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Keep learning and nobody explodes

If there’s one thing I’m sick of, it means I’ve had some sort of head injury and forgotten the many, many, copious things I’m also sick of. But amongst their number is the cavalcade of recent games that feel the need to try to trick me into learning computer programming. You know, I’m good thanks. I’m 40 this year, my brain has pretty much established over multiple attempts that it just isn’t willing to let in computer programming, along with French, the difference between “affect” and “effect” [not to mention “defuse” and “diffuse” -ed.], and the HTML for embedding an email address. You program the games, I’ll play them. Ta.

Anyway, so there’s a nice new puzzle game out called Bomb Squad Academy [official site], a game about defusing bombs against the clock, and – WAIT A SECOND! This game’s teaching me electronics! Why I oughtta…

And it does it really rather well.

The key difference here, from my mini-rant above, is that this isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. It’s not a platform game where you weirdly have to keep running through OR gates. Bomb Squad Academy is very unashamedly about teaching the basics of electronics, and the crucial thing is, it’s managed to make that process immediately applied, and decent fun. As I play through its relatively simple challenges, I just keep thinking, “Good grief, if only I could have had this in 1994 instead of a tired physics teacher and some clapped out electronics boards.”

Approach it as an educational tool, rather than the latest in puzzle gaming innovation, and it does its job splendidly. The game is, in effect, one long tutorial, each new level adding in a new component (best pun I’ve ever used) like wiring, capacitors, XOR gates, and so on. But what’s so crucial is that it’s instantly applied.

I think the main reason all these basics went over my head at school was that so much was taught as floating theory, pencil-drawn circuit diagrams and faith. The theory of AND, OR and XOR gates are simple enough, but if you want to truly learn something, have it embed in your cranium, you need to apply it.

What better application than pretending if you make a mistake you’ll die. You’re disabling bombs, and that involves studying the circuit board, looking what’s powering what, and working out a way to send power from the source to the LEDS marked “Disarm”. Except without accidentally powering up “Detonate”. That leads to a rather big bang, and a message informing you of your demise. With its digital countdowns, there’s always plenty of time to solve a puzzle, but limiting you to a minute or two ensures there’s a degree of pressure. (Sensibly there’s an option to make these times much longer, for any who might need that.) When the boards start getting a lot more complex, it requires a deliberate effort to stay calm, do the diligent work, and not just panic and cut wires at random. Because when you do make a mistake, the explosion is instantaneous and makes me jump every single time.

Bomb Squad is neatly presented, if a little stuffily. It can’t really escape from being a collection of circuit boards with a countdown timer, but it’s all tidy and clear. The writing in those rather formal-looking pop-ups, however, is bright and cheerful, and most importantly, encouraging. And when it comes to games as educational tools, it entirely avoids the most dreadful pitfall of them all: wackiness. Phew.

There are a couple of issues. I’ve encountered a bug where I couldn’t get the Level Select screen to do anything, which required a restart. And oh good lord, the music is horrible. The music played in the lift that descends to hell. Kill it, kill it with bombs and options screens. But beyond this, it’s a solid set up, functional rather than snazzy, but that’s appropriate to the task.

It also manages to achieve that bomb defusing essential – the moment of nervous uncertainty when you cut a wire, either leading to a sudden explosion, or the relief of simple nothingness.

You may be thinking, “Hang on, weren’t Introversion working on a bomb game?” and you’re right. This time last year they revealed Wrong Wire alongside Scanner Sombre as a prototype, and I had a play of it at the time. It was pretty good! But Bomb Squad Academy really doesn’t tread on its toes. Introversion’s game is a pure puzzler, and a lot more involved in terms of techniques. Although we’ve not heard a peep about it since. Meanwhile, Academy is entirely focused on tricking you into learning some basic electronics.

And that’s enough. I heartily encourage you to grab this if you’ve got a kid trying to learn it at school. Heck, if you’re a physics teacher you really should buy a bunch of copies, as this’ll be a surefire way to gain the attention of some of your students. Or if you just fancy reminding yourself about logic gates, pulse generators and capacitors, this is a neat little thing. I’d love to pretend I viewed it all as a smug expert pondering its usefulness for younger players, but that’s just flat-out not true – it taught me a whole bunch, as hard as I tried not to learn anything.

Bomb Squad Academy is out now on Steam for Windows, Mac and Linux, for £5/\$7/€7. There’s also an old free demo on Itch.

Who am I?

John Walker

Disposable

Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, they killed me out of jealousy. I now run buried-treasure.org

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