I’ll never forget flipping through the TV channels one afternoon and coming across a televised National Spelling Bee for middle-school children. An hour later I was still transfixed to the screen like a sports fan whose team is fighting for its life in the finals, cheering every time my star player spelled a word correctly to advance another round, and biting my nails anxiously every time she hesitated.
A largely American phenomenon, the spelling bee is serious business for the kids who are good enough to get to the elite competitions. For those who aren’t quite up to that level, there’s Merriam Webster’s Spell-Jam, which is a great way for word nerds at home to get a taste of what all the pomp and circumstance is about.
If you thought a game about spelling bees could only be dry and academic, think again. Spell-Jam presents the competition as a jazzed up futuristic game show complete with lifelike characters and impressive use of audio and voice.
You’ll begin by selecting a character from a roster of various boys and girls, and then choosing what mode to participate in. You can simply test your vocabulary in Practice mode, compete against friends for bragging rights in Competition mode, or lay it all on the line for (virtual) cash in sudden-death Game Show mode.
Although all the modes are fun in their own way, Game Show is the meat and potatoes of Spell-Jam. The goal here is to earn money by spelling words as quickly as you can. You’ll earn power-ups such as Pass (skip to the next work), Consonants and Vowels (show all the consonants or vowels in a word, respectively), and Word Choice (show four possible spellings of the word, three of which are incorrect).
Competition mode lets up to six players go head-to-head. You could challenge five friends or family members, or even take on five computer-controlled opponents if that’s your thing. Practice mode, as the name implies, is a basic quick-fix mode where you spell a series of words. You can get words wrong without penalty in Practice mode, so it’s a nice low-stress environment.
Whatever mode you choose, your character stands at a podium while the male and female announcers take turns reading out the next word to spell. After a word is spoken, you can enter your guess by either using the mouse to click on the appropriate letters or simply by typing the word with your computer keyboard – as you do, your character will recite the letters one at a time just like in real life.
If you’re not confident about typing the word right away, you can get some clarification by asking the announcer to repeat the word, use the word in a sentence, give the definition of the word, or give the word’s language(s) of origin.
Although there are three difficulty levels in each mode, even the easiest one assumes players have more than a basic grasp of spelling already. In other words, Spell-Jam is suitable for teenagers and up, but younger children will likely find it too difficult. Choose the easiest difficulty and you’ll get words like “finger,” “symbol” and “budget,” while in the advanced difficulty you can expect words like “sepulchral,” “cajole” and “evangelize.” Practice mode offers a separate category for commonly mis-spelled words – hopefully two of my biggest pet peeves, “rediculous” and “congradulations,” are in there somewhere.
One other thing to note is that Spell-Jam is based on an American dictionary, so Brits, Canadians and others might sometimes find themselves getting tripped up by alternate spellings.
Although I occasionally found it difficult to make out a word that was spoken, overall the voices are clear and well done – and in their defense I also don’t have the greatest PC speakers. The word definitions could use work though. Clicking the “Use in a sentence” hint often doesn’t yield a real sentence at all but merely a couple of words side by side. (The hint for “irrefutable,” for example, was “~~ proof.”
These were about the only snags in an otherwise wonderful game. Given that word games can so easily be presented in a simplistic format, it was nice to see the makers of Spell-Jam go the extra mile and inject some personality and fun into the whole spelling bee experience.