today, they continue to be one of the most popular kinds of applications.

The underlying premise is straightforward. You're given a simple problem to solve and instructed to type in the correct answer. If you get it right, you get a reward. If you miss it, the program shows you the right answer and repeats the question. After being endlessly and patiently tested on a specific subject, just about everyone finally memorizes the correct answers.

In many subject areas, this method is probably the most effective. After all, if you practice your math facts often enough, eventually you'll remember them or at least become faster at figuring them out.

While early versions of drill-and-practice programs were effective, students would often lose interest. Many times, the rewards were a simple "Very Good" or an animated graphic. But who really cares if the bunny hops across the screen or the bear reaches the berries? Kids often don't, and once a kid loses interest in the reward, that's the end of the drill as well.

The programs kids don't like don't sell well, and eventually developers started to get the hint. While some developers completely stopped making drill-and-practice programs, others took a different approach—they took a good hard look at arcade games. To keep those quarters falling into the slots, arcade games must offer a specific challenge, have multiple levels to explore, and be fun to play. These developers speculated that drill-and-practice programs might be more successful if they managed to combine good educational theory with interesting rewards. In fact, a really well-crafted drill-and-practice program can provide almost as much fun as a good arcade game. And unlike an arcade game, it can provide excellent educational content.

Davidson & Associates' newest version of the very popular Math Blaster series is just such a program. The New Math Blaster Plus offers dynamic graphics and sound, an exciting new problem-solving game, and plenty of what Davidson is famous for—well-written, well-researched, and highly effective drill.

Just watching the opening credits is fun. Blasternaut and Spot, his one-wheel robotlike friend, zoom past in a spaceship and then stop to say hello. A main menu that looks reassuringly like other Math Blaster menus appears next. Tantalizing titles like Rocket Launcher, Trash Zapper, Number Recycler, and Math Blaster appeal to the children who will be using the program. Pull-down menus along the top of the screen let you or your youngster easily control the program options. There's even a record-keeping command to turn on if you plan to let the computer keep track of your student's progress. A built-in editor is provided to make it easy to design your own problems if you or your child wants to focus in on a particular concept.

Different levels of difficulty will keep youngsters challenged and interested.

And as for the sound and graphics, seeing and hearing are believing. On just a plain MS-DOS machine, the sound was good. On a machine equipped with an Ad Lib or Sound Blaster Music Card, the sound effects will blow you away. Even the graphics take advantage of the capabilities of the computer you use. In VGA color, the flying objects seem to take on a life of their own. But enough about the trappings. What is the program itself really like?

Of the four games included, Rocket Launcher is the easiest to recognize as drill and practice. There are two modes of play. In the Study mode, equations such as 6 + 7 = 13 are flashed on the screen, and then a second later one of the numbers in the equation is replaced by a blank line. Your goal is to solve the problem correctly by typing in the missing number and pressing Return. After several problems have been solved in this way, Blasternaut will board his space ship and head for the stars. In the Solve mode, equations always appear with the blank for the missing number. Again the goal is the same: Get enough answers right in a row to allow Blasternaut to take off.

Trash Zapper is a cute drill-and-practice game with a unique environmental theme. Because of the presence of Trash Aliens, the space near Blasternaut's planet has been polluted with old bottles, paper garbage, and even the rings from soft drink cans. Can you help out? For every five problems you solve correctly, you'll get to blow some trash out of the sky by moving the gun sights and firing the Zapper. Hit the trash directly, and it vanishes. Miss, and you'll have wasted a valuable shot. When time runs out, it's back to solving problems again. The only way out of this cycle is to press Esc and return to the main menu.

In another of the four games, Math Blaster, Blasternaut has to fly up to the ship bearing the correct answer to the math problem displayed. To arrive safely, he'll need your help dodging the space trash circling the planet. Take too long maneuvering him around, and the Trash Aliens will descend to the planet's surface. Move too quickly, and you risk having Blasternaut hit by a flying brick. As in any good arcade game, you can gain additional lives, provided you correctly solve several problems in a row. Watch out, though; he'll lose those extra lives in short order if you don't learn how to maneuver him quickly. Every piece of trash he collides with slows him down and costs him a life. At higher levels, the speed at which the Trash Aliens descend increases, and there's more and more space trash to deal with. Just knowing the right answer isn't quite enough. Getting Blasternaut through the space trash unharmed before time runs out is harder than it seems.

So much for the drill portion of Math Blaster. What's the reward? After five correct answers, you have a chance to increase your point score by helping to feed Blasternaut. He's free to fly around the screen catching the food that appears randomly on the screen while he dodges the rocks and bricks floating through space. Everything he catches adds points to the total score. Interestingly, you receive extra points for choosing good things to eat. It's nice to know that fish and carrots count for more than ice cream sundaes, hamburgers, and French fries. Eventually, dinnertime is over, and then it's back to solving problems. When you've exhausted all of Blasternaut's extra lives, the game ends. Is your total point score good enough to put you in the hall of fame? If not, try again. If you make it, don't rest on your laurels; do it again!

Number Recycler isn't just good drill and practice; it's an excellent problem-solving game. At first, 18 numbers fill a grid separated by + and = signs. Your task is to create five different equations by sliding the numbers down a chute one at a time. If you slide down more than one number, the first ones will be zapped and put out of play. Planning ahead is essential if you plan to work your way past the fifth level. To make the game a real challenge, try using either a + or - in the equations. You get points for every correct solution, and you get plenty of practice making bad decisions before learning how to predict just which equations work out the best in the long run.

What shoves the New Math Blaster Plus up the ladder from good to excellent is the variety of possible levels and subject areas. This isn't a program your youngsters will outgrow quickly. First and second graders will be challenged by the addition and subtraction problems, third and fourth graders will find the multiplication and division problems hard to do quickly, and fifth and sixth graders can use the program to review and strengthen their arithmetic skills, even while they practice solving problems with percents. And their brothers and sisters in high school will be challenged by the upper levels in Number Recycler.

Avoid orbiting paper and other trash.

Choose from four different games.

Interesting graphics make learning fun.

Need to keep records of your youngsters' achievements? The handy recordkeeping routines will automatically track their progress. Each time a child solves a reasonable number of problems correctly, an entry goes into the record, and the program offers to print a reward certificate. These can provide students with a permanent memento of their achievements with the New Math Blaster Plus.

Potentially very important to the teachers or tutors who use this package is a handy test-printing routine. You can print out problems similar to those on the screen and let children work on them at home or as a timed review. These can be handy if you plan to quiz your child yourself and want a paper record of the results.

I had only a few problems with this generally excellent program. The older students found Rocket Launcher pretty boring. Even the second game could be quite a bit better if a scorekeeping mechanism were added along with a hall of fame. Speaking of halls of fame, it would be very nice if the names and scores on the list could be erased. That way children wouldn't have to compete with their best scores on lower levels each time they attempted a new level or a new subject group. And the lack of a speed control in the option menu meant that faster computers often played quicker than children could think. This became a problem only on the upper levels of Math Blaster, but it did prove rather daunting to the children who got that far only to be shot down completely.

If you're looking for a solid educational game that offers excellent practice in arithmetic for your children, look no further. With the creative enhancement of the drill-and-practice motif, I can solidly recommend the New Math Blaster Plus. It's colorful, it's effective, and it's fun!

Educational Value *****
Documentation **
Originality ****
Graphics ****

New Math Blaster Plus

IBM PC and compatibles; 512K; DOS 2.1 or higher; CGA, EGA, MCGA, VGA, Hercules, or Tandy (requires 640K) graphics; hard disk installable; includes both 5¼ and 3½-inch disks; supports Ad Lib and Sound Blaster music cards—$49.95

P.O. Box 2961
Torrance, CA 90509
(800) 545–7677