Friday, January 21, 2022

Green Phoenix - ClueFinders 4th Grade Retrospective


A few weeks back, I did a retrospective on the very first ClueFinders game, The Quest for Mathra. ClueFinders was a computer game released by The Learning Company during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Intended as a continuation of the widely successful Reader Rabbit series, this time focused on kinds from ages 8-12, The ClueFinders franchise became a staple in my household as a result of my school offering the games as part of a summer supplemental retention program during elementary school.

Essentially my teachers didn't want everything my sister and I would learn to completely atrophy over the summer and it allowed us to get a heads up on our peers by enabling us to access the types of math, science, and history that we would be learning once summer finally ended. And so they set up a program where my parent's could buy educational computer games to assist and entertain us throughout elementary and early middle school. And for the most part, these were a tremendous success and deeply enjoyable for me to play; with many fond memories attached to them.

However, there was one game that, for whatever reason, I never really got all that into or remember playing with great frequency, and that would be ClueFinders 4th Grade Adventures: Puzzle of the Pyramid. Unlike The Mystery of Mathra or Secret of the Living Volcano, I never really remember playing this game; which is doubly odd given my love of ancient Egypt and memories playing Pharaoh/Cleopatra by Sierra Games (another video game I will have to do a retrospective on).

So I think its definitely time for me to make up for my lack of nostalgia factor by taking a look at ClueFinders 4th Grade Adventures: Puzzle of the Pyramid and see how it stacks next to the rest of the franchise.

The overall plot of the game, much like the rest of the ClueFinders franchise is fairly simple to follow. This time around, the ClueFinders, a group of mystery/adventure seeking teenagers comprised of founder Joni, tech wizard Santiago, care-free skater Owen, super genius Leslie and their two assistants Socrates the Dog and LapTrap the Robot, spend their summer vacation assisting archaeologist Professor Botch in uncovering a hidden tomb of a Pharaoh from the Second Dynasty of Egypt.
However the Professor soon finds himself kidnapped by Alister Loveless, a follower of Set who desires to free the ancient Egyptian god and requires a ring that accidentally ended up on the hand of Joni. Now the ClueFinders must travel through Egypt to find the mysterious lost tomb that holds Set prisoner, rescue Professor Botch and the missing artifacts, and stop Alister Loveless.
In order to do so, the game has you go through three acts: Cairo, the Nile Kingdom, and the Contraption of Chaos. In Cairo, you work with various shopkeepers through the streets of Cairo in performing various tasks in order to acquire "Cairoglyphs" which are used to translate a riddle on a scroll that you find at the beginning of the game. This scroll has five lines with each line requiring 12 Cairoglyphs to translate, with each shopkeeper only giving you three Cairoglyphs per round of translation. This means that you need to collect 60 of these objects in order to progress to the next area. As you progress through each area, you will occasionally be shown a cinematic showing what Allister and the Professor are up to.
After you finish the puzzle indicated in the riddle, you are given a map which directs the ClueFinders to the second area of the game: the Nile Kingdom. Here you must unlock five doors which block your way into the Ancient Palace, which is guarded by a talking cat that requires 60 gems in order to pass. These gems were stolen by the rats that live in the area, who all believe that they are ancient Egyptians (though most of them are actually rather heavy-handed impressions of famous comedians and actors). Once you pass through these doors, the ClueFinders are given special powers by the Egyptian gods in order to seal Set away again. They are then transported to the final location: the Contraption of Chaos.
This area is similar to most of the final regions in a ClueFinders game in that this area's puzzles tend to focus on much higher concept data analysis problems and spelling puzzles. The underlying focus of this stage is actually acting as a race against the clock to reach the inner sanctum before Set can fully break free and begin to run amok. Of course, the ClueFinders are successful and you manage to seal Set away and seemingly defeat Allister for good (though it is revealed that he survives at the end of the game).
From an objective standpoint, this game is almost laughably outdated. It's animation is extremely primitive and cheap (a fact which was true even back upon its release), as was the case for many of these Learning Company brand games. Beyond the visuals, the story is silly and haphazardly resolved and Allister Loveless is probably the most over-the-top antagonist I have ever seen that, being an almost literal mustache-twirling villain. By all metrics, this game shouldn't hold up.
And yet, I would still recommend this game for children if it were capable of being played on modern systems for one fundamental reason: its educational value has maintained. In a lot of my previous analyses of educational software from the mid-to-late 90s, I lamented the fact that many such programs have become outdated as a result of changing knowledge over the natural or physical world (see my many discussions about the inaccuracy of dinosaurs in fiction). These outdated ideas limited the modern usage of such educational content and therefore made them functionally inert to their intended selling point.
However ClueFinders and its preceding Reader Rabbit series always focused far more on mathematics, reading comprehension, and logic problem solving. These areas of knowledge are far less likely to be upended by recent advancements in knowledge and therefore more likely to hold up to modern expectations of what the target age group should be learning. This means that a modern 4th grader is, in my opinion, just as likely to get the same amount of learning potential from this game now as they would've back when it was first released; especially with the inclusion of the game's adaptive learning technology.
The adaptive learning technology was an operating program which allowed the game to actively control the difficulty of the various challenges, puzzles, and games  based upon how the player solved the problems or questions. Many games possessed open-ended answers, where a more advanced concept would be teased and allow for a solve. When these occurred, the game would automatically shift the difficulty to present more advanced concepts should the player indicate their ability to understand. This allowed the game to grow in difficulty with the player's capabilities, so the player never feels overwhelmed or at least maintains the capacity to raise or lower the difficulty of every puzzle in the game manually from LapTrap's menu screen. This is an incredible way of teaching children and one that wholeheartedly approve of when it comes to educational software.
And it is in this capacity that I hold ClueFinders 4th Grade in such high regards, despite my lack of nostalgic emotional connection to it. The game presents a silly, fun, and deeply effective educational exercise for its target demographic. It is limited by its technology? Absolutely. But it never tries to be more than what it is, and what it is is very admirable and makes me desire to see more games like this and its prequel and sequels released.

I really would love to see the ClueFinders return for modern audiences. I really think that this style of learning and educational retention, especially in an age where at-home learning may become more necessary than not. Games like this, for as much as they are a part of our nostalgic past, may very well be a cornerstone of our children's educational future.

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