Can you run a school successfully and allow kids to be kids? As it turns out, no you can’t.
No Pineapple Left Behind is a darkly satirical management game aimed squarely at the American education system. Now, this is going to be a tricky review to write, as I am a teacher by trade. But being the consummate professional that I am, I will of course separate the game from the satire poking fun at the job that I love. Teachers do their best dammit! Sorry. Professional I promise.
This is a management game at heart, in which you will hire and fire staff at the school you are currently running. Your teachers will cast “spells” for their lessons that will allow pupils to get grades which lead to you earning money at the end of each day. Teachers can gain experience to allow them to use more powerful spells, as well as “lasers” that can manipulate students to get better grades or turn into pineapples. Teachers have energy that will be expended faster when more powerful spells are cast leading to lower chances of success when energy is low.
So the pineapple thing. If you’re American, or involved in education, you may be aware of the U.S. No Child Left Behind policy that the title of this game parodies. In No Pineapple Left Behind, pupils can be children or pineapples. Pineapples only earn grades and so are easy to handle. Children have desires that will lead them to losing grades or missing class. To earn the most money you need grades meaning pineapples are the best thing to have from a financial standpoint. Whether a pupils is a child or a pineapple is down to their humanity stat which can be manipulated with spells and lasers. This is the whole point of the satire in this game: schools are only successful when they dehumanise their pupils and turn them into grade generating drones; and to be perfectly honest, this is not too far from the truth when you consider schools are judged and ranked based solely on their results and not the happiness and development of their charges beyond the letter than comes after their name. Not to get preachy or anything.
In terms of concept, it is really rather dark. Schools manipulating pupils to remove any sense of individuality (once a child becomes a pineapple they even lose their name from your pupils list and have it replaced by a number) with the aim of gaining grades and, by extension, money. When teachers are successful, humanity stats will decrease whilst grades increase. If you spend time thinking about what is happening, it really is rather unsettling.
The thing is, there is no alternative offered in game that I have found. You either have pineapples and succeed, or children and fail. There is a balance you can strike with some pineapples and some children, but with this kind of game I feel the message would be more powerful if there were a way of succeeding with just having children (even though doing so could be very hard). As it stands, there is no penalty for having lots of pineapples and no benefit to having lots of children.
Each school has its own objective, many of which will teach you about the various mechanics of the game. It’s a good way to introduce the different aspects over time, and as you complete each stage you can return to it in a sandbox mode to see how well you can do without guidance. You can also start any completed stage with a huge budget, just for fun. The stages become more difficult over time, with more plates to spin at once (like real teaching!) to keep on top of your target. Some of them expose the game’s RNG core, with spells and lasers having a probability of success which can backfire on you leading to a whole level being scuppered when an 80% chance of success spell fails and ruins the grades you needed to succeed the day. There are ways to mitigate this, but the randomness may be a turn off for some.
The bulk of your time will be spent hiring teachers, choosing their spell and laser and then waiting to see the results. Spells and lasers will change as the day goes on and teacher energy decreases, but this will be the bulk of the day time. Once evening comes, you will decide whether to pay a teacher more to regain their energy for the next day, or sack them to bring in someone new (cheaper, but you lose any accumulated XP, spells and lasers).
Occasionally there will be phone calls from parents which act as mini objectives such as ensuring a certain pupil is not teased or attains a certain grade. Failing these results in a penalty, whilst success gains you nothing other than avoiding the penalty. These are on top of the level’s overall objective which often involves earning a certain amount of money or a set grade.
Objectives that involve a specific child can be problematic, as there are a lot of people moving around the school. You can find the pupil in question by locating them in the pupil list and clicking on them, but it is rather cumbersome. Objective pupils could be highlighted at all times to make them easier to see, or their names could always be available to click on at the side of the screen. As it stands it takes longer to find the required people than necessary.
The game’s presentation is functional, though not attractive. The menus are fine and the schools look reasonable, although people often seem to clip through desks and doors. The schools names look out of place on the front of the buildings and appear to just be text floating in the air. The spell effects at the start of the lessons look great and have their own distinct look depending on the spell and subject which is nice. Sound is fine, with an amusing song about not leaving pineapples behind over the title screen (check out the trailer). Presentation isn’t the be all and end all of management games, and this does fine for what it is.
No Pineapple Left Behind is an interesting piece of satire that may well make you think about what modern education in the Western world is really like. It just needs a bit more depth to make it an excellent management game. Whilst I was playing, I found myself wanting to play a game in which I build my own school, set the timetable and hire all the staff whilst managing the needs of the pupils at the same time as ensuring their success. I would love Subaltern Games to take what they have created here and build on it into a fully fledged management game. Good luck to them!