There's a distinctive feel to many educational games that makes their genre immediately identifiable. If you grew up with the likes of Spy Fox and Pajama Sam, you likely know what kind of style we're referring to. SMART Adventures Mission Math: Sabotage at the Space Station fits this bill rather well, which has both positive and negative connotations - and oddly nostalgic ones for reviewers.
Of course, nostalgia is a rather null point for the young audience SMART Adventures is trying to draw. The math-fueled adventure at hand is designed for intermediate skills around ages 9 and up, and more specifically girls.
There really isn't any immediate indication that SMART Adventures was developed with a focus on girls. The first and really only hint you get is when you start customizing your SMART (Science Math and Radical Technology) Junior Agent and discover there's no "boy" option. And really, if a boy was fine having a female character, they would find little to nothing else about the game that is all that stereotypically "girly." The intentional female focus felt a bit bewildering at first, but it's plainly outlined on the SMART Adventures website that its mission is to design games to encourage girls to be self-assured in STEM subjects.
Play through, however, and the subtle influences are there in the game's characters. Agent Delta, who is your Junior Agent's supervisor, finds herself in a sudden crisis on a sabotaged space station and leads it professionally. Agent Gamma, the SMART agency's grandmotherly (get it?) engineer, is calm and quietly brilliant. Fellow junior agents Smudge, Sparks and Rune provide remote help with expertise in robotics, chemistry and translation, respectively. Two of them are girls, one is a boy, and it doesn't feel necessary to say which are which. The game doesn't scream "Girl power!" or try to vomit ponies and pinkness to portray a message. It encourages girls toward STEM in the best way possible: by making it feel normal.
So, who's ready to math? While Agent Delta mans the control room, the Junior Agent is tasked with fixing the saboteur's deeds and finding clues toward his or her identity in the space station's six labs. Each lab contains a math-based activity with concentrations in categories such as place values, angle measurement, factors and multiples. One lab will even have players solving simple equations in Mandarin Chinese, which is something you don't often see!
There is really only one general thing to do in each lab, but each activity is split between three levels. Each level tends to add a bit more complexity or shake up the formula a little, and the player is free to skip around to another lab after completing a level instead of slogging through all of a specific form of math at once. As levels are completed, the story continues with messages from the other agents and interactions with the station's residents. It's not a deep story, by any means, and you don't have any actual say in determining the culprit. Still, things are interesting enough that even some adults may want to stick around and see who it is. After completing the labs, there's a final climactic activity that blends everything learned through the course of the game into a somewhat satisfying conclusion.
Although there's some effort placed into mixing things up, there's still no way around doing activities that one might consider boring. The iPad like AI in the game also promises to help with problems if the player gets stuck, but summoning him only repeats the instructions of the current activity. It might be best to have an adult on hand just in case some real assistance is needed. You, uh, do remember how to do this stuff, right?
The GamePad touch screen is fully functional for all activities, and all other controls including the Pro Controller and Wii Remote are supported. It all works well, but some tasks such as measuring out amounts in the Chemistry Lab can still proceed more slowly than a player is able and willing to go. This is the gameplay's fault; not the control's.
The overall presentation of SMART Adventures is hit and miss. The backgrounds of the labs and space station itself are nicely made, but the characters don't seem to match that well with that style and could stand to use much more animation. They don't even walk away as much as switch to a "walk away" pose and vanish.
The voice acting of many characters such as Agent Delta, Agent Gamma, and the kids range from perfectly good to not bad. A few other characters are rather cringeworthy. The music, when there is some, also fits just fine, but expect to hear plenty of silence during activities. Some quiet, unobtrusive thinking music would have been nice, and maybe even helpful. The presentation is where a lot of the nostalgia element might lie for older generations, but current youngsters might not look upon it so fondly.
Overall playtime is going to vary by skill, but an accomplished math whiz can get through the whole thing in less than 2 hours. Since problems don't seem to be generated straight down from a list, however, there should be some replay value.
When it comes to creating a math-based game that leans toward girls, SMART Adventures Mission Math: Sabotage at the Space Station accomplishes its mission quite decently. The production values could be better and the space station could feel less empty with more activities and interactions, but what's there still feels worthwhile to complete and like it'd be an actual help in school. Throw in a quick yet reasonable story that treats both its target audience and adults respectfully, and you have a child-parent project that might be worth subtracting a bit a money on.