It's easy for older gamers to be miserable cynics when edutainment games come around, lazily categorising them as shovelware and stating with unsubstantiated confidence that no one buys these downloads. Except, someone is buying them, as the range of these titles is slowly growing on the 3DS; more importantly, some of them are rather good at what they do.
Happy Circus arrives and gets a few key points absolutely correct. Targeting a very young audience that's learning basic arithmetic and early spelling, it starts off as it intends to continue with bright, colourful visuals and light-hearted sound. While some of the samples may be somewhat stock in nature, it absolutely does the trick, living up to that word usage of 'Happy' in the title. The art is cute, young voices shout "yay" when a young gamer passes a stage, and everything is instinctive and easy to access using the touch screen.
The actual content in the main "Story" mode also hits its mark, as you progress through multiple circus tents helping four circus animals obtain the items they desire; when you clear a task they'll wear that item, so youngsters can laugh at a lion in a crown or a monkey in a waistcoat. Each animal ultimately represents a different style of assessment which ramps up as you progress to later stages — participants will be put through their paces in simple addition / subtraction, identifying and naming objects, completing words based on a visual objects, and completing a word from scrambled letters.
These core skills are tested over the course of a good number of levels, and on each set of stages — each made up of four tests — the demands get a little higher. It's a necessity to complete a number of questions successively to progress, while a wrong turn immediately penalises one correct answer. The issue with that system is that it seems a little too tough, as simply slipping and accidentally placing a letter — for example — in the wrong box costs you a correct answer. By the time a young learner needs six or more correct answers, getting to five and losing two spotlights due to sloppy stylus work seems cruel; it can be argued the other way, of course, that the absence of a time limit in the default mode should lead to caution and concentration.
At any time it's possible to delve off into "Free" mode, which replicates the activities from the story but adds a timer and allows the accumulation of high scores. That's fine, but there's nothing to stop young participants replaying levels from the Story, and some form of alternative or fun diversion would have been welcome.
There is some additional content, as once youngsters have worked through the Story mode — which could take any amount of time from two hours onwards — can move onto a Story+ offering. This involves completing the same levels and obtaining golden or improved versions of the original items, with the key difference being the addition of a time limit in each level. It's a solid inclusion to test and challenge what the young gamers have learned, and also add a little more value to the overall package.
What these modes deliver, unfortunately, are the same four tricks repeated ad nauseum with barely noticeable tweaks. That actual content is attractive and reasonably well constructed, but some form of minigame reward or greater variety would have been welcome to keep young gamers interested. If the initial exercises fail to engross the gamer in question, there's little incentive to continue aside from being strong-armed by their parents, which surely detracts from the point of edutainment.
Happy Circus does some things rather well, with care and attention clearly paid to its presentation and careful management of the learning curve at work. What it lacks is a fun hook, something to reward or encourage learning beyond its strong audio-visual delivery. This isn't a bad option for young gamers learning basic skills, by any means, but it's not everything it could have been.