Science Sleuths, volumes 1 and 2
Science Sleuths has gotten quite a collection of rave reviews. Given the often abysmal quality of most 'educational' software - and particularly science software - perhaps this is not too surprising. Science Sleuths is neither a video game sprinkled with factoids here and there, nor is it a collection of trivia questions shabbily dressed up with cut-rate surfer d00d animation. Rather, success in Science Sleuths requires something rather like science: observe, ponder, propose, and test. While you may learn a few facts while playing, the most important thing you will learn is the scientific method. This is, of course, as it should be and so rarely is.
It's not surprising, then, that so many people like Science Sleuths at first glance. However, with even slightly extended use - say, doing two or three levels of one of the mysteries - the program begins to seem shallow. Rather than making the problems harder, Videodiscovery just throws more distractions in your way. However, somehow the solution algorithm for each puzzle remains the same: Lawnmowers blowing up? Sample the air around the sprinklers and/or gopher holes and find out what explosive gas it contains. People getting sick at a picnic? Compare the picnic lists and hospital admission lists to find out what the sick people had in common.
Somewhat similarly, while Science Sleuths offers a nice selection of simulated science tools from tape measures and magnifying glasses to mass spectrograms and chromatographs, you can't use each tool on each piece of evidence - you can only use them where someone has programmed (or, at least, drawn) a result for the test. While the availability of tests doesn't exactly lead you by the nose towards a solution - there are plenty of opportunities to do irrelevant or pointless tests - if you have come to a hypothesis that no one at Videodiscovery anticipated, you may find that there is no way to do the tests that would disprove your hypothesis. You are then forced to either conclude that you must be wrong because the program won't let you test your hypothesis or to go present your hypothesis to the Chief Sleuth and be told that you're wrong - neither of which is a particularly scientific method.
In short, while Science Sleuths is well conceived and rather flashily executed, it lacks the depth and complexity to become a classic ala SimCity, Rogue/Hack, or Colossal Cave Adventure. (You might object that it's unfair to compare "edutainment" to pure entertainment, but I firmly believe that developing an internal model of a complex game is better science education than any set of glitzy flash cards.) All in all, I give it a B- - and am writing this review because I agreed to do so in exchange for free copies, not because I wanted to recommend something that's been a big hit in my house.
Still, I don't want to be too negative. This is a pretty good program with a good premise - and nearly-seven Sam does like it. If I seem to be spending more time complaining than praising, it's more because Science Sleuths' strengths are easy to describe while it's weak points are more subtle than because I think it's a poor program.
This review dates from 1994 - I keep it around only as an example of my thinking about educational software.