Math Ace.(educational software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)by Clayton Walnum

Here's a game that makes it fun and exciting to solve equations and easy to understand math concepts.

Math programs have been trying to teach children (and adults) about numbers almost since the first personal computer landed in the home. These math programs have covered all the bases from simple flash-card drill-and-practice programs to games. What few math programs have accomplished so far, however, is making math really fun--creating an addicting yet educational product. Math Ace from Magic Quest accomplishes this difficult feat.

In Math Ace, you're charged with destroying a virus that's running rampant in a grid of microchips. The longer it takes you to solve a series of math problems, the more microchips the virus munches into silicon dust. If the virus manages to eat its way all the way to the edge of the grid, you lose. Over the course of your virus stomping, you'll get a change to play four subgames, all of which cleverly introduce you to various mathematical concepts. They really make you think, but you're having so much fun trying to stop the virus that you don't notice how hard you're working.

The game begins with a grid comprising 80 microchips. Several virus eggs are located in the grid, with one hatching immediately. The object is to enclose the virus with robot shields so the virus cannot chew its way to the edge of the grid. You accomplish this by selecting a chip on the grid and the direction in which you want the next set of three shields to be built. Then, if you successfully answer a math problem, the shields, which the virus cannot penetrate, are placed on the grid. Once you've surrounded the virus with shields, you advance to the next level, which features more viruses and tougher math problems to solve.

Of course, complications abound. First, because the game runs in realtime, you must answer math problems as quickly as possible. The longer it takes you to solve problems, the more chips the virus will chomp. Second, the virus doesn't sit back and let you build shields without a fight. Often, when you select a chip, the virus challenges you to duel successfully, then one of the virus's eggs is destroyed. Otherwise, if you lose the duel, another egg hatches, leaving you to contend with multiple viruses.

A duel features one of the four subgames mentioned previously. Depending on the level, a duel may be a game of Angle Cannon, Bubble Gum Machine, Hide and Seek, or Function Shoot.

In Angle Cannon, the virus moves in a repeating pattern on the screen. You must enter at an angle to set your cannon and then fire at the virus. You have only three shots with which to hit your target.

The Bubble Gum Machine subgame does a terrific job of teaching probabilities. When it begins, a gumball machine fills with red, blue, and yellow gumballs. Surrounding the gumball machine is a simple playing board. The virus and your token take up their respective starting positions. To move your marker, you first select a token for the number of moves you want to make, from one to five. Then you select the color of gumball you believe is most likely to drop from the machine. The more balls of one color in the machine, the more likely that color of gumball will be dispensed. Guess correctly, and your maker moves forward on the board the number of spaces represented by the token. Guess incorrectly, and the virus moves instead.

In Hide and Seek, you're presented with a four-quadrant grid like that used for graphing functions. As is typical with a graphing grid, the values on the x-axis and y-axis are marked in both negative and positive numbers. You select the point on the grid where you want to hide; then the virus chooses its hiding place. You and the virus then take turns entering coordinates in the grid in an attempt to locate each other.

Last, but definitely not least, Function Shoot gives you a chance to show off your understanding of function graphing. This time, a real graphine grid appears on the screen, with the virus visible somewhere in the grid. The program gives you a function, and you must then provide values for the function's coefficients. After you're entered the coefficients, the program graphs the function on the grid. If the graph line hits the virus, you win. You are allowed to adjust the function's coefficients three times before the virus automatically wins the duel.

Each one of the subgames does an excellent job of presenting difficult math concepts in an interesting and understandable way. Most important, they're all fun!

If you feel you're not quite ready to jump into a full game or it you just want to review your math without the pressure of a ticking clock, you can enter Match Ace's Smart Lab. In the Smart Lab, you can choose any type of problem from any level in the game. The available topics include Basic Concepts, Arithmetic, Real World, Charts/Graphs, Probability, Geometry, and Algebra.

Besides offering you the problems to solve, the Smart Lab also feature an online reference book that includes information on everything from simple arithmetic to trigonometry and calculus. Plus, you can learn about other number-related topics such as numbers s in foreign languages, weights and measures, time, abbreviations, and money exchange rates.

In fact, these extra topics are what keep Math Ace interesting. In one problem you may be asked to estimate the percentage represented by a fraction, while in the next one you may be asked how a half note in a musical score relates to a quarter note. Often, these real-world questions have little to do with arithmetic; instead they present an interesting fact about the world. This shows how numbers play a role in the real world. Languages get good coverage here, including not only French, Spanish, German, and Japanese, but also Braille and Morse code.

No matter whether kids are playing the main game, are engaged in a duel, or are just practicing in the Smart Lab, they'll delight in Math Ace's detailed graphics and entertaining sound effects, including everything from simple clicks and pops to explosions and voices. One thing's for sure: Kids will want to crank up their sound cards when playing Math Ace.

If Math Ace has a problem, it's that it tries to present too wide a range of material in each of its two difficulty levels. For example, a child who chooses the Prodigy (easier) level must, in order to win all eight levels of the game, answer problems ranging from basic arithmetic all the way through simple geometry. To win at the Ace difficulty setting, a child must be able to handle problems ranging from diving decimal numbers to factoring polynomials and graohing equations. In other words, only children of the highest age recommended for each of the two difficulty levels--or extremely gifted youngsters--are likely to be able to finish the entire game.

Despite this slight design flaw (and the fact that the darn angle cannon doesn't seem to shoot straight), Math Ace is a clever and an effective math tutor--perhaps the best program of its kind available. Both you and your children can expect to spend many happy hours with it, stomping out nasty computer viruses while at the same time building up mathematical skills woefuly lacking in too many people today. Quite simply by meeting the challenges in Math Ace, your children can finally learn to difference between an exponential function and TV Guide. And that's important.