Canadian company Kutoka Interactive’s foray into the children’s computer entertainment and educational market is a good one. Mia: The Search for Grandma’s Remedy has all the elements that can capture a child’s attention: a lovable heroine, an interesting plot and lots of visual effects.
Players take on the role of over-stuffed mouse Mia as she attempts to collect enough valuable "sparkles" to buy medicine for her ailing grandmother. Sparkles are apparently the currency of the land Mia lives in, which is a house that is large enough for a tiny mouse and all her friends to remain unnoticed from the human occupants.
On route to the store, Mia is ambushed by a rat who mugs her and takes all her sparkles. This aspect of the game is a bit violent, though it is hardly more disturbing than the average cartoon. Mia emerges from the mugging unharmed, but without any sparkles.
To compensate, Mia must explore her home and take a series of challenges from the various residents of her enchanted world. Here is where the learning comes to play. Most of the puzzles in the game are vocabulary oriented. In one of the first puzzles you find, children are given the first letter of a word and challenged to drag and drop the proper second half of the word into place. Children get unlimited tries on this game until it is complete.
There is a fairly detailed level system in the game so children won’t run into puzzles that are too difficult. On level one, puzzles are very easy. On level four, they won’t stump adults, but do begin to get out of reach for the targeted kindergarten to second grade age group. There is also the option of simply typing in a child’s age and having the game automatically configure puzzles based on what a child of that age should know. In tests, this tended to produces puzzles a bit lower than the age of the child. But I suppose Kutoka wanted to err on the side of caution in this area.
While most of the puzzles in the game are well done and emphasize learning in the areas of reading, sentence construction and rhyming, there is one puzzle that I think is fundamentally flawed in the game. The puzzle involves a Monopoly-like board game where players have to match pictures of words to their actual words while playing against the artificial intelligence of the board itself, represented as a cute face in the center of the game.
There are two problems with this puzzle. First, when a child gets an answer wrong the proper response is not shown. This is actually a problem with several of the puzzles in Mia, but is really highlighted in this puzzle due to the interface of the game. The child can easily become frustrated because the board keeps on winning and not giving any guidance to the player as to what they are doing wrong.
The second problem with this puzzle is that it seems to be truly random how the dice rolls come up. Players spend a lot of time landing on squares that are already captured and thus nothing happens. But the real problem is that even if a child knows every word on the board, they can still lose to the computer. I always play the games myself first before turning them over to child focus groups, and even I would lose to the computer. Now, I obviously am capable of looking at a picture of a duck and selecting "duck" from a list of words, but I lost games simply because the computer landed on all the right squares. This is a double whammy for children who may quickly tire of being beaten by the computer. Instead, the game should cheat on the dice rolls to give children the opportunity to score, and let them know the correct answer when they get something wrong.
The system requirements for the game are very low, meaning it should run on any somewhat modern system. The game runs in 640 x 480 resolution and you will need to set your monitor to 256 colors. This can be a bit of a pain on high-end systems, but makes it more accessible to family computers that might not be top-of-the-line. The game does lose a few points however because there is no automatic save feature. When you quit most games you are given the option to save. Kutoka overlooked this fact and the end result may be frustrated children who lose their work because they forgot to save.
In general, Mia is a great game for children who need to hone their language skills. Younger children may need adults to guide them through some of the harder puzzles or to navigate the house itself, but most great educational games are enhanced with parent and child interaction anyway.
If you have a child who needs a bit of a boost with language arts, Mia could be the little friend he or she needs.