The question “Why do most educational videogames suck so hard?” doesn’t even get asked anymore, because we all know the answer: because they try to teach you stuff. It’s just the nature of the beast. Any game that is trying to teach you first and be fun second is almost certainly guaranteed to fail, because the designers concentrate too much on the message and not enough on the medium. Almost. Believe it or not, educational game designers actually got it right sometimes.
That’s what makes these games so special: they outshone the competition and brightened up many a dreary grade school classroom. At their best, they were like special treats, the little diamonds hidden away on the class computer that made all the boring and painful aspects of school life a little less noticeable. They often turned up outside of school, and could often be found in a family computer room or den alongside more serious software. Only time will tell whether more recent educational games (such as the Brain Age titles) are up to these standards.
12) Path Tactics
While this game claimed to teach math skills, it more often taught frustration and bad sportsmanship to any kids lucky enough to have an Apple II in their classroom. The rules were pretty simple and the atmosphere sparse and casual, but that didn’t stop the tension as you and a computer or other player raced to see who could reach the end and trigger the Mussorgsky midi first.
11) The Secret Island of Dr Quandary
At a glance, this game and The Island of Doctor Brain may seem identical, but they are in fact quite different: whereas Dr. Brain is a kindly genius who guides you around a delightful paradise, Dr. Quandary is an asshole who traps you on his ugly island in the body of a grotesque doll and forces you to play with tangrams in order to escape. It all adds up to an experience that almost taunted you to succeed, the crusty Mick to your classroom Apple’s Rocky Balboa. It’s also worth noting for containing the somewhat cathartic “Troggle Shoot” game at the beginning, something veteran MECC players will greatly appreciate.
10) The Island of Dr. Brain
The apex of an educational series that would eventually go very much downhill, this Dr. Brain was fun, challenging, and certainly creative, testing knowledge of music math, and with the classic Tower of Hanoi game thrown in for good measure. As if that isn’t enough, try not having your mind blown when you enter a new screen AND IT’S A JIGSAW PUZZLE YOU HAVE TO PUT TOGETHER! It may not be as difficult as other such games but it was certainly the most visually interesting, with colorful graphics and a variety of different rooms worth exploring.
9) Math Blaster: The Search for Spot
The stuff indoor recess was made of. You control a green spaceman (who sounds more than a little like Lenny Bruce’s impression of the Lone Ranger) on a quest to rescue his little floating robot friend from “that yellow three-eyed trash alien”. This somehow requires you to answer math problems really fast and shoot at stuff from inside a spaceship. My favorite part was definitely the tricky “path runner” section, which required you to pick up the right number while dodging enemies in an improbably long cave.
8) Number/Word Munchers
A phenomenally simple concept (Pac-Man + facts = money) turned out to be gaming gold for MECC. There’s not much more to say really, other than that these games got surprisingly difficult in the later stages, forcing you to figure out complex equations in a matter of seconds while being attacked by toothsome monsters. Thank god for those safe zones.
7) Gizmos and Gadgets
Almost everyone played at least one of the Learning Company’s Super Solver games, where you were a faceless stranger with terrible fashion sense challenged to stop an asshole in a bowtie from… doing something bad. In this game, you must scamper around a giant factory-complex, battle robot monkey-things and build different vehicles in order to beat the bad guy in a race. Such vehicles include blimps, planes, and alternative-energy racecars (I, for one, think Al Gore owes G&G a lot of credit). Many of these games are ingrained into our psyches forever, but as memorable as Treasure Mountain, Outnumbered!, and the like all were, this is one of the two that we all clamored to play.
6) Operation Neptune
And this is the other. A satellite falls to earth and you must take to the seas in a sub that is apparently the same size as most pufferfish to recover it. Math problems, non-violent action, and exploration are all part of the experience but the real kicker is that this game actually had a story, albeit a simple one, that you could piece together from journal entries as the game progressed. Fun fact: this game has nothing to do with the Invasion of Normandy, in case you’re wondering.
5) The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis
A classic all-around, this title once again proved the old adage that the cuter a video game’s protagonist, the more frustrating its gameplay. A cuddly group of jelly-bean shaped capitalists called the Zoombinis are forced to flee their homeland for greenr pastures, and it’s up to you to make sure they get there. Puzzles start out as fun and challenging but get damn near impossible the further you go (don’t even get me started on that damn mirror cave). It’s all worth it to hear the ecstatic narrator when you finally reach your destination (and make sure you wait until after the music, once you get there).
4) Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
A great game in all its manifestations, Carmen followed the time-honored golden rule of making educational games: pretend it isn’t educational. The bulk of the gameplay was devoted to tracking down clues and following the trail left by the titular kleptomaniac and her crew, and if you just so happened to learn what country’s capital is Rabat along the way, than all the better for you. Of course, I’m very partial to Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? (also known as Great Chase Through Time), but that one has just too many bad cartoon jokes for me to put it on this list.
3) The Oregon Trail
Originally created by teachers in 1971, this is one of those games that not only educated, it engrossed. The gameplay has as much to do with simulation, strategy, and character stats as it does with learning about westward expansion, and influenced countless young nerds as well as games themselves. There were a few updates in the 90’s that added features such as the ability to choose your destination and actors who speak very, very slowly. Its ridiculous success gave us The Yukon Trail, The Africa Trail (sic), the infamous Freedom!, and one other…
2) The Amazon Trail
At the risk of pissing off all the purists, I’ll say it: I’ve always liked this one more than The Oregon Trail. For me, it comes down to the two sexiest words of all: time travel. Aside from the river rafting sequence towards the end, Oregon was pretty repetitive: shoot bison, catch dysentery, die, rinse, repeat. There was much of the same in Amazon, with the exception of the blue mist, which would appear at any moment’s notice and launch you somewhere in time. You could meet Henry Ford, make a poison blowgun, and doom entire tribes to extinction. And while the river stayed more or less the same geographically, there were new missions and choices to make in each time period that affected the outcome of the game. If you did the right things, you got a mark on your shield, and if you got all of the marks, a magical genie made out of cupcakes appeared and gave you a handjob. In other words, I have no idea. But it must have been something awesome… right?
1) Team Xtreme: Operation Weather Disaster
I don’t remember where I got it or what’s happened to it, but of all the games I had in fifth grade, few were booted up more on my parents’ Windows 95-augmented IBM than this. Drenched in instantly dated ’90s “cool”, Team Xtreme nonetheless succeeds in being both a good source of weather-science information and a lot of fun to play, somehow incorporating flying robots and magic crystals in there for good measure. You are a plucky young AFGNCAAP from Oklahoma who, along with the titular group of culturally diverse teenagers, must stop the satanic Dennis Miller-like Weatherman from using catastrophic weather patterns to destroy the world.
Topsy-turvy locations include a frozen Egypt and a dried-up Atlantis, and gameplay ranges from traditional point-and-click to fast-paced (and high-stake) arcade sequences. There’s some lovably horrible acting (“I’m not getting anything from MILLIBAR!”) and some genuinely neat puzzles. This game is pretty hard to find, and supposedly there’s an even rarer sequel floating around somewhere. Good luck.