Every gamer fondly remembers spending grade school afternoons in the computer lab. While most children were out on the playground properly enjoying their youth, I got cozy with Mrs. Thompson so I could spend hours playing The Learning Company’s Super Solvers series – otherwise known as "Those Games With That Guy In The Red Ballcap." While the term edutainment tends to illicit that we-all-know-how-lame-that-is eye roll, games like Outnumbered!, Spellbound!, and Treasure Mountain! taught me that not only do superfluous exclamation points make everything more exciting(!), but that games can simultaneously entertain and educate while detracting neither. Popcap’s Bookworm Adventures: Volume 2 may be less skewed towards education, but it captures the same feeling by providing refreshing mental stimulation along with genuine entertainment.
The game follows titular bookworm Lex who, after being sucked into a storybook, must participate in a series of spelling battles with enemies based on legends or nursery rhymes. Lex attacks these creatures by constructing words from a 4×4 grid of letter tiles similar to Scrabble, with damage dealt being tied to the length of your words. Enemies attack the player after every word spelled, so the enemy will get fewer attacks if your words are long.
But don’t let that suggest that this game is a boring exchange of words. Bonus tiles, rewarded for spelling long words, add beneficial effects when properly. For instance, one tile adds damage and recovers health, while another poisons the opponent. What’s more, enemy attacks can shatter certain tiles, lock others down, or change tiles into rare letters. This makes every battle – and even every round – unique. One round might encourage the player to work a P bonus tile into a word, while another locks down half the tiles, leaving them with the dregs of the alphabet.
Bookworm‘s game play variety isn’t limited to tile permutation either. As Lex downs stage-end bosses, he accumulates treasures that enhance or alter his abilities. These range from simple power-boosting items to dictionaries that increase the damage of adjectives. What’s more, Lex eventually recruits sidekicks that deploy beneficial abilities every four turns. Certain combinations of partner and treasures can be used to more effectively tackle certain levels, which adds much more strategy and planning to the game. Additionally, each downed enemy yields experience that eventually grants a stat-boosting level-up. Every level attempt sees advancement, even if the player loses to the level-end boss.
Which is not to say the game is challenging, per se. Bookworm doesn’t punish the player unduly or frequently set him/her against soul-crushing bosses. Enemies do become more difficult, eventually reflecting damage or nullifying words under a certain length. However, any player’s real challenge stems from the innate desire to nail the big one. While one can beat the game spelling four and five letter words, no one will be satisfied with that. Whipping out "inordinate" with three bonus tiles and a damage potion induces a lexiconal high so potent that it’s worth the effort. Equal satisfaction can be gleaned from spelling words with ill repute. I’m not ashamed that I giggled when I defeated a bipedal cat with "rectum."
All other areas in the game show welcomed attention. Bookworm‘s music is relaxed yet active, perfect for keeping the attention of ADD gamers with single digit ages. The visuals are uniformly soft and colorful, inspiring a Brothers Grimm feel (though less grotesque). Animation is basic – 2D characters move at the joints as though they were marionettes – but still expressive. In fact, in hours of play, the only noticeable flaw was that one boss obscured part of his own life gauge with his head. While the game offers no mechanically explicit multiplayer, the experience is such that two players can easily play the game co-operatively. One must merely scoot another chair up to the computer and join in trying to find the next big word.
Bookworm Adventures: Volume 2 is great for kids but fun enough to cross the age gap. Its simple game play is immediately learnable and infinitely enjoyable. As someone who is terrible at Boggle and outright hates Scrabble, it’s something of a miracle that I enjoy the game so, and also a testament that Popcap’s creation is one that all but the most self-conscious gamers will love.