Friday, March 24, 2023

Green Phoenix - Reader Rabbit: 2nd Grade Retrospective


At the start of the year, I did a short retrospective on the Reader Rabbit: 1st Grade with the full understanding that I would continue the retrospective by looking at Reader Rabbit: 2nd Grade next. All of this has been part of a unofficial series of educational game retrospectives that I've been doing to reflect upon the computer games that had the most impact on me as a child.

As much as I liked Reader Rabbit: 1st Grade, I must make something of a confession. I never actually owned Reader Rabbit: 1st Grade, as the game I played was actually my sister's copy. I was a year older than her and thus didn't get 1st Grade from my school, but rather Reader Rabbit: 2nd Grade. As such, I had a much more personal connection to this game and the previous entry.

But is it better? Does it still hold up? What is it about this game that so tickles my nostalgia? In this short retrospective, I will seek to explain what I remember about playing this game, what I liked about, and what I still think works so very well. Like most educational games, its actually effectiveness might still hold up (though the technical qualifications for any modern system to play it is probably moot). So let's take a look at Reader Rabbit: 2nd Grade and wrap up my educational computer game series.

I think the first thing of note when I think about Reader Rabbit: 2nd Grade is the fact that this game actually has a plot line that aims for a more "adventure" style in tone, rather than the relaxed "slice-of-life" conflicts of earlier Reader Rabbit games. So much so that it sort of feels similar to ClueFinders than Reader Rabbit: 1st Grade.
Ostensibly, the plot of the game is a rescue mission. You assume the role of Sam the Lion, Reader's cowardly lion friend, as he explores a mysterious castle that Reader has seemingly got lost in. At the onset, Sam learns that the castle is inhabited by a mysterious dragon and thus endeavors to traverse the various levels of the castle in order to rescue his friend. However, the castle is filled with puzzles and traps invented by the dragon meant to challenge Sam's mental faculties (the lesson plans) and he will have to overcome in order to reach the third tower, where the dragon (and apparently Reader Rabbit are).
The game is split into three segments. Sam the Lion begins in the dungeon of the castle and must begin climbing to the top of each of the three towers in order to reach the dragon. As he climbs the tower, he will be presented with a randomized set of rooms that each present a specific activity. The result of the activity will be either progression through the tower or the collection of a widget, one of 12 mysterious objects that must be collected by the end of the game for a reason known only to the dragon. The collection of a widget represents the end of a section of each tower. With three towers, there are four widgets in each individual tower. Also at the end of each game will be a tabulation of points. At certain point thresholds, you will be given a certain "humorous" rank to indicate the skill that you have expressed up to that point, starting with "Smoke Screen" and finally ending with "Dragon Fire".

There are 5/6 activites presented in the game. They are...
  • Skillway - Presented by the two-headed Jester Riddle & Rhyme, Sam must traverse through a series of rooms collecting floating words or numbers that correspond to a designated subject. For example, collecting all the things that equal ten could mean reading Roman Numerals, the word ten, the number ten, or any number of mathematical equations which correspond to ten (think 7 + 3). This puzzle can also be used for pattern recognition with scientific and grammatical questions (finding all plurals or all solids, etc).
  • Read & Reflect/Science Hallway - Presented by Monstrous Mirror (who also acts like something of an introductory guide to the character), this activity has the player reading a series of statements and determining whether or not the statement in question is a fact or an opinion (variations have you determining fact or fantasy or whether a sentence is the main idea of a paragraph or a detail). An easy enough game but the fact that it is teaching a skill that I find is somehow becoming more difficult to find in even adults leaves me feeling like this might very well be the most important activity in this entire game. Read and Reflect had you determine grammatical statements where Science had you examine questions related vaguely to scientific or nature questions (though some of these could be a bit off).
  • Runway - A much more traditional action game presented by living suits of armor, this activity has the player directing Sam down a long corridor where they must collect objects (usually shapes) whilst avoiding everything that doesn't match the chosen object. A fairly simple game that I feel I've seen before in modern mobile games.
  • Castle Journal - An activity once again hosted by Monstrous Mirror, this game is a nice idea that is unfortunately limited by the technology of the time. The principle of the activity was that you are presented a story or idea and it is your job to finish the thought or idea by writing out a paragraph or two about the story in question. In practice however, the game had no way of determining if what you were writing was actually worth anything. You could put a bunch of unrelated garbage on the page and the game would still give you full points. It was kind of silly.
  • Enchanted Email - An activity hosted by Reader Rabbit, the object of this activity is to basically write an email to Reader Rabbit utilizing a selection of words, determining what word to fill in by whether or not the associated sentence requires a noun, verb, or adjective. The game has a lot of similarities to a MadLibs and you can create some rather ridiculous sentences. As long as the right type of word is in the right place, the game doesn't really care.
None of the activities are particularly difficult, but there is a surprising amount of randomization and differentiation between what are ostensibly repeated games that it makes developing patterns much more difficult. The game is actually really effective at helping you not just memorize but actually critically work out what you need to do to progress the game. It's incredibly effective as a learning system and I found myself shocked at just how effective this game could get with incredibly simple activities.
So much so that I actually think that the challenges in this game are surprisingly well-dated. These are learning tactics that would still be useful even today for most young children. If someone were to update the graphics and overall performance of the game, it could still be quite effective in terms of both education and entertainment, a difficult balance for most games of this genre to achieve.
The part of the game that I remember most fondly is actually found at the top of the first two towers. When you finish a tower, you are presented with a short musical video where either Sam or the Dragon sing an entertaining song. Sam's song is a surprisingly well-sung emotional ballad describing his personal fears of never finding Reader Rabbit, where the Dragon sings a humorous jingle describing his nature and the reason he does what he does. I often find myself thinking back on how much I loved listening to Sam's ballad and would find myself racing to the top of a tower just to hear the song again.
Actually now that I think about, the music is another highlight. Beyond the two musical segments, the game is filled with perpetual musical segments that help to fill the silence of the various games. These musical motifs can range from soft adventure jingles to a surprisingly chilling science lab background music. It really gives the castle as a whole this sort of eerie wonder about it and I actually found myself unnerved at some points as a child.
So as you all have likely gathered, I rather enjoyed this game growing up and watching it again online, I am stunned by how good its still managed to keep itself (something even the ClueFinders games couldn't exactly do). That being said, there are some issues.
As you have likely gathered, this game was released in 1998 and it looks like it. The character designs and visuals are actually quite good and maintain a proper cartoon aesthetic, but the animation is extremely limited by the constraints of the hardware. Sam sometimes moves like a Game n' Watch character throughout the challenges and his performance in Skillway can be a little stilted and mechanical. Its perfectly understandable given the time at which it was released and the notoriously low budget of Learning Company games, but it really does make me wonder what a game like this could look like nowadays. Most at-home modders or self-taught game developers could probably do a revamped version of this and other Reader Rabbit games, now that I think about it.
Another element that I find a little lacking is the ending. So it becomes very clear very early on that Reader Rabbit was not actually kidnapped by the dragon and, in fact, is friends with the dragon and needed Sam's help acquiring the final pieces for the dragon's latest invention: a rocket. These final pieces were the "widgets" you collected throughout your adventure. The game then ends with the implication of all three characters of Reader, Sam, and the Dragon being trapped in space with no way of escape.
While this is played for laughs, it is still a strangely sombre and unsatisfying ending to what is, before this point, a rather well-put together game. You really feel Sam's dilemma as he struggles to find the courage to overcome the challenges in the castle and the ending makes it feel altogether unnecessary. A simple conversation or clarification on Reader Rabbit's part could've resolved the whole situation. And that ending just leaves things in a weird spot, especially since no later years were made under the Reader Rabbit brand (Learning Company left that to the ClueFinders series). So this is, in some ways, the last we see of Reader Rabbit. Floating through space with no hope of escape.
All-in-all, Reader Rabbit: 2nd Grade is what I might consider to be the paragon of its genre. Very few educational entertainment computer games can successfully engage their audience with so many well-designed and varied puzzles, utilize a randomized introduction of those puzzles in such a way that it enables the player to switch up their thought process and keep them mentally engaged, and wrap it all up in wonderful music and colorful, if admittedly dated, visuals.
I'm rather glad that I ended my examination of my history with educational games with this entry, as I think it might very well be my favorite of all the ones I personally played.

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