Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling…
After our recent skirmish with the term “real gamer”, one thing became patently clear and I was encouraged to hear it reverberated by so many out there: games are for everyone. Video games are now a vast empire ruled by no one. The interesting thing about them is that there are no gaming authorities (beyond the self-proclaimed or the follower-instituted). Video games have been designed to appeal to any number of different people, accessible to millions is just as many different ways. Video games are for no one and every one, get me?
Nowhere is that clearer than with It’s Spring Again, a little ditty developed by Baba Yaga Games and published by Sometimes You. The object of the game is to direct the player through narrative prompts from Spring through to Winter. It’s an educational game for children ages 2 and up (I’d probably cap it no later than age 5) in which children help the seasons change and learn the order and characteristics of the season.
Now, contrary to popular belief, I am not two-years-old. It’s been about thirty years since I was last two and I don’t think I shall be two again. In that light, it could potentially be hard for me to evaluate and critique a game specifically designed for an age range I’m thirty years removed from.
Fortunately, God gave me a guinea pig.
This is Kal Kekoa Levi Norton.
His full name means “voice of courage and harmony”. Maybe he’ll be a public speaker someday. Kal is two years old, so that’s also his favorite number. Kal has bright blue eyes even though my eyes and my wife’s eyes are brown. He loves pinecones, coloring with crayons, running then falling, and mispronouncing words. Yes, he was named after Superman and no, it wasn’t my idea but of course I went along with it when my wife suggested it.
Anyway, Kal is the perfect age to play and enjoy It’s Spring Again, so that’s the angle of my review.
When we first started playing, I will note that we were a little confused. It’s Spring Again is only supported by the Nintendo Switch’s touchscreen (this game was originally on Steam in 2016). There are so many different ways to play games on the Switch that I automatically went to TV mode and put the Joy-Cons in his hands. Didn’t work. After that we tried a different controller, then we tried Handheld mode, until finally I looked up the game’s specs in the eShop and had my own “Duh!” moment. Touchscreen controls. Makes sense for a children’s game as that seems to be an intensely intuitive way to play, once you realize that that’s what you need to do.
Figuring out what to do in It’s Spring Again is what the game is all about. It’s narrated by Russian actress and musician, Ekaterina Efremova, who throughout the game gives brief descriptions of what’s happening in each season. The player needs to catch onto these narrations as clues about what to do next. When she describes the Sun coming out from the clouds, the player needs to actually move the clouds out of the way. When she talks about the fruit ripening on the trees in Summer or the leaves changing hues in Autumn, the player themselves has to tap the screen or drag the necessary objects to cause this to happen, familiarizing the child with the seasons.
Not all of the narrated clues are perfectly clear, especially to a two-year-old who is only vaguely aware of the patterns of the years. This is why the game’s official description includes the mention of “a little help from their parents”. This is something that made me appreciate It’s Spring Again.
It’s easy enough to turn video games and TV into digital babysitters. Trying to resist that can be difficult for parents who just want a little peace and quiet or a little rest, but it’s rewarding spending time with one’s children. It’s an unparalleled joy. Well, it often can be if one looks for it.
With It’s Spring Again, I sat Kal on my lap and we played through the first year together until he picked up on the clues himself. The pure wonder in the eyes of a child is unlike anything else in the world, I think. When he gasped and smiled after making the thunderclouds bigger to cause the rain or ripened the fruit in the boughs himself… well, those are beautiful images I’ll never forget. That this is even possible with video games now is something to be proud of, no matter what kind of gamer you are.
This title isn’t going to cause many waves. It’s not going to win any Game Award Oscars. It is, however, a valuable tool to teach children and it makes for some good times between parent and child, if the parent will only make the time for it (“Cats and the Cradle” will play in your head now). The importance despite the smallness of making memories with your children is nothing to be sniffed at, and besides, the next generation needs to get into video games somehow!
It’s Spring Again makes that welcome a breeze.
The 8-bit Review
It’s Spring Again is apparently based on a children’s puppet show performance, which likely explains the anthropomorphisms of the trees, the Sun, the clouds, and the Earth. I wondered whether the game’s visuals were based on traditional folk art of some kind. That was the kind of almost ancestral feel I got from them.
The animated storybook presentation was colorful and bright enough to be engaging to my two-year-old, who like any has an extremely limited attention span. It’s Spring Again captivated him. While it’s certainly not the prettiest or most detailed game available, even for children, its visuals served their purpose in this respect. Also, the game left me wondering about those curious animals that appear in each season.
Gentle is probably the best way to describe this game’s sound design. It’s Spring Again benefits from the soft narration of Efremova, who has a voice that exudes kindness and invitation. That’s perfect for children. Beyond the narration, the soundtrack is limited to some atmospheric music and effects. Because the game is so short, that’s likely all that was needed, so the audio’s responsibilities mostly rely on the articulation and clarity of the narration, which is fine.
The game is meant to be played alongside a parent likely because the clues by narration aren’t always the most transparent to a child of two. I know that mine didn’t always pick up on keywords being said about fruit or flowers or leaves, and in fact we both began the game without realizing right away that the narration was meant to be taken as guidance on what to do next.
A specific example comes right at the beginning when revealing the Sun from behind the clouds. That’s easy enough to do when the narrator asks where the Sun is but then the player must tap on the Sun again to get it to condescend to the Earth below. There’s no time limit or anything to rush the player, obviously, so they’ll figure things out eventually, provided there’s enough determination involved.
The gameplay ultimately is meant to teach the child about how the order and characteristics of the four seasons and my son picked up a few tidbits and factoids. He now knows when the leaves change color and when it snows and when the flowers come out. However, the game moves at a fairly brisk pace. I theorized that this is because it was based on a puppet show so there’s always movement from one piece of dialogue to the next, but perhaps there’s not enough space within each season to allow the child to explore and experiment. A little more of that might have gone a long way in familiarizing a child with the seasons; It’s Spring Again plays more like an interactive movie than a video game adapted from a movie, if that makes sense.
The game makes no bones about the difference between swiping and tapping. Kal is already pretty familiar with smartphones and navigating menus and YouTube for the videos he likes (don’t worry, he’s never unsupervised), so touchscreens weren’t totally new to him with It’s Spring Again. I observed him trying different patterns of movement, swiping and tapping, in order to get what he wanted done. I also observed that the game will produce the same effect regardless.
Maybe the best improvement they could have made to continue to prompt young players after narration ended would be to have visual indicators (arrows, lit up sections, shadow images) pop up after a set amount of time past. This and the initial confusion we had, which was maybe due to the versatility of the Switch itself, are the only two strikes I could find against a game where accessibility absolutely had to be paramount.
***UPDATE*** There is an in-game help feature in the menu that triggers visual aids post-narration, though a child turning this on and off seems unlikely.
This is perhaps the hardest category for me to define based on Kal’s experience. He had the narrator and myself to prompt him and he only missed a few steps here or there where I actually needed to point out what he had to do. Once he made it past the first Winter, though, he could pretty much do it solo. That’s what needed to happen in order to realize the game’s goals of education through repetition, so I’d say the game is inherently simple but exact in what it demands by design. There’s always a single way to progress through the seasons and there are no cheats to get around. The player must learn (or guess) to proceed.
Once the player follows the narration through Winter, it becomes Spring again and the game starts over. It can be played until the end of time, or likely before that until the child becomes bored. My own child has not become bored. Kal asks for “the Springtime game” from time to time and the first time he played it, he saw a handful of Winters.
It’s Spring Again only has a small aim so it’s a small game. The subsequent in-game years show no differences between them and each season is the same. It’s fun for Kal but once he learns everything it has to teach him then its mission will have been accomplished.
Baba Yaga Games put out One-Eyed Kutkh which shares a very similar appearance with It’s Spring Again but since the latter is the older of the two then of course Spring isn’t a matter of recycling visuals from Kutkh. Most educational games fall into the realm of mathematics and spelling so it’s nice to see something available to children that teaches something specific: the four seasons.
It’s Spring Again isn’t the most ambitious game out there. It doesn’t need to be. Its storybook presentation would be familiar to anyone who has perused children’s entertainment but it’s a charming little game that does what it sets out to do, all while packaging that in a uniquely rustic aesthetic evocative of folk art. I’d say Kal loved it.
My Kal’s Personal Grade: 8/10
I did ask Kal what he rated It’s Spring Again on a scale of 1 to 10 and he said 2. Again, that’s his favorite number so his answer isn’t really surprising. Besides, he doesn’t understand the critical craft yet. If I had to guess based on the analogy of my own behavior and the frequency that I wish to play my own games comparatively, I’d say his personal grade is somewhere around an 8 out of 10, well in the “he loves it” range.
I hope that he comes to enjoy games as much as I do in his own way. I hope he’s able to create things about games like I love to create writing about them. I can barely imagine what kind of games will exist thirty years from now when he’s my age, but I do hope that he’ll always remember that he got his start with It’s Spring Again (and Color a Dinosaur) with daddy. I sure will.
And for that, I have to thank Sometimes You and Baba Yaga Games for providing us with a copy of their game for review. Thank you!
Happy Earth Day.
Aggregated Score: 6.4
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