Subaltern Games‘s management sim No Pineapple Left Behind turns out to be more like a satirical education simulator.
No Pineapple Left Behind (PC)
(USA 2016, developer/publisher: Subaltern Games, platform: PC)
Manage a school with its students and teachers without going bankrupt or having too many bad grades.
A hard knock life in school
The education system is an important but often neglected part of society that has been attacked time and again, either because teachers are helpless against classes that are too big or students that are anti-social and not willing too learn. The tight budgets and fluctuations in staff are further examples of how something that should be on top of the list for governments has become a more and more difficult job, especially for school principals. This is where the player comes in who learns the hard way how impossible the task at hand is.
Some kind of teaching magic
First one has to decide which teachers to hire and how much payment they receive at the end of the day. Being suitable for the right subjects isn’t the only thing to consider, as simply firing new teachers without any payment and getting some new ones is also a viable option. This might sound cruel and also a bit unrealistic, but it’s often the only way to save enough money that can be used for other things. Unlike most management simulations, one doesn’t have control over the buildings themselves, so deciding where to put rooms and how to equip them isn’t possible. One simply manages teachers who have a direct influence on students. This is achieved in and outside class rooms. While teaching different subjects, the staff can cast spells on the individual kids. These go in a far more personal and mind-controlling direction than one would expect, highlighting the danger of what schools could turn or already have turned into.
Each student has unique character traits and soon wants to become friends with or even a boyfriend/girlfriend for his/her classmates. This ultimately results in worse grades and therefore less money for the school. The only way to prevent this from happening is to cast an “unfriend” spell, because the less a student is distracted and the more he/she is willing to learn, the higher a class grade becomes (also by using other spells during class) and the more money the school earns. This sounds simple enough, but there’s obviously a catch.
Students with issues and teachers with spells
Just as in real life, teachers can become exhausted during their normal classes, and each additional spell costs energy that constantly decreases over the course of the day and can only be replenished after school. Usually the hours before the next school day starts aren’t enough to replenish it fully, depending on how many spells a teacher has cast and how high his wage is to recuperate, making him or her even less productive. The less energy he/she has, the less likely it becomes that students learn something in their courses, which again makes students become depressed, as they don’t achieve their learning goals. So one constantly has to adjust a teacher’s behavior almost every lesson, which can become a Herculean task with so much staff to manage at the same time. Additional goals per day further complicate things, because some parents want their children to have a specific grade, while others don’t want their children to be teased by or become friends with someone specific.
With so many classes and students to keep an eye on, micromanagement is the order of the day. As each student and teacher has to be targeted individually, the pause button is the principal’s best friend, as it’s otherwise impossible to do everything. Even then it becomes very difficult to see everything and take care of everyone, as so much is going on. Of course there are statistics and a list that can help to locate each individual student regarding their friendship and learning status or each teacher according to their energy, but this is more hectic work than fun. There is also too little time each day to do all the tasks. While one can and has to cast most of the spells during breaks between class or lunch and when students wait for the school bus, the difficulty of managing everything and everyone remains very high.
Same learning day, same teaching game
The main problem of the game is that one does the same things from level to level. Mission goals might slightly change, e.g. introducing a school team that has to win without losing morale or grades, but it’s still all about the management of money, students, and teachers, while using the right spells at the right time. The difficulty curve also reaches a point when it becomes simply impossible to succeed, as in the last level that implies it might be unwinnable, driving home the message how hard school life is and that one can’t have individuality/humanity and consistently good grades (a very one-sided and questionable message actually). To understand the title with the fruit, one has to see how the individual character traits work. The more one loses friends/one’s humanity, the more likely one turns into a pineapple. This is the ultimate goal, because pineapples don’t have any other ambition except for being on time in class and having good grades, making them much easier to manage. Of course if they fail classes due to the teacher’s exhaustion, they turn into normal students again.
As there are new problems cropping up, new ways of dealing with them or at least making everyday school life more manageable result in different approaches on how one can complete levels. So instead of relying on students to go to class on their leisure, one can recruit a police officer to immediately point them there and even send them back when they decide to go to the bathroom during classes (something that happens way too often and usually makes a whole class fail their grades’ goal). As not every spell is available to each teacher, a librarian can to be recruited to unlock more powerful but also more energy-consuming spells. This doesn’t mean that teachers can learn these right away, though, because they still have to reach a certain level of expertise. The whole spell system is almost like an inventory in an RPG, as one can decide which spells or bonus attributes can be used at the same time, making for some very different gameplay styles.
Technically, the game isn’t particularly enticing. While the characters and backgrounds look okay, it’s only the special effects when magic spells are cast or a class succeeds to reach a specific grade that are nice. Despite a lot going on, one doesn’t get the sense of watching students or teachers for fun, not only because one is so busy with micromanagement, but because the animations don’t invite curiosity as in other building or management sims, although seeing a group of pineapples hop along in school corridors certainly looks unique. It doesn’t help that the backgrounds don’t change at all and that one looks at the same corridors and the same rooms without any graphical gimmicks, like the changing of seasons outside. Sound effects can also become highly repetitive and annoying after a while, probably because the same happens again and again. Only the catchy musical score can save the audio from falling by the wayside, but even this isn’t varied enough that one doesn’t notice its loop.
A game about learning by failing
No Pineapple Left Behind is a unique parody take on the education system, although like the real thing, being a school principal in a game can be a lot of tedious work. Too much actually, as what should be fun ends up in frustrating routine. The game certainly offers an interesting mix of management sim and intricate RTS/RPG elements, but only those who invest time and are resilient against failures that aren’t always their fault because of the A.I. and some bugs (like corrupted save games), will persevere and find playtime reaching over 50 hours (probably because of the last unwinnable level). If there would be more variety in the levels and environments, this would have been a better game. As it is, the message of the fledgling education system becomes actually detrimental to the actual gameplay, because if the developer really wants to make players aware of how stressful school life can be, then it’s definitely a successful venture.
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