The Three Greatest Educational Games from Back in the Day
Educational games are a tricky business because they tend to fail at both of their goals: to educate and to be entertainment. Most kids will agree that academic learning isn’t fun. School is boring. And video games—the opposite of boring—should never be caught sleeping with the enemy.
We rightfully condemn those games which try to be edutainment but fail miserably. There are a lot of educational games like that out there. But every once in a while, a game developer just “gets it.” As true diamonds in the rough, these games miraculously teach something relevant, and at the same time they are able to seduce players into coming back for more over and over again. Out of this small group of edutainment hidden gems, there are three old games that have stood the test of time as being both fun and relevant to learning.
If you don’t already know which games I’m going to say, I feel sorry for you that your childhood was never complete. When I was a kid, Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Mavis Beacon were where it was at. How crafty we all felt as kids when in the computer lab, a teacher rushed to our screen to catch us in the act of goofing off, only to find us playing one of these solid games. “Oh,” the teacher might say, “Well, that’s good. Please continue.” And as she slowly walked away, we’d grin at each other because we had beaten the system! We thought, “Learning? Ha! I’m here for the video games, and how stupid these teachers are for not realizing what’s really going on.” Little did we know that these games had fooled us as well.
There have been many new editions and remakes of this game, but the definitive version shall always be the original one on the Apple II computer. It was designed in 1971 by Don Rawitsch, an 8th grade history student-teacher (of course), and was then officially developed by MECC in 1974. It was a huge hit right from the beginning.
Was the audio good? No. Was it graphically impressive? Nope. But what it did have was the ability to stir children’s imaginations on the pioneering life in 19th century USA. If all history was taught like this, every child would know what’s what from the stone ages all the way to modern times.
The game didn’t follow the standard educational formula where the player is rewarded with brief arcade action for answering a string of fact-memorizing questions. Instead, the game threw the player into the 1840’s as a hapless pioneer itching to get on the Trail. And of course, the noob player just wanted to get to the action, so no preparation was done for the road trip (wagon trip?). Just one month later on the dusty road, the player (usually an impressionable child) sat horrified in front of his or her screen as the entire family in the wagon slowly died from malnutrition or some mysterious disease that the kid couldn’t even pronounce. Or maybe the wagon sat stranded because an axle or wheel broke. Or maybe a seemingly harmless river sucked the entire traveling party under its murky waters. There were many ways to die in Oregon Trail.
Humans love that! Children, especially, love that. I can’t tell you how many times I put my best friends and my worst enemies into my traveling party just to play Russian roulette with their lives. I’d giggle in glee and announce to the whole computer lab that Bobby died of dysentery. Then I’d silently shed a single tear for Tiffany—the girl I really liked at school—when she was taken from my pioneering life by a snakebite. The perverse fascination with death drove children to play Oregon Trail for hours and hours.
But then the educational part kicked in. Suddenly, a child might actually want to beat this game. But how? Remember all of that preparation at the beginning of the game? Yep, that needs to stop being neglected. Kids had to learn to plan ahead. They had to understand the delicate balance between saving money for later and spending it on reserves now. Oregon Trail taught the concept of time and distance between your next source of food and supplies. It taught the futility of wasting animal life since you could only carry 100 pounds of meat back to the wagon. It taught how to budget food rations, bullets, and wagon supplies. It taught the pros and cons of trading with others. It taught about “pacing yourself,” about prioritizing, and yes, about death.
All of these lessons are important in a child’s development. Oregon Trail schooled children in ways teachers and their traditional methods could never do. But how much did kids learn about the actual Oregon Trail in history? Not very much. Only that there was an Oregon Trail in the 1800’s, that it was difficult and possibly traumatizing, and maybe they even learned the names of some of the life-saving landmarks and towns along the way. But for sure, they learned about axles, caulking a wagon, dysentery, and cholera. Some lessons are just more important than others.
THERetroGamer notes: I kinda think that Oregon Trail qualifies as a Roguelike. It has perma-death, a randomly-generated world, and all that other stuff.
Also, this game has a wicked sense to itself. Firstly, it asks you to carefully choose names for each member of your soon-to-be-doomed party of travelers – like it wants you to create some sort of emotional bond with them. It then proceeds to randomly zap them to their graves with every disease known to man, along with broken limbs. Or they may just die for no reason. lol
The arcade sequences in which you do various things sometimes don’t teach the best values in life: Such as participating in the decimation of the buffalo, and collecting a literal full ton of buffalo meat that you are then informed “you don’t have the room to carry”. Nice waste of resources… somewhere in the game’s world a sad native just watches this and shakes his head.
The river you cross may be as little as three feet deep, but your entire wagon can still topple into it – including the possibility of, yet again, another member of your family drowning (in three feet of water!)
The game is brutal, and absolutely shows zero mercy. lol
Upon the inevitable death of a person, you can either just dump the body or hold a funeral – you even get to type what to put on their tombstone. Somebody over at this website even has a page where you can create your own tombstone from the game.
If you’d like to play the Apple IIe version online, here’s a site with a built-in virtual emulator.
The game was later updated to a Deluxe Oregon Trail version, and nowadays there are iPhone and Android remakes of them. I even have an old CD laying around that is the Yukon Trail spin-off they did (basically just a gold rush version of the same game programmed to run in Windows 3.11).
In the school computer lab, this game was more of an obsession than even the mighty Oregon Trail. It was fast-paced, incredibly charming, and super addicting. Number Munchers was released in 1986, once again developed by MECC. It is just one game in the Munchers series which originally started with Word Munchers (also a good game). In my opinion, this is the best one in the lot, and once again, the Apple II version is the definitive game to play.
Number Munchers combines arcade action with math memorization. Your avatar—the Muncher—runs around on a grid, chowing down on the correct numbers and avoiding the baddies (called Troggles) that can enter in from any side of the grid. There are five different types of Troggles! A young mind has to quickly memorize each one’s movement patterns and abilities to stay clear of them. The worst were the Smarties (aka Trogglus smarticus—isn’t that hilarious that they gave them scientific names?). Smarties followed you around the grid with a horrifying grin plastered on their big, green faces. Right before a troggle appeared, a Troggle Alert! message would appear on the side of the screen coupled with a quick audio blip. This is an easily overlooked warning system, but after just a few surprise deaths at the hands of a troggle entering the grid right where you’re standing, it’s amazing how pavlovian that warning system becomes. It means, “Get the hell off the border of the grid! Now!!”
Actually, this game’s sound effects are one of its top features. Every “munch” of a number is satisfying, every “crunch” when a troggle eats you is painful, and every time you munch the wrong number, a sound plays that I swear sounds like “Oh…no,” and right then I know that the game is disappointed in me. Even after more than a decade of not playing this game, I could still remember those sound effects. They are that good.
When I played it again for this article, memories started flooding back. I remember outsmarting the troggles by getting them to eat each other. It felt particularly good to know that the Smarties’ own strength—chasing the Muncher—had been turned by me into its own undoing. Wahaha!
I remember the adrenaline rush I got from racing to munch a number before a troggle walked over it. And there were these “safe squares” highlighted in white which the troggles couldn’t enter. I remember standing in them with a smug look on my face, and just before the troggle had to change direction, the safe square teleported somewhere else and the troggle got me! And the cutscenes! I lived for the cutscenes! They were my reward for passing yet another three levels in a row.
Even if you have never played this game, can’t you tell how awesome it is as edutainment? Isn’t it obvious how effective it is? Kids scramble to beat the troggles and don’t even realize they are memorizing numbers and learning real math while doing it. Ingenious! Of course, once you have mastered your times tables and know all of the prime numbers, this game isn’t that fun anymore. But that just means it did its job!
MAVIS BEACON TEACHES TYPING!
I am about to blow your mind. Ready? I am writing this article on a game that gave me the ability to write this article in the first place. Crazy! Teaching kids how to type is such a lame chore, right? Not if you let Mavis Beacon do it for you. As a kid, I wanted to learn typing from Mavis Beacon. I practically demanded it. Why? Because this is a fantastic educational game. It drove me to do better and type faster each time I turned it on. Man, now that I think about it, I wish they had a game like this back then to teach me cursive. I hated cursive!
Just in case you were wondering (because I totally did as a child), Mavis Beacon is not a real person. You’re never going to meet her in real life. Sorry to dash your hopes and dreams like that.
This game was initially released by The Software Toolworks in 1987, and new editions have been regularly produced ever since. I have no idea which edition I had as a child. I do know that it was on Microsoft Windows this time instead of an Apple II. But this game is available on any computer platform you want, even back then in 1987 when it came out for the Apple II, the Commodore 64, Atari computers, Amiga, and Windows.
Mavis Beacon was so good at teaching typing because you could see the results right there on the screen seconds after your performance. I was told how fast I had typed, what letters were my weakness, and how much I had improved from my last session. It felt so good to know! On top of that, this game helped me set goals for myself and let me know when I had achieved them.
But most importantly, I was there for the games. They were so simplistic—both in design and in appearance—yet they were mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop playing. They were perfect games for the job because they had my full attention and they were forming my typing ability in specific ways like in speed and accuracy. Each game focused on a specific issue to work on. I remember one game was about this truck driving down the highway, and flies would get smashed against the windshield. Each fly had a series of letters or words you had to quickly type in order to wipe off the bug guts. The longer you did this, the faster the flies were getting splattered on the windshield, so it got harder and harder to keep up. Another game I vaguely remember had a shark that was going to eat someone or something, and if I typed the letters wrong, the shark got much closer to its prey, but if I typed accurately, the prey started gaining distance again. So much pressure! So much fun with learning!
Nowadays, there are many copycats who have embraced the teaching style of Mavis Beacon. The two most obvious examples in my mind are The Typing of the Dead for its motivation to type faster with high accuracy rates and Wii Fit for engaging the player in personal performance stats and goals. The methods used by these types of games seem obvious in today’s world, but back then, Mavis Beacon was a true pioneer! Having played several typing games/programs over the years, I can say with complete confidence that Mavis Beacon trumps them all.
So there you go. Three spectacular educational games. In my opinion, they are the three greatest educational games. Please comment below if you have personal favorites other than these, and be sure to include nostalgic anecdotes.
My personal experience with this game is a perfect example of what this blog is all about: appreciating retro games. Before I start, I have a confession to make: I had never played a C64 game until around the year 2010! Yet now I have played (or at least tried out) over 1,000 C64 games. How’s that for appreciating retro gaming? And it all started with Bruce Lee.
I was first introduced to the world of the C64 when on YouTube I heard an incredible fan remix of Arkanoid’s title screen music. As you may or may not know already, the C64’s SID chip is legendary for the glorious music and sounds it produces. As soon as I heard it, I was hooked. I needed more, LOTS more! And at some point during my obsession over C64 chiptunes, I stumbled upon a longplay video of Bruce Lee (click here to view it).
For that time era (1984), the graphics of this game are incredible. Don’t forget, this is 2nd Generation gaming! Its competition is the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision. Look how good it looks! Okay, yes, the Bruce Lee sprite could be anyone, but that’s where imagination comes in, kids. It also helps that his outfit in the game is a little reminiscent of his famous yellow jumpsuit. The two enemies—the Black Ninja and the Green Yamo—are easily identifiable, and the background and foreground are distinct from one another. In other words, the game looks playable, and not just playable but actually very well designed and artistic.
But graphics are not what’s important in a game like Bruce Lee. The gameplay is where it’s at. And Bruce Lee on the C64 has a lot of fantastic gameplay and personality. Going back to that longplay on YouTube, I remember the very moment that I knew I just had to play this game. It was when I noticed how clever the AI was. I just had to test myself (as freaking Bruce Lee!) against that formidable Black Ninja who just wouldn’t stop in his merciless pursuit. My reaction to the enemy designs and behavior patterns was very similar to the emotional attachment one might feel when playing against Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde in Pac-man. They aren’t just sprites on a screen. They have life, and they are a personal challenge to you. Enemies like that make you want to test yourself against them. Games with enemy sprites that truly feel alive are rare gems indeed!
Bruce Lee has a healthy dose of challenge to it. A truly great game delicately balances between the two extremes of an easy but unfulfilling gaming experience and an impossible, throw-the-joystick-at-the-screen gaming experience. Bruce Lee is a hard game, but it is not hell-bent on destroying you, and there are several rewarding challenges along the way that keep the player coming back for more abuse. One of those is the change in scenery.
My jaw dropped while watching the YouTube video when I saw Bruce Lee jump down into the sewers after having collected all of the lanterns. The change in setting was so astonishing and surprising for me that I just had to get that far in the game myself to personally experience it. Once again, I must stress that compared to its competition at the time, Bruce Lee is a marvel! It is an action platformer, a brawler, and an adventure game. Originally, I thought the few screens of the city were the whole game; that after Bruce Lee collects the lanterns, that’s the end. I was so wrong. That’s just the beginning. The rest of Bruce Lee’s adventure not only requires him to deal with his two foes as he collects more stuff, but now there are obstacles, deadly traps, and unfamiliar rooms to explore. It’s beautiful to experience. It looks fantastic and plays hard and fast.
This review is presented as a personal experience of the game rather than a generalized overview of the game because of what it represents to me…I thought to myself, “If the C64 library of games have more offerings like this—games that blow their competition away with their innovation, their incredible sound and sprite design, and their addictive gameplay—then I want to play more.” Trust me on this. The C64 library has more fantastic games like Bruce Lee. Try this game out, and if you’re hooked on it like I was back in 2010, then welcome to the world of C64 gaming because there’s no turning back now! There are lots more games to discover.
Bruce Lee has been ported to many different platforms, but the definitive version has always been considered to be on the C64. An unofficial sequel aptly named Bruce Lee II can be downloaded from bruneras.com. It looks pretty faithful to the original game. A remake called Ultimate Bruce Lee is also available on modern-day computers, but for me, the original is still awesome to this day. Why would I need a remake or a graphic update? Check this game out on the C64 and comment below or share your own nostalgic memories of playing Bruce Lee.
— Jex the Gamer
Notes from THERetroGamerNY:
This game was designed by one Ron J. Fortier; graphics by Kelly Day; and the music was composed by John A. Fitzpatrick. It was published by Datasoft US.
I personally note, with great interest, the name Kelly Day: That’s a woman’s name! I have no idea who she is, but that means the wonderful atmosphere of this game was brought to life by a woman, and I’m all for female computing prowess! Her art does indeed make the 20 rooms of Bruce Lee’s adventure seem full of mystery, magic, and challenge.
Also: A second player can go up against the Bruce Lee player!
And finally: This is why it’s nice to have a second voice on this blog. Unlike Jex, I love the remakes. Ultimate Bruce Lee was part of a 2008 gaming competition, and has the exact same gameplay (same rooms, same AI, etc), but just about half a dozen new graphics sets to unlock and enjoy the game with (including the original graphics). The animation also feels faster, more fluid, and more energetic to me. The second game, Bruce Lee 2, adds a whole new game with the same feel, new enemies, and more.
I’ve uploaded both of these remakes into my Downloads section (including a Linux version of Bruce Lee 2 for all you Linux gamers!)
When I first put together the idea for this blog, there were a few things I wanted to accomplish:
- Make it my own personal diary of experiences with these games, how they have impacted my life, and how they are worth playing to this very day.
- Supplant the now-defunct Home of the Underdogs, with its poor reviews of games, inaccurate information, etc. I loved that site as well as everybody else, but it contained large chunks of text that just totally missed the mark. Take this 100% inaccurate review of Harpoon II:
|As follow-up to the world’s best naval simulation ever, Harpoon 2 is a big disappointment to fans of the original. Its impressive graphics, sounds, a larger database of ships, and more varied missions can’t hidethe fact that the AI is seriously flawed, and that the game shipped with an inexcusable amount of bugs. Although it became playable after the last series of patches, by then many fans have already turned their backs. Even in its patched incarnation, the game failed to live up to its predecessor– the additions of more ships and painstakingly researched scenarios were curiously balanced by simplifying many gameplay elements, such as the radar. Perhaps this was an effort to lure newcomers to the genre, but the lower realism quotient and quirky AI did nothing to keep hard-core fans happy.Overall, an interesting naval sim that is above average, if one forgets its pedigree. Not until Interactive Magic’s 1997 Harpoon Classic release did fans cheer once more to the return of realism and solid AI– something Harpoon 2 should have been, but sadly was not.
Note: The download has been removed at the request of Advanced Gaming Systems Inc., current copyright holder of Harpoon games. Harpoon 3 is finished, as well as Harpoon Classic 2002 Gold Edition, the most current and up-to-date version of Harpoon Classic (also reviewed on this site).
Harpoon I is the best Cold War era naval simulation. Harpoon II is basically an early DOS version of Harpoon III, and there are no AI problems, simplification of radar/systems, or anything of the sort mentioned in this review (there were some quirks when the game was first released, but they were quickly patched away and no longer exist, so why even really mention it?)
Harpoon II also does not simplify systems in any way – it modernizes them to post Cold War systems (which, by their very nature, are more advanced and powerful, and also easier to use). All fans of Harpoon 1 know that game was harder because you have to micro-manage everything. and micro-management doesn’t equal ‘more realistic’.
Yet this highly-flawed review can be found on at least half a dozen abandonware sites!
It’s time for HotU to be properly buried, and those flawed one-sided reviews to be put away in favor of better ones.
- I literally have 15,000+ games in my collection. This is a greater number of titles than what is held by a local guy who recently made it into the Guinness Book of World Records (by about 5,000 titles). Simple reason: He ignores PC gaming in his collection (his loss!) I don’t qualify for this Book of Records title for a few reasons:
A) I have zero desire to do so. Most retro gamers are in this stuff to establish the biggest showcase collection. I actually play this stuff, and love the games for what they are.
B) A ton of retro gamers will spend extensive amounts of cash and space on entire gaming systems that are pure crap (like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy) – I’ll download the crap titles from abandonware sites, because I’ve got better things to spend my cash on!
C) I’m just about the oddest retro gamer out there: I’m all about digital. I love the Commodore 64, but hate the actual C64 hardware. The 1541 disk drive is slow as hell, requiring literally 2-4 minutes to boot games up! The keyboard is clunky and requires a heavy hand just to type. I’d much rather use my superior VICE emulator to boot up the game in a few seconds, and use my nice, modern keyboard to effortlessly play the game.
I prefer pinball tables digital … good emulators over the actual hardware … scans of the original manuals in nice PDFs … etc … my actual physical collection is nicely sealed-away in plastic totes in my basement. I have no desire to suffer my wife to a sprawling collection of this size. I even *gasp* have all my original game boxes folded flat and stored-away.
My entire video gaming gaming collection is on 3 large hard drives on my actual PC – excepting my Nintendo Wii.
So, now the downside to all this in regards to the blog:
The pace of new posts to the blog is slow because:
A) I’m a very sickly person. I have Mitochondrial Disease. I have ADHD. I have severe depression. I get migraines. And more.
B) On those days where I do feel healthy and good, I typically have so many other more important things to do that blogging on here isn’t actually a priority. I’m a freelance digital artist, my wife has a home business, our house needs maintenance, etc. I’m writing this at 1:10pm, after having groggily dragged myself out of bed, after having a typically-bad nights sleep (insomniac as well…).
So this one guy has contacted me on FB (and a month ago at that, FB having decided to hide his message from me) and he says he wants to write for my blog.
What an awesome idea! At the pace I’m going, documenting every last game in my collection would probably take 2 or more lifetimes, so another perspective on the games is welcome!
I’ll have his first posting up here soon. Maybe today even. =)