Back in the mid 1990's you didn't have the simplicity of games like AdVenture Capitalist, Clicker Heroes or the myriad of endless runners that you can get on mobiles these days. But there were games that had simple hooks. And I remember one of them quite vividly, because it was one of the few times I was allowed — why, I don't know — to stay up ridiculously late to play.
It had a sound effect best described as the following: NYAHHHHHHHHHH.
This story has been republished following the re-release of Gazillionaire on Steam today.
When I wrote about educational games and the primary school students who turned up to battle it out at Luna Park, software like Mathletics wasn't what I had in mind when it came to teaching basic principles to children. It's a pretty direct method, no doubt, and certainly effective in some cases.
“Just go,” Mark says, “it’ll be fun.” He’s trying to convince me — placate, really — about the merits of going to Luna Park for a potential story. I hate Luna Park. It's dreadful.
But I was thinking of more applied methods. Minecraft's a great example. The Carmen Sandiego series was a fantastic method of getting basic geography buried in kids' brains. Wild Science Arcade was remarkably effective, although it crashed a hell of a lot and was bloody pain to get running back in the day. And everybody remembers the beauty of The Incredible Machine.
But what continues to put a smile on my face to this day was a business simulator, published in 1996. It was the product of Lavamind, a studio that has focused on creating business simulations and has since gotten them into a string of schools in the United States and around the world. Gazillionaire is the simplest of Lavamind's simulations, but it's the one that I fell in love with, and it's the one I want to pay homage to today.
It's a simple trading game that basically gives you a ship, a gargantuan loan and a string of AI opponents to float around and trade off. There are a bunch of random encounters to liven things up, a stock market to play in, simple supply and demand mechanics, tourism, ship upgrades, taxes and more.
It looks simple as all hell. It kind of is, in a lot of ways. But it's absurdly addictive. And I can't quite remember how I came across the game — pretty sure it was probably a demo disc, somewhere — but I was 7 or 8 at the time, and I thought it was brilliant.
My brother and I would sometimes stay awake until 2:00 AM or 3:00 AM in the morning seeing who would get to 1 million kubars. I'm pretty sure that was the limit in the demo version we had, anyway — the limited game they have online lets you play until one company reaches 5 million kubars, and you can randomise the planets, which we couldn't do back then.
My brother and I also grew up with a bloke who was just as nerdy as us but, due to family, had to move all the way from our semi-rural comfort to Darwin. Once a year, however, he'd come back to NSW and he'd stay at our house for a week or two and we'd spend hours upon hours bashing out various hotseat games.
The excellent Heroes of Might and Magic 2 — it's not as good as HOMM 3, obviously, but still a damn fine piece of work — was always popular, but we found in time that Gazillionaire Deluxe was actually a far more sociable, and practical, game. The ability to see your opponent's trading decisions didn't materially influence the game much; it certainly didn't have the impact as knowing whether an enemy hero was about to break down the front door of your castle.
And the randomised events, as well as the randomised planet specials, kept things lively. That was great for my brother, as well — he's the kind of gamer that has a bit of a fiery temperament. He doesn't lose his shit at other people a great deal, but it's the sort of character in person that makes you sometimes question whether he's actually enjoying the act of a video game. (I know he does, for the record.)
I tried to find Gazillionaire afterwards, but it was one of those games that required sending a letter into the developers and it wasn't immediately made available on a major platform afterwards. Being business simulator devs, they largely concentrated on targeting their core market. That meant I forgot about the game for years, although it's since been made available directly through their website in a limited fashion.
It's the kind of title that is screaming to be re-released on iOS and Android, and it is — although it's only available for tablets, and it's only available through the Photon App or the Puffin Mobile Browser, two things which will never be downloaded onto any device I own.
But signing up for a free account gives me enough of a taste to remind me of my childhood. It reminds me of the simple hooks that work for me, the reasons why I was interested by games like Capitalism, the reason why games like Theme Park and, later, Startopia made me smile so much.
It's not the flashiest game in the world. And I find that's increasingly true whenever I have deep conversations with gamers about the things they truly enjoy. A lot of it is personal. It doesn't have an awful lot to do with the raw quality of the game in question. It's the little moments sprung out of the situations that certain games just happened to be perfect for, right at that moment in time.
Gazillionaire, back in the late 1990's, was perfect for little old me. It's not the perfect simulator. But it appealed to me immensely — and it still makes me smile, many moons later.
What are some of your favourite games that aren't quite conventional fare — and what are your favourite games that were educational, either directly or indirectly?