Easter eggs are fairly common in modern games, but they’ve yet to top the best Easter egg of them all: Microsoft Encarta’s MindMaze.
If you grew up in the 90s, there’s a fair chance ‘educational games’ were your introduction to PC gaming. There’s also a fair chance you had a copy of Microsoft’s iconic digital encyclopedia, the Encarta.
While this resource was a valuable and fun way to learn about the world during the digital media revolution, it held a very important secret. No matter what version you had, your Encarta contained a copy of iconic trivia game MindMaze.
MindMaze was a fantastic game for kids learning all about the wonders of the world. While each version differed slightly in appearance and style, their basic premise was simple, fun and engaging. In an era where edutainment was swiftly gaining popularity and PCs were starting to enter school classrooms, MindMaze was a brand new way to teach kids about world history.
In MindMaze, players explore a hidden map tile-by-tile and encounter various historical figures. Each has a riddle or puzzle to solve and players must use their knowledge to answer questions about topics like world history, performing arts and science. Usually, you’d tackle MindMaze after you’d studied the lessons in the Encarta itself but if you were an enterprising (or impatient) kid you’d just skip straight to the goods.
Of course, that often meant failing miserably at the game.
It’s probably why I have every soundbite from MindMaze ’94 permanently stuck in my head — I’d fail so often I still hear, “The world is your oyster, choose a path and the question will appear,” in my sleep. Sometimes, it’s, “I’m a woman of destiny, choose your path to find yours.”
Every character you encounter, from noblewomen to anthropomorphic bears, has a particular soundbite they’ll repeat over and over for every room you encounter them in. This was gaming in the 90s, after all. With an entire encyclopedia stuffed into the Encarta disc, it’s no wonder there wasn’t more room for catchphrases.
Getting through every level was a genuinely enormous task as a kid. Questions ranged from simple science like heat transfer and electronics to puzzles tackling metallurgy and industrial safety. Again: MindMaze was a quiz for kids. Whether they could survive the experience was another matter.
Even as an adult, some of the offered questions stumped me. Are the properties of lichen common knowledge? Or the exact nature of the Lanthanide Series? Kids in the 90s clearly had a more robust attention span than I do, or were much cleverer. Maybe the internet’s rotted my brain over the years.
Beyond the gameplay itself, the thing about MindMaze is how cool it looks. Both the ’94 and ’95 versions rock unique retro aesthetics that hold up well in 2020.
Encarta ’95 was far more polished than the grainy, Windows 3.1-pixellated style of ’94, but there’s still something very charming about the earlier version. It really leans into the 90s action-fantasy video game genre and reminds me a lot of classic PC games like King’s Quest. The ’95 version is smoother and more detailed, but lacks the flair and personality of its predecessor.
Still, both games are incredibly fun relics from an era of gaming that’s long since passed us by. Revisiting MindMaze surfaced great memories of gaming away on an old Shuttle PC with insulation strapped to both sides by zipties.
While the glory days of gaming edutainment are now over, we’ll always look back on games like MindMaze with fond memories. Long live Encarta MindMaze.