Friday, September 17, 2021

Green Phoenix - The ClueFinders 3rd Grade Retrospective


Going to elementary and middle school in the early 2000s made me and I'm sure many others very aware of educational computer games. Chief among these were those produced by the now defunct The Learning Company and distributed throughout schools as a form of summer supplemental learning programs. I know that my school district participated in such a program, despite the generally low quality of games issued out.

As a result, I have very fond memories of the Reader Rabbit franchise, which was aimed towards kindergarten through 2nd grade children, and the focus of today's retrospective, The ClueFinders franchise. Aimed towards older elementary and early middle school children, The ClueFinders really was a personal favorite of mine growing up, with my sister and I playing the games constantly.

As nerdy as that might seem, I really loved the hell out of the tone that the series maintained throughout its entire run and have enjoyed watching people playing the games online for years, even as the quality continues to age poorly (a staple of the entire Learning Company brand). The games had a heightened level of world-building and the combination of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery wasn't what one might expect from an educational game. So in that spirit of nostalgia, today's retrospective will focus on the first game in The ClueFinders franchise that I remember playing, The ClueFinders 3rd Grade - The Mystery of Mathra.

Released in 1997, The ClueFinders 3rd Grade - The Mystery of Mathra introduces us to the titular ClueFinders: Joni, the founder and team leader, Santiago, the team's mechanical expert, Owen, the laid back skater bro, Leslie, the team's resident genius, and Laptrap, their neurotic robotic assistant. On their first outing, the ClueFinders travel into the depths of the Numerian Rainforest where an ancient civilization once resided that disappeared when an ancient monster known as Mathra arrived in the jungle and was eventually sealed away. When Joni's uncle, Dr. Pythagoras, goes missing during an expedition to the Numerian Rainforest, the ClueFinders recruit Mr. Lindberger, a pilot, to take them there, discovering that the legendary Mathra has seemingly returned and that animals are going missing throughout the Rainforest.
Now the ClueFinders have to traverse the jungle to uncover the pieces of two keys which will unlock the prison that the ancient Numerians built to imprison Mathra so that the beast might be sealed away again and the missing animals and Dr. Pythagoras can be saved. But along the way, the ClueFinders will uncover hints that there is far more to Mathra than meets the eye.
The overall plot of the game is surprisingly complex and deals with a lot of actual crimes and references that are likely to go over the head of the average 2nd or 3rd grader. The game has a formula that would be shared with the rest of the franchise, where you have to collect a variety of various colored objects to unlock the next phase of the adventure. Each color of a specific object is gathered in its own unique educational minigame. The Numerian Rainforest is divided into three main areas: Monkey Kingdom, where you must assist the animals in various tasks and collect different colored "Sneezeberries", and the Goo Lagoon, where living plants are struggling under a mysterious pollutant that is being released by Mathra and will give you "Goobeetles" to progress your game. The Sneezeberries and Goobeetles are then used in their own set of five minigames to collect the two keys that are needed for the final level where you confront Mathra and save Dr. Pythagoras.
The game focused on a variety of educational topics that were all par for the course for a 3rd grader, pattern recognition, reading comprehension, and mathematics being only a few. The game is quite extraordinary for its complex and varying game play and the diverse cast of memorable characters. Obviously the graphics are nothing to write home about, but the characters, story, and games are so well constructed and involved that I can't help but find myself drawn into the game even as an adult.
A key part of that lies in the game's use of humor and genuine mystery. The Mystery of Mathra actually has a pretty well-designed layout of clues to help younger children uncover the secrets regarding Mathra's true nature. The game gradually gives players the pieces as they progress through the game such that by the end, they should be able to see the reveal just before it actually occurs. This is a surprising level of detail for a game designed for 8 year olds.
Thankfully, the game never takes itself too seriously and always maintains a level of good-natured referential humor throughout. The Goo Lagoon is introduced through a Beatles-inspired band of living plants that I remember getting as a kid only because I had seen other Beatles-lookalikes in media before.
One element of The Mystery of Mathra that I've always thought was strange, and is somewhat shared with the whole franchise, is the tendency of the ClueFinders to never be together as a group until the very end. In this outing, Joni and Santiago are the main band of adventurers, with Owen and Leslie playing a secondary support role, providing hints and clues during the puzzles. Laptrap is mostly a menu screen and inventory screen that jokes and mocks the situation.
It's honestly kind of hilarious just how much of this game I remember, even after nearly 20 years since I first got the game. The ClueFinders franchise was such an iconic part of my early childhood that I would love to see brought back or revitalized for a new generation of kids. The game was fun and informative and, despite its graphical limitations, provided a wonderfully enjoyable experience for nerdy kid like me.
I will definitely touch upon the rest of the franchise that I remember playing, as well as the Reader Rabbit series, down the line in more of these video game retrospectives.
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