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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Game Review: Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenges

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Are these math games a treasure?

Let's say you're a parent, and you're going through hard times right now. The schools aren't taking your children in during the day, so you need to stay home with them, possibly in addition to you having to work from home. The school district is trying to implement some kind of learn-from-home virtual classroom, but it's pretty shoddy. You need your children to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. You can learn the first two on the Internet pretty easily (for example, on KoopaTV, you can read articles and write comments—though KoopaTV is outside the age range of “children”), but the math part might be difficult.

Fortunately, there are a variety of math products geared towards elementary-school students. Some of them are even videogames. For example, there's Donkey Kong Jr. Math, a Nintendo Entertainment System classic. Unfortunately, it's hard to come by, and it's not even included in your Nintendo Switch Online subscription. However, in Donkey Kong Jr.'s footprints, there is a mathematically-gifted demon boy named Greco, followed by a squadron of like-minded ghost henchmen, holed up in his castle of treasure.

Does Greco's four games, the Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge series, live up to its edutainment ancestors? I played through Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge "Division" (since division is my favourite math topic) to find out my answer and write a review on it, although my review on the Division title will also cover the other subjects/games as well.

This review will spoil the game's contents, but given the nature of the game, I don't think my spoilers will end up harming your experience.


Fast Facts

Names
Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge "Division"
Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge "Addition"
Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge "Subtraction"
Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge "Multiplication"
Console
Nintendo Switch
Publisher/Developer
media5 corporation
Genre
Education, Math
Space Required
Approximately 450 MB each
ESRB rating
E
Number of Players
One
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price
9.99 USD per game
Demo?
None

Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge "Division" title screen
The title screen is pretty promising!

Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge Story and Characters


Before we get into the meat and potatoes of the review, let's cover some things that I'd normally be interested in knowing about in games. First, does the game have a story?

There... isn't much of a story or characters, which is a shame, because I think that having some kind of engaging plotline works really well for “serious games.” There's Greco. I don't know what his deal is. He's fully voice-acted, and really the only character in the game. (I know this article lacks of a picture of him, but you're not missing much. Click the links in the Fast Facts section if you really wanna see him...or watch the first video below.) The player character is merely a light-skinned human hand. The ghosts have different designs but they don't do or say anything.

Calculation Castle Greco's Ghostly Challenge level 10 Long Division Hitler crown ghost
The level 10 ghost has a Hitler-stache, and I'm not sure how a limbless ghost would go around shaving it.

I don't think it would be accurate to call Greco an antagonist. The player character is literally just invading his castle, beating up his minions, and taking his treasure. The treasure is represented by icons from the bland overworld screen that you can also see from the collections screen. A “bronze spoon” isn't exciting, but more on that later.

Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge Graphics and Artwork


The entire game takes place in a dark, haunted castle of steadily ascending floors, so it's not too bright and kiddy. Still, the backgrounds are nice and vary based on what level you're on, and each floor has its own ghost design that differs slightly. The ghosts and Greco are fairly expressive, depending on if you're hurting them or you make a mistake.




More importantly, the user interface is decent. There's icons telling you what the buttons do, although it's unclear what the meanings actually are. (Quit means you leave the level, Give Up means you skip the problem and try another, Hint asks you to pay ghost coins in exchange for it providing you one part of the answer.)


The numbers themselves are fairly clear, and the game even gives you the option to pick which division symbol you'd rather see. I opt for ÷. It also uses familiar-to-kids playing card symbols during the unlock sequence, which helps ease understanding in an otherwise unfamiliar mechanic.


Calculation Castle Greco's Ghostly Challenge Unlock mode
The playing card symbols on the right side correspond to what the answer is on the left.
You change the numbers on the locks by using the control pad/stick, as indicated from the symbols.
(You also move between them by going left/right on the control pad, and confirm the answer with A.)


Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge Music and Sound


The music is unfortunately the least interesting part of Calculation Castle. The songs are shared across the levels, though each type has its own track. The most interesting song is the last one you'll hear, the song that plays during the unlockable time attack mode. (Which is embedded later in this review.)

Greco, who is fully-voiced and will provide incessant between-level commentary, is kind of annoying. The ghost noises also distract from the mediocre soundtrack.

Actually, you could say all of the sound effects and music distract from what is the most important part: Concentrating on the division. There are no options to control the volume levels of the music/sound/voice-acting. With the exception of the time attack song, the music doesn't really pump you up and get your brain thinking. It sort of makes you feel lackadaisical.

By comparison, Donkey Kong Jr. Math doesn't even have a soundtrack.

Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge Gameplay Overview


There are four modes in this game:

The Select Problem

The select problem, where you choose the numbers from the cards below the blackboard, is the main part of the game. There are ten of these. The math problem is on the blackboard, and there are three to six cards for an answer that has one to four digits. (Four digits could mean it's a two-digit number with a two-digit remainder. It might go up to five in the Addition game, and maybe six in the Multiplication game. Then there will be more cards.)

All of the division in Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge handles uneven division with a remainder, as opposed to decimal points or anything like that. They are also exclusively big number divided by small number, be it by normal ÷ or by √. It doesn't really make a difference whether you're dividing or long-dividing: It's exactly the same.

A key benefit to the choose-a-card system in the select problem is that you don't have to pick the cards in any particular order. You pick a card and it'll show up where it's supposed to be. In Donkey Kong Jr. Math, you rigidly had to put in your answer's numbers in a certain order, which is often the opposite of the order you solve the problem in. This also accommodates the various kinds of math techniques the players may have learned, which can vary dramatically based on your school system/country/time period.


The game presents the mode as a fight against a certain ghost, which has a lot of HP that varies depending on the level. You keep solving problems until it runs out of HP. Each correct card takes out a portion of HP. I THINK if you're quick enough on selecting a correct card, you will get a critical hit, but the mechanics of that are never explained in the game. I THINK you might get extra ghost coins from the hit. (You get ghost coins for each hit, as well as a sum after the whole level.)

Each level has three treasures associated with it. Well, they're one treasure in three different palette swaps. These don't do anything but sit in a collection screen, and lack descriptions or anything resembling an interesting reason to collect them. Worst yet, it's never explained in the game why you might get a Bronze Fork over a Silver Fork. If time taken is the factor, there is no clock or in-game presentation of how much time you took in a level or a problem. (And I completed one early level as fast as possible—critical hits on every question—and only got a silver item instead of whatever the third/rarest one is.) It's not based on how many times you've completed the level, because I got the same treasure multiple times in a row. I guess it could be based on RNG, but that'd be an exceptionally stupid mechanic to put in an edutainment game. 

Unlock

After each select problem level is one of these Unlock problems. You're still doing division, but here you're not provided possible correct numbers ahead of time. That means you actually have to do the division precisely instead of going with intuitive multiple-choice answers.

A note on actually doing the division—There is no in-game division-ing mechanism. There are only answer inputs. You're free to do the division entirely how you want. Do it in your head... or get a pad and pencil, or use an electronic pad and pencil. I guess you could cheat, too, but that defeats the whole purpose of the game. There isn't a time limit in Select Problem or Unlock.


One note before the next mode: At three points in the game after Unlock sequences, you need to offer a large quantity of ghost coins to a gate-keeping ghost. 200, 500, and then 1000 coins. You have to offer this tribute in order to progress through the game, but you won't have enough coins without replaying levels. The coins aren't used for anything besides unlocking hints (which I'm not sure why you'd ask for a hint, unless you're incapable at dividing, in which case, you'll find the whole game to be a struggle), but I'm not sure what the justification for these gatekeepers is other than artificially extending the length of the game.

Well, the coins are used for one other thing...


Calculation Castle Greco's Ghostly Challenge ghost coins pass gatekeeper
Why are these ghostly gatekeepers in the game? What value do they add? This isn't some money-grabbing mobile game.

Bonus Game

Need even more coins? Try the bonus game. What is this? Ghosts appear in north, west, east, and south spaces, corresponding to the X, Y, A, and B buttons respectively. Button-mash when a ghost appears and you'll get money, but you only have a few seconds until the bonus ends! This has nothing to do with math, and the first time I was presented with this bonus game, I didn't understand the nature of the button-mash-y nature game, and I thought I had to wait for a special ghost to appear or something. Nah, just mash buttons.

You can get access to the Bonus Game after completing a Select Problem level, as an alternative to collecting worthless treasure. What triggers getting rewarded with a ticket instead of treasure? I have no idea. While the bonus game isn't fun, at least it's useful.

Time Attack

Time Attack is my favourite mode in the game, but it's only unlocked after you beat the game (by beating Greco's final level at the top of the castle). For whatever reason, you have to pay 100 ghost coins to be able to play a round of Time Attack, which gives you 120 seconds to complete as many Select Problem-style questions as you can.


If you get a critical hit, you can slightly extend your timer by three seconds. This is the part of the game with the most exciting music. Fortunately, the difficulty level of the problems is on the lower-end, because you could otherwise spend a whole minute doing a long-division problem.

It's no coincidence that the mode that's on a timer has the most tension in it, which makes it the most exciting. Can you beat my record?


Calculation Castle Greco's Ghostly Challenge secret room time attack record
Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge makes you grind the less-fun part of the game so you can play the exciting part.
(Yes, me discussing a secret room is a spoiler, but I feel obligated to mention that there's a fun part of the game.)


Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge Concluding Thoughts


Fortunately, the Calculation Castle games auto-save when you quit out of them, so if you don't want to beat the whole game in one sitting, you're free to come back over and over again. I don't know if you'd call trying to get all of the collectible items replay value, though. Your track record on each Select Problem level is also tracked (how many problems you cleared, how accurate you are), and you're given a grade from F to S depending on the accuracy. Maybe you want to get your average to an S-rank or higher on all levels?

The structure of the game (level order, music, dialogue, treasure, ghost design) is exactly the same between all four game flavours. The only thing different between them are the actual math problems. Division ought to be the most difficult of them. Each flavour is $10... if you actually want to have addition, subtraction, multiplication, AND division, you'll have to pay $40 for basically the same game four times. Hopefully, by the time you finish at least one of the games, you'll figure out that math doesn't work in your favour.

Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge doesn't actually teach people math. It just gives you problems and expects answers. Except for the Time Attack portion, it's not much of a game, either. Unless you're like me and actually kind of like doing arithmetic for amusement—I suspect you do not fall under that category—the game is little better than being provided a big worksheet of problems. The ghost/demon/treasure aesthetic doesn't really add that much, and a lot of the parts of the game that could be interesting, like 100% treasure collection, don't have their mechanics explained at all.

There is also a missed opportunity for some creativity. The game could add a lot of colour to the mathematical dryness by having amusing and thematic word problems. At least that would provide some much-needed depth to the game world, which currently is a well-illustrated worksheet. For the Division title, they could have ventured into fractions, decimals, and/or percentages, instead of sticking with reporting the remainder the whole time.


I don't anticipate returning to the game. I also understand I'm not the target audience (elementary school children guided by their parents), but I get the feeling kids would enjoy it much less than I did!


Full disclosure: Ludwig reached out to the publisher, media5, and asked them for a review code for Calculation Castle: Greco's Ghostly Challenge "Division". They gave him that code, and some other codes as well, back in November 2019. He has no comment on why it took so long for him to write a review for a game he asked for. Ludwig does not believe media5's generosity has impacted the contents of his review in an inappropriate manner. Along with being an edutainment fan, he's also made his own math videogame before, and has written to the United States Congress to play it since they're pretty bad at math.

1 comment :

  1. I went back and S-ranked every stage. Nothing happens.
    I also got a new record on Time Attack: 31.

    The game lacks a credits sequence.

    ReplyDelete

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