The late 90s and early 2000s 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.
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?
Editor’s Note: I still have a copy of The Way Things Work that I got as a birthday present one year. It was the shit. And if you’re patient enough to muck around with Windows 3.1 compatibility, you can get it running today: the ISO is saved on the Internet Archive here. – Alex