The Classroom Computer: The Best of Apple ][ Edutainment

appleii_fi2Apple’s line of Apple II — or apple ][ — computers were the vehicle of choice in America for teaching typing and computer technology to Generations X and Y. From 1980 to the late ’90s — long after the models went out of date, thanks to the embarrassment that is public school funding in the U.S. — these archaic, clacking beasts filled lab after lab of our elementary and middle schools (often with 200-pound Xerox machines providing the ambiance).

We primarily remember the apple ][ in our classrooms for teaching us to type with clever software like MasterType (1981) and Home Row! (1987); or, if we finished our lessons early, edutaining us with games like Rocky’s Boots (1982) and Lewis and Clark Stayed Home (1991).

While many great games remain genuinely forgotten to time — I’m looking at you, mysterious Peanuts game where Snoopy rides around on his doghouse dodging clouds and birds and what-have-yous — the titles below provided some of the strongest memories for me and my Sequoya Elementary School classmates back in ’95, and are still pretty fun today.

The Oregon Trail

Developed by MECC (1985)

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Pretty much everyone drowned in the first river. The surviving son, Bottom, somehow broke his arms and legs on a daily basis until he passed away months later.

The long-standing champion of edutainment, the Oregon Trail was originally developed back in ’71 in some archaic form I can’t even imagine. Most players remember the graphics-heavy version from ’85, which was built-in or provided to schools for free.

The Oregon Trail is famously punishing, and famous for teaching us all about dys-en-tery and other hard-to-pronounce illnesses. Players were tasked with simulated the pioneer journey along the Oregon Trail — a trail that spanned the distance from Missouri to Oregon State’s Willamette Valley. We had to carefully plan our food stores, monitor our family’s health, hunt, trade with Native Americans and other settlers, cross rivers deep and wide, and a variety of other things young minds are terrible at.

In 1994, we saw two spiritual sequels in the Yukon Trail and the Amazon Trail.  They provided some magic moments with fun minigames — especially the former — but couldn’t capture the magic or challenge of the original.

If you haven’t beaten this game, you need to. It’s a great journey, and surprisingly not that difficult as an adult. (Hint: Talk to locals at every opportunity and listen to them.)

Math Blaster Plus!

Developed by Davidson & Associates (1987)

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The Math Blaster! series provides a number of games, and most of them are mixed bags when it comes to being educational or entertaining.

Remembered more for the many modern iterations and the power of the Blaster Learning System branding today, the series started with a modest — and ugly — prototype in 1983. It wasn’t until Math Blaster Plus! (1987) and then New Math Blaster Plus! (1990) that the modern and beloved collection of math games came together.

The ‘Trash Zapper’ minigame was always my favorite precisely because it had the least math in it. Players shot trash from their cockpit — fun! — and every now and then had to solve simple math equations. I personally never connected with the series much, finding game parts fun, but the integration of problem-solving and math simply mundane.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Developed by Brøderbund Software (1985)

Players visited a variety of locales to investigate clues, ultimately bringing them face-to-face to V.I.L.E. brilliant ringleader, Carmen Sandiego.
Players visited a variety of locales to investigate clues, ultimately bringing them face-to-face to V.I.L.E. brilliant ringleader, Carmen Sandiego.

Brøderbund Software is responsible for some of the more endearing edutainment properties. Carmen Sandiego has stood the test of time (probably more for her character and the TV show than the gameplay…), but they also gave us classics like the Logical Journey of the Zoombinis and the original Prince of Persia.

The original Carmen Sandiego games were globe-trotting adventures that had the player character investigating crimes committed by an international criminal organization known as V.I.L.E. operating under the leadership of Carmen Sandiego. The players follow trails of clues across multiple locations to catch members of V.I.L.E. and ultimately the lady in red herself!

The Carmen Sandiego series was and still is fantastic for fostering wonderful skills in players: The interest in self-learning and performing research. Players would sometimes have to look outside of the game to understand the sometimes-abstruse clues.

Like with the Oregon Trail, I was terrible at this series as a kid, and it wasn’t until replaying years later that I could figure it out. Great memories: But I could never get anywhere without serious help.

The updated ’90s version is also available freely online.

Number Munchers & Word Munchers

Developed by MECC (1986 & 1985)

I may have died on level one, but trust me, I know words. I have the best words.
I may have died on level one, but trust me, I know words. I have the best words.

The Munchers series were staples of the Apple II’s in-class library. Players took control of a walking mouth to navigate a grid of numbers or words, looking for solutions to basic mathematics or reading instruction, all while dodging even hungrier monsters (‘Troggles’) and incorrect answers.

These weren’t frequently visited outside of lessons by me or classmates, but were pretty good software for cementing lessons like our multiplication tables or parts of speech.

Space Subtraction

Developed by MECC (1985)

The ‘Cosmic Creature’ game lets players build their own alien species (of equal beauty, I’m sure), which subsequently proceed to ‘blast off,’ as the kids say, using slow-moving rocket boots, soaring into space at a rate of one pixel per second.
The ‘Cosmic Creature’ game lets players build their own alien species (of equal beauty, I’m sure), which subsequently proceed to ‘blast off,’ as the kids say, using slow-moving rocket boots, soaring into space at a rate of one pixel per second.

One of the more obscure titles our classroom had, Space Subtraction only offered whole-number subtraction problems with really cool rewards, like building your own space alien, literal moonwalking, or launching your own space shuttle and satellite.

Granted, the reward for completing sets of 8 – 25 subtraction problems would be nothing more than a brief animation of hideous nonsensical blobs of pixels, but seeing the little alien do a jig or your own satellite setting into orbit felt mind-blowing when you just spent an entire class learning how QWERTY keyboards worked.

Odell Lake

Developed by MECC (1986)

Expert Odell Lake players may note that a few things in this screenshot aren’t where they belong.
Expert Odell Lake players may note that a few things in this screenshot aren’t where they belong.

Odell Lake did it all well: It taught students valuable lessons in predator-prey relations and greater ecology, as well as simply being a ridiculously fun way to spend freetime in the computer lab.

Players start the game as a random or chosen animal in the short list of species inhabiting Oregon’s Odell Lake, and need to survive encounters with all the other critters inhabiting the local ecosystem. You must choose how each encounter plays out: Whether you’ll eat (or attempt to eat), chase, ignore, or escape all the other hungry animals. The best encounters, I remember, are when the timer’s ticking quick as can be, only giving you a second to react, and the screen stays…empty.

DEEP ESCAPE! An osprey lurks above.

Sometimes you feel like you’re working your way up the ladder. Do you ever get to play as the osprey and tear up the world of Odell Lake? Hmm, I’m still hoping.

A beautiful-but-confusing sequel called Odell Down Under came out in 1995, replacing the ugly, plain graphics with a colorful synecdoche of the Great Barrier Reef. Cool to look at, it however lacked the intense spark of the prequel.

Reader Rabbit

Developed by the Learning Company (1986)

Reader Rabbit featured gorgeous graphics, particularly among its 1986 contemporaries. Note the cerulean blue, a shade of the color wheel that nearly broke earlier Apple II models.
Reader Rabbit featured gorgeous graphics, particularly among its 1986 contemporaries.

The Reader Rabbit game was everywhere in our early labs. The titles were catchy, the rabbit cheerful and cute, the reading lessons actually pretty good, if limited — but, boy, was this game ever ugly.

A symbol for some of my earliest computer-lab memories, I don’t recollect particularly enjoying the original game once I worked my way through the ‘Sorter,’ ‘Labeler,’ ‘Word Train,’ and ‘Matchup’ minigames. The original Reader Rabbit game was primarily about 3-letter words and the sounds they share, with little room for fun.

Muppetville

Developed by Sunburst Communications (1986)

Which animal doesn’t belong in Gonzo’s zoo? Hint: Purple.
Which animal doesn’t belong in Gonzo’s zoo?

As Kermit the Frog, you ride a unicycle on a 2D space, moving left or right to different buildings in the town of Muppetville, with each building housing its own minigame. It’s nothing more than a small collection of games to test, primarily, memory skills. Which characters match across which hotel windows; which animal doesn’t belong in a batch of four zoo critters; which apartments share numbers? It keeps it basic, and the Muppet theme is sometimes stretched thin.

As a kid, though, it felt like we got to explore an open world. The small street with six buildings to enter, and an awkward, slow-moving Kermit perambulating between them like a nincompoop, felt far larger than it was. Each building of Muppetville felt like it housed legitimate, Muppet-y mysteries to unfold, and it was a genuine treasure running into the many beloved characters throughout town.

Muppetville may best be left to memory, but for a time in ’95, it provided a much-needed imaginative break from the lessons of Home Row!

Spellevator

Developed by MECC (1988)

Just imagine is dust bunnies could ride elevators solo IRL.
Just imagine is dust bunnies could ride elevators solo IRL.

This was another spelling game we commonly had tied into lessons, and also one that offered a very fun break from early typing software. Players take the role of a brainy dust bunny eager to ascend a 1920s skyscraper by spelling its way to the top. Collect letters, solve short spelling puzzles floor-by-floor, ride elevators, and unscramble groups of collected letters for bonus points. There are also sentient vacuum cleaners — hungry for spelling-bee champion dust bunnies, no doubt — to avoid.

It’s an unusual scenario, for sure.

Pipe Dream

Developed by the Assembly Line (1989)

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Coming late in the Apple II line’s life, Pipe Dream featured some of the most cutting-edge visuals produced at the time.

Pipe Dream, or Pipe Mania, was the original ‘reward’ game. Before we got a handful of sleek Macintosh PCs in the corner offering shiny new games like SimCity 2000 and SkiFree, we fought over who got to play a couple rounds of Pipe Dream after finishing homework.

In Pipe Dream, players are cast as — presumably — a plumber given only seconds to reroute polluted sewage or toxic waste or whatever the imagination desires out of the immediate building and into the nearest river or park or, again, whatever the imagination desires. The player has  no control over the pipes he uses, and instead must connect pipe pieces in a Tetris-like frenzy of predestined order.

Today, Pipe Dream is primarily remembered for being how denizens of BioShock‘s Rapture hack all their electronics.

Rocket Factory

Developed by MECC (1993)

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Not even my beloved, the Marmy, was able to reach the maximum launch height.

Released at the end of the Apple II’s lifespan, Rocket Factory was an oddity and a gimmick. It was Kerbal Space Program long before KSP would begin development. As the title implies, the game itself is a factory, or even a box of rocket LEGOs. Players design a rocket using any variety of parts, customizing its cone, fin, weights, engine, and the paint adorning it. The chosen parts determine how far the rocket will soar.

I’ve never been able to breach the upper-limit of 800 feet, so whether there’s an endgame for designing a perfect rocket or not remains a question 20+ years on.

Rocket Factory also includes another game — ‘Cloud Chasers’ — where the player’s goal is to reach a certain height left by a plane’s contrails.

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Savvy players will note how, even with the limitations of the time, MECC pushed the Apple II hardware to the edge, and, boy, did it break. The pitch-black, single-pixel eyes and mouths perfectly embody the hardships our pioneer ancestors* faced on a daily basis.

It’s amazing how far we’ve come since these old Apple II software. As I type this, my fiancée is putting together lesson plans on the complexities of the water cycle using free online resources, all of which trump the software used here by leaps and bounds.

Throughout the ’80s, there were hundreds of edutainment games being pushed onto schools by developers like MECC and the Learning Company, and we only scratch the surface of well-known and obscure games here. If we’re missing your preferred classics — and we’re certainly missing many (Rocky’s Boots! Lewis and Clark Stayed Home!) — drop a note telling us about your favorite games and what memories they spark for you below.

If you haven’t checked any of the links above, most of these titles and more are freely available via the Internet Archive.

written for That’s Not Current

* And the locals they wiped out physically or via cultural indoctrination.

Except, perhaps, the Oregon Trail and …Carmen Sandiego for their unique push into self-learning.

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