Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 139 / APRIL 1992 / PAGE 84

Operation Neptune. (educational software) (Evaluation)
by Peter Scisco

Your mission: to recover the wreckage and solve the mystery of a secret space mission gone awry.

Data canisters containing the logbook and observations of the crew on the space mission were spread throught inhospitable undersea terrain when they were jettisoned back to earth from beyond the solar system. Once you've collected the canisters and broken their security codes, you not only will reveal the discoveries made by the scientists and astronauts on the space mission but may also learn whether the toxins at the crash site are linked to the canisters or are just a coincidence.

This econologically correct scenario forms the backdrop for the educationally sound Operation Neptune, one of the most ambitious programs to emerge from The Learning Company. Designed for kids age 10 and up, Operation Neptune combines fast-paced arcade action and great graphics presentation with well-grounded mathematical principles. The result is a game that's as addictive as any videogame you're likely to buy. You and your children will have so much fun playing it that you might not realize you're getting a refresher cours in math.

This is a key point in The Learning Company's strategy: to design educational software that teaches subtly, if not surreptitiously. Operation Neptune succeeds by presenting math problems in a thoroughly entertaining way. Few kids will be able to resist playing it all the way to the end.

The arcade portion places you in command of the Neptune, a small deep-sea submarine equipped with a sophisticated on-board computer and the capability of grabbing small objects from the ocean floor.

To make progress, you must solve any number of equations and problems--applied math that tests your abilities to deal with fractions, decimals, and whole numbers in several different contexts. You might, for example, have to indicate the distance your sub has traveled, given its rate of speed and time in the water. Or you might have to compute the square kilometers left to search in a given sector. It's more than a little challenging.

Kids, of course, are less enthralled with the educational elements of such programs than they are captivated by the entertainment, and Operation Neptune captivates. You must maneuver your small ship through treacherous underwater trenches and canyons, avoiding obstacles such as outcropping of rock, coral reefs, and the like. These arcade elements prevent Operation Neptune from evaporating under the pressure of solving math problems.

Moving the submarine is not overly difficult, but precise movements aren't easily executed. Occassionally, your craft will be tossed by undersea currents. Part of the challenge in piloting the Neptune is in using these currents to slip past obstacles and retrieve parts of the wreckage.

As is maneuvering your sub weren't enough to keep you occupied, you must also deal with a deadly mix of strange sea creatures. These odd animals aren't just the fantasies of a back-room game designer; they're modeled after actual creatures that you might encounter in the second world beneath the ocean's surface.

Your and your kids will have hours of fun trying to avoid these udersea inhabitants, which range from angelfish to anemones, puffer fish to octopuses. The Learning Company takes some license in the name of entertainment--some fish throw rocks, for example. But what fun would it be to dodge these creatures if they were no more dangerous than goldfish in an aquarium?

You have a supply of wepons to get you through especially tricky parts. The Learning Company get good marks here for keeping the game's underwater theme in mind when designing its defensive system: ink pellets. When faced with a menace, you can temporarily surround it with dark ink, allowing you and your sub to slip past.

The rest of the game also offers attractive, carefully designed graphics. The underwater environment is rendered in brilliant pastels in a sea of blue hues, fish and other creatures you meet during your explorations are well designed and presented and the animation is smooth and fun to watch.

The game's universe is quite large, so your kids will be able to enjoy playing for many hours. Five separate zones, which increase in difficulty, are each divided into three sectors. Combine that with the customization options, and Operation Neptune offers plenty of gameplay.

If all this talk about arcade action and gameplay makes you uneasy, don't fret--Operation Neptune provides plenty of mathematical challenges. You can customize it along four levels: Whole Numbers Only; Fractions and Whole Numbers: Decimals and Whole Numbers; or Decimals, Fractions, and Whole Numbers.

The math problems range from simple addition and subtraction to more advanced problems involving compass headings, volumes, area, percentages, and sequence patterns. To help you,a calculator is available. Not all of the problems allow you to use it, however. And there's an option for turning off the calculator--great for parents who want their children to have more practice in solving problems with pencil and paper.

The game doesn't use timed questions, thus eliminating unnecessary and artificial pressures. Insteade, you start each sector with three full oxygen tanks, each containing four units of oxygen. Crashing into a sea wall or the floor, incorrectly answering a problem, or getting attacked by a sea creature costs you one unit of oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled from Zoom, the friendly dolphin that's trained to bring you more oxygen tanks.

Although you're penalized for incorrect answers, Operation Neptune teaches you how to solve problems. After the first incorrect answer, it offers a hint as it prompts you to try again. If you miss again, another unit of oxygen is used up, and the program explains how to solve the problem.

The short-term goals of making it though three sectors and then through a zone are enhanced by the underlying premise of the game--solving the riddle of the data canisters. If you're able to break the code that grants access to its contents, each canister provides a short entry to the space crew's logbook. Placing these entries together lets you slowly unravel the mystery behind the secret space voyage.

Only a few small technical improvements could make Operation Neptune better. An options to start a new game without completely exiting the program would be useful for families with children at different skill levels. Also, given the game's arcade quality, joystick support is conspicuously absent. My only other complaint is the startup sequence, which calls for you to type the letters on to launch the game. I prefer something more memorable, like neptune. These are small quibbles, however, in an otherwise excellent piece of work.

Once considered not much more than electronic flashcards, learning programs today are hardly recognizable as educational. Now they rival videogames for arcade excitement and simulations for special effects. And the best educational software retains the ability to teach, to excite, and to maintain an interest in learning. Operation Neptune sets sail in grand fashion.