Monday, June 16, 2008

Things I miss #1

You know what was a good video game? Math Gran Prix. Or, as I called it as a child, "Math Grand Pricks."

As you can tell by the label, Math Gran Prix is a engaging blend of racing, 'reckin' and 'rithmetic that's challenging fun for ALL the remedial Griswold kids in your family!

The game takes place on what has to be the most dangerous racetrack on the Formula 1 circuit (and judging by its shape, probably in south Louisiana).

Assuming the race cars are to scale - and why wouldn't they be in a game like this? - this track is about 400 meters long. That's a quarter of a mile, which makes this not even worth the gas. Hell, I live farther than this from my neighborhood movie theater, and I've sprinted there full-throttle. In jeans. Without breaking a sweat. Of course, if I had to do math every two or three steps, I wouldn't even make the midnight feature on my way to the matinee.

Math, of course, is exactly how to stretch the world's shortest and least-fuel-efficient race into, well, a race that lasts a few minutes. Players have to decide whether to go two or three spaces before the math problem appears on the screen. Your decision can be driven by such elements as strategy (landing on certain symbols grants you extra spaces, immunity from a crash, etc.) or not being sure you'll be able to solve the problem (in which case you're either five, into English or George W. Bush). If you solve the problem, you move. If not, you don't.

The problems themselves increase in difficulty, so to speak, depending on which of nine game levels you select. The toughest level is "hard multiplication and division," which I believe is where I learned that "9 x 9 = 81." That might sound like I'm ridiculing the game, but I'm not. To this day, I visualize "7 x 7 = 49" in the computer font for this game. I also hear the ominous Pong-like tone that plays when you get the answer wrong. With more sophisticated circuitry, this tone would have sounded like the Peanuts teacher muttering an approximation of, "wroooooong!"

Anytime two cars occupy the same space (and not on a sinker), a crash results. An appropriately crunchy buzz plays, and your now-mangled car looks like this:

Pretty graphic for a 1982 game aimed at 6- to 10-year-olds. But then again, E.T. involved machine guns. It was an innocent time.

A player who wrecks must answer a math problem correctly on their next turn to fix their car. Just like real life! On their next turn, they're back in action. Which brings us to the biggest flaw in this game: the computer's ability to answer virtually all problems with impunity, given that it's a computer and all. When a computer car crashes, it bypasses the problem-solving charade altogether and immediately fixes the car. What kind of lesson is that to teach our children? Besides the rich kids, I mean?

In any case, the winner gets rewarded with a flag, a 16-bar tone and...well...assurance that they can do child-level math. Which is its own reward, I guess. Like virtue, which doesn't buy much these days.

Lest you accuse me of attacking the complexity of a game aimed at 6- to 10-year-olds, you should know that I bought this game when I was eight years old. And I was a huge fan. Though even then, with my Cs in math, I still thought the game was a tad simple. I'll never forget my dad's reaction in the mall that day: "That game's too easy! TWO PLUS TWO! That's what that is!" I immediately proved him wrong by not knowing how to manipulate the joystick, thus making it look like I didn't know any of the answers. I never moved a single space until my younger cousin came over a while later and discovered by accident how to move the numbers. Which, come to think of it, is how I learned real math in the first place.

Math Gran Prix is considered by many to be one of the best of the early educational games. I definitely agree. Thanks to this game, I can do fourth-grade math to this very day. And I never drive short distances until I know exactly how much it's going to cost. You know, long division.

If I ever fulfill my dream of being a filmmaker, I promise you Math Gran Prix: The Movix. Picture it: Speed Racer meets A Beautiful Mind! Any takers? Have your people call my people.


rhonda said...

wow. you have no idea how happix you make mix sometimes :)

pudding-monkey said...

My parents bought me "Googol Math Games" (for DOS!). I assumed this act was some kind of passive-aggressive, unspoken statement that I sucked at math.

To be fair, I did in fact kinda suck at math.