The late ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s were a great time for PC games. With widespread adoption and the new affordability of home computers, games were able to reach mainstream audiences for the first time. It led to an ‘edutainment’ renaissance, and saw games entering school classrooms for the first time. From Bugdom to The Magic School Bus, we’re taking a look back at all the games that shaped our childhoods.
This article has been updated with more titles since its original publication.
Most people remember Dune II, a foundational strategy game that would form the basis of the RTS genre in the early-to-late ’90s. But more people have forgotten that in the very same year, Virgin Games turned the iconic franchise into an excellent point-and-click adventure for its time.
The characterisation was excellent and memorable, with art design that was on point and a wonderful echo of the Dune universe. I’d love to see someone have another narrative-focused crack at the Dune franchise, especially with the recent success of the board game and the interest around the upcoming movie.
The Incredible Machine
One of the greatest pieces of edutainment ever made, although that’s underplaying its brilliance somewhat. On par with Carmen Sandiego for the cleverness of its design, The Incredible Machine was a series of puzzles with simple objectives: get the pinball into the aquarium, get the cheese to the cat, launch the rocket, and other bizarre Rube Goldberg-type contraptions.
Today, something like The Incredible Machine would be considered a great entry-level introduction for kids learning how to code. The process of solving each level involved understanding how an environment functions from the top down, observing what objects created what effects and the impact that had on the rest of the “system”. But even today, The Incredible Machine and many of its spiritual spin-offs — like Contrapation Maker, a 2014 game from some of the original Incredible Machine developers — are just as entertaining.
Wild Science Arcade
You don’t really see games like Wild Science Arcade any more, even though the idea behind them still works so well. Binary Zoo’s 1993 game had a pretty straightforward hook. You were stuck in a physics institute helping out Professor Blueman’s latest creation, which was basically a small screen with a ball on it.
It was effectively a puzzle-platformer where you had to navigate the ball either through certain doors, or to interact with various objects without reaching some kind of a fail state. Some levels, for instance, restricted you to glass balls, so you had to be gentle to make sure you didn’t shatter the ball by going to fast or falling off ledges. You were also limited in how many balls you had, and you had to manage this while also controlling the power, friction and how much gravity the ball could have (if allowed).
It was basically a more modern, science-forward take on Marble Madness. But what was great about it was its cartoon, kid-friendly aesthetic, an easy-to-understand approach to scientific terms and principles, and a very clear, appealing aesthetic for a game in 1993.
Just imagine pitching a game like SimAnt in this day and age. Can you imagine any publisher that would take it on in its original form?
There was honestly nothing like it, and nothing since. Using some of the base framework and systems established by other Sim games, Maxis created a game where the entire object was to help an ant colony thrive. It was more like a real-time strategy game than, say, SimCity, with the player helping a colony of black ants survive attacks from rival red colonies.
The game was surprisingly complex, with trackers for your castes (how many soldiers, breeders and workers you had), different views for your colony positions, different views for your nest, top-down strategic views, and even a look in the nearby house that your colony very quickly took over. Hell, you could even switch views to see your ants crawling over the floor and kitchen of the human house. (The view would even change to display a little “For Sale” sign after the humans were driven out.)
Castle of Dr. Brain
Another edutainment hit from Sierra On-Line, Castle of Dr. Brain was another DOS-era game designed to teach kids lessons through various science-themed puzzles. Inspired heavily by Hangman, Mastermind and titles of that ilk, the opening level was filled with lots of code puzzles. You then had to work through time-sensitive puzzles, 3D maze elevator puzzles, while later puzzles introduced programming-esque challenges.
Castle of Dr. Brain was an enormous hit in the early ’90s, enough that Sierra would go on to release several follow-ups. The company was also buoyed by their launch on the NASDAQ stock exchange in 1989. Not long after, Sierra would become the biggest PC developer in the industry, publishing an enormous slate of games that included the Space Quest series, Gabriel Knight, The Incredible Machine, Leisure Suit Larry, Police Quest, Caesar, Quest for Glory, You Don’t Know Jack, Metaltech: Battledrome and many, many more.
Kid Pix was a drawing program that let kids show off their creative spirit the best way they knew how — with total, pure chaos. There were stamps that printed money, sticks of dynamite that blew away your artworks and tools for shifting, poking and prodding your canvas. Later versions even extended the game into animation and video creation, letting kids learn a variety of new skills under the guide of having fun. Kid Pix was a staple of many creative classrooms.
Bugdom is an action adventure game where players take on the role of Rollie McFly, the coolest bug in the entire Bugdom. After the evil fire ants take over Rollie’s peaceful land, he sets out on a quest to free imprisoned ladybugs and save the entire Bugdom. Wandering among the tall grass, whopping bugs and uncovering keys was great fun back in the day.
Spy Fox, Freddi Fish, Pajama Sam and Putt-Putt
Humongous Entertainment was a video game developer that focussed almost solely on edutainment. They created a variety of iconic characters that you just mind recognise, including Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish, Spy Fox, Pajama Sam, Fatty Bear, Buzzy the Knowledge Bug and Big Thinkers. These games were all classic point-and-click titles, and helped younger learners develop solid problem solving skills.
Many of us won’t be able to count the amount of times we’ve played these on all of our fingers and toes. Every game has since been released on Steam, and you can usually pick them up for around $5 in seasonal sales.
The Thinkin’ Things games featured a whole bunch of minigames on a CD-ROM, and included activities like swirling photos, making music and editing videos. They’re most known for introducing the world to Fripples, delightful little creatures of all shapes and sizes that were spun-off into a game called All Around Frippletown. Here, the Fripples baked cookies, skated and delivered mail.
Granny’s Garden originally appeared on the BBC Micro in 1983, but received several different remasters and adaptations for other home PCs — so you may remember it looking vastly different. In the game, players were required to rescue the six children of a King and Queen from various fantasy creatures. In one memorable challenge, players had to determine the favourite foods and baby dragons, and feed them each in the right order to free one of the children. If you failed your task, you were greeted by the cackling (and terrifying) face of an evil witch.
Logical Journey of the Zoombinis
Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is a puzzle game where players are required to deliver ‘Zoombinis’ (creatures with funky features) across a variety of obstacles. These logic puzzles are based on Zoombini facial features and preferences, making it extremely difficult to save all the Zoombinis at once. The game was actually remastered in 2015, proving just how popular the funky little Zoombinis still are.
Indiana Jones and His Desktop Adventures
Indiana Jones and His Desktop Adventures featured a brand new Indy tale, stuffed into a tiny pop-out window. It uses a charming pixel-art style, and sees Indy traversing Mexico solving puzzles and beating up bad guys. Interestingly, every playthrough of Desktop Adventures is unique — the game procedurally generated new interactions every time you started the game. It’s now considered abandonware, and is available freely online.
The Treehouse is an edutainment game developed by Brøderbund, and features a whole bunch of minigames taking place in a dusty treehouse. Players take on a a variety of games like theatre challenges and eye spy, all while looking after their opossum protagonist. The Playroom and The Backyard are also part of this cute little franchise.
Reading Blaster 2000
Reading Blaster and Maths Blaster were two game franchises disguised as edutainment that were actually super fun. Reading Blaster 2000, a remake of Reading Blaster: Invasion of the Word Snatchers is the best of the bunch, and features a journey through a spooky house, mix and match puzzles, a running race with words and even shooting letters out of deep space. Every minigame was good fun, plus it was a great excuse to play video games while you were ‘learning’.
How did you learn to type? For many kids growing up in the 90s, Kid’s Typing taught them everything they knew. This program featured a friendly ghost named Spooky as he took kids through the basics of typing. With instructions for touch typing, correct posture and finger placement, it’s certainly one of the more helpful programs that we played as kids.
The Magic School Bus
The Magic School Bus taught us everything we know about nature and the human body. After its TV popularity skyrocketed, it was spun off into a video game franchise, covering everything from the solar system to the ocean, the age of dinosaurs and bugs. The games are all fun, gorgeous and very delightful.
Encarta ’94: MindMaze
Before the age of the internet, the fount of knowledge was the Microsoft Encarta on CD-ROM. These discs functioned as virtual encyclopaedias, with interactive media to illustrate moments and events. One fantastic feature of the Microsoft Encarta in 1994 (and the 1995 edition) was MindMaze, a hidden quiz game where you used trivia from the Encarta to progress through an underground chamber and escape. While it was a difficult game, it was also supremely rewarding.
The Way Things Work
The Way Things Work is an 80s children’s book written by David Macaulay. It describes basic mechanical concepts and the functions of machines to children using woolly mammoths as illustrative examples. In 1994, it received a video game adaptation. In it, kids can discover how things work in a mechanical setting and learn about basic machine components. While the information it contains is likely to be outdated now, discovering these objects for the first time as a kid was absolutely magical.
Do you remember any of these games from your childhood? Did we miss any of your favourites?