It's Computer Day: Take 2

A Second Helping of 90's Computer Nostalgia
August 26, 2009
You may remember that awhile back I posted an article entitled "It's Computer Day", in which I covered a few of the various computer games that kept us clicking away all through the 90's. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to include some of my favorite software, mostly due to my inability to track down the official title or any associated images to prove its existence. But, after some dedicated late-night hunting, I've managed to scrounge up some more electronic nostalgia. So I'm back, with It's Computer Day: Take 2, a look at some more of the greatest CD-ROMS from days gone by.

Because this article is going to cover more than the four games the last one did, I've separated the titles out into categories: Art Programs, Activity Centers, Virtual Pets, and Educational Tools. To start off, let's grab a virtual paintbrush and take a look at the art programs.

Crayola Art Studio 2

This was one of my favorite programs when I was about 9 years old. Why didn't I include it in the original article? Well, there's a very simple answer to that. I couldn't remember what on Earth it was called!
Crayola has released dozens of CDRoms over the years. And as a 9-year-old, I just knew it by the unofficial title, "The Crayola Program". So when I went on Google and started trying to look it up, I couldn't be sure which one of the many results was the art studio I loved so much. But now, I'm certain.

Crayola Art Studio 2 was designed for ages 3 to 12. The main menu put you in a hallway, from which you could choose the "little kid room":

Or the "big kid room"

Just picture those rooms being full screen, and you get the idea. Both rooms had an "easel", which is where you did all of your drawing.

The little kid room also had a coloring book, which allowed them to color in pre-made pictures if they couldn't get the hang of the drawing tools.

This game was much more than a virtual easel, though. There were also puzzles and games in each room. But the thing that stuck out in my mind were the videos. Each room contained short video clips, some being instructions on various craft projects and some being about the history of Crayola or how crayons or markers were made. Some of the craft projects are still with me to this day. If I ever have kids, I am so teaching them how to make a tie-died paper towel with Crayola markers.

Disney's Magic Artist

Technically, this program was called "Disney's Magic Artist Studio". Essentially, it was the "easel" section from the Crayola program. But this easel was much, much cooler, and could easily stand on its own without the aid of videos or games.

First of all, you can probably tell that the graphics were way better in this one. But the tools that they gave you were nothing short of well, magic. There were the basic pencil, paintbrush, and paint can that you find in any graphic program. But there were also special tools that you just couldn't find anywhere else, including a tool that let you draw with whipped cream (complete with a whipped cream sound effect). There were also instructional lessons on animation. You would draw (or trace) anywhere between 3 and 20 drawings depicting a simple motion, such as a ball bouncing, and the program would then "animate" them.

Of course, kids in the 90's wanted to do more than just draw. Software developers seemed to know that we'd get bored easily with a one-trick pony, as it were. Thus was born the activity center, the game with something for everyone! For example...

Disney's The Lion King Activity Center

I had a ton of these Disney games when I was a kid. Basically, for every new Disney animated movie they would also produce two pieces of computer software-the "Animated Storybook" and the "Activity Center".

I had both of these for "The Lion King", and I can safely say that the Activity Center was much cooler.

The Activity Center was split into four different areas: The Jungle, The Elephant Graveyard, Rafiki's Tree, and The Magic Pool. The Magic Pool was simply a movie theater, showing clips from, what else, "The Lion King". The real fun lay in the other three areas.

In the jungle, you chose between three games. The first was a variation on "Hangman", with Pumbaa dangling in vines that would snap if you picked the wrong letter. The second was a variation on "Where's Waldo", where you would have to search for the hidden animals that "ran away" when Pumbaa's, um...personal problems became too much. The third was a simple matching game, where you would have to find the matching bugs in a sea of various patterns and colors.

Rafiki's Tree gave you three more activities. There was the coloring section, of course. What's a piece of kids software without coloring? There was also a type of jigsaw puzzle, which was set up so lovely by Rafiki's voice-something to the extent of

"Oh, my goodness! Little bits of broken picture all over Rafiki's floor. Who can help me pick them up again? You can?"

There was also a game called "Achi" (I think, don't quote me on that) which involved jumping marbles. You played as the purple marbles and Rafiki played as the blue, or there was a two player mode. Essentially, it was a fancier version of tic tac toe.

The Elephant Graveyard gave you a maze, where you had to guide poor Simba through the graveyard before the hyenas caught him. It also provided a variation on "Memory", with Lion King characters. And it provided the requisite music maker, where you could either play a version of Simon with Ed, or make up your own melodies on an elephant rib cage.

The games themselves were nothing special-almost every kids activity center had similar features. Mostly, it was the association with the movie that gave this one its charm. However, not all activity centers were as cool as Lion King, or as memorable.

Exhibit A:

If anyone can remember this as clearly as I do, I'll be very surprised. This was just another activity center game set in the house of a monster named Mooky. The games were pretty typical. You had your matching games, and your music games, and your memory games. There were songs-I think. And Mooky would always announce what part of his house you were in. "The Living Room", or "The Kitchen", or "The Upstairs Hallway", which I still hear in my head any time I'm in the upstairs hallway in my house. It's funny what things stick with you.

Along those same lines is exhibit B of generic activity centers:

Ozzie's World

In case you couldn't guess, Ozzie was the otter. Again, this was divided up into different areas with various clickable things. Some took you to games, others took you to songs (such as this catchy spin on Old McDonald: "I'm a termite in a log, living peacefully. I much on wood and eat my fill-it's a rotten home for me. With a crunch crunch gulp, and a crunch crunch gulp, here a crunch, there a crunch, everywhere a crunch crunch, I'm a termite in a log living peacefully") and still others took you to informative slideshows about recycling, water conservation, how to dry apples, and a whole lot of other random stuff. No, it wasn't the best game ever. But that termite song will be stuck in my head for the rest of my life, so I figured it at least deserved a mention.

And then there was Barbie...

Yes, I owned a Barbie CD-ROM as a child. And yes, looking back, it was just as cheesy as the picture suggests.

Basically, the idea of the game was to explore Barbie's house. In every room, there would be a different game or games to play, as well as the stimulating conversation between Barbie, Ken, and Skipper. This exchange remains in my mind to this day:

Barbie: What should we have for dinner?

Skipper: How about Mexican food?
Barbie: Ok, Mexican food it is!

Most of the games seemed to revolve around fashion, hair or makeup, such as one where you picked the correct outfit for the activity Barbie was about to do. Yes, it was stupid, but I did play it a lot and I still remember it to this day.

Not all activity centers were generic and boring or reliant on character licenses, though. Some actually put honest effort into coming up with an original concept and turing it into a great game. I give you...

Thinkin' Things

Thinkin' Things games were awesome. All three of them. What other kids game let us become international traders?

Or put together our own halftime show?

There was no real theme, no generic character, no single moral or lesson. It was just awesome games put together. That's pretty much all I can say about Thinkin' Things-it was awesome.

One of the coolest things about computer games was their ability to allow us to do things we couldn't do in real life. Sometimes, this could be superhuman abilities such as flight, or it could be something much simpler, something that we technically could do in real life, but were prevented from doing by our parents...such as owning a pet.


Dogz hit around the time that we began seeing little beeping eggs in the hands of every child in America. It was pretty simple, by todays simulation standards. You had a dog running around, you could throw a ball for it, feed it a treat, and spray it with water if it was bad. I remember teaching mine to do tricks with the different treats. But the one feature I remember the most was the ability to have your dog run around your entire desktop. It gave the feeling that your pet wasn't just confined to the time you spent playing the game-it was really living in your computer.

And yes, I know that the Dogz franchise is still going strong. I know there's been a Dogz 2, and Dogz 3, and Dogz 4 and 5. I know that it's now been transferred to the Wii as well. But, the subsequent PC games weren't available on the Mac, at least not readily enough to where we could find it. (Remember, this is before the days when online shopping was the norm...) So, in my world, those games may as well have never existed.

Not all virtual pet simulations were of cute dogs and cats, though. Some let us raise more...non-traditional animals. Like dragons.

Raise A Dragon

First, I need to be honest about something. This was not a stand alone game. It was technically part of another activity center called Quest for Camelot Dragon Games. However, I'm covering this one activity here for two reasons. One is that I've already talked about 5 activity centers-I think I wore that topic out. And two-the rest of the game sucked.

Do you remember Quest for Camelot? If not, don't feel bad. It was a pretty forgettable Disney musical wanna-be (made by Warner Brothers) and produced a pretty forgettable tie-in game. But buried deep within that game, like a diamond in the rough, was Raise a Dragon.

Basically, you were given a dragon egg that you had to keep warm and dry, with the help of a blanket and umbrella. Once it hatched, you got to name the baby dragon that you see in the picture above. Said unisex dragon now needed to be fed, changed, and rocked to sleep. After some time had passed, it would grow to a toddler and need to be taught to walk, and then grow to a pre-teen where it would gain the ability to jump on a trampoline. At the end of this stage, it would suddenly fly away, sending a postcard home to thank you for raising it so well.

This could have easily been a stand-alone game with some slight expansion. It's sad that it got buried within such a bland mixture of other games.

But of course, life wasn't all fun and games We also had to go to school. But thankfully, we had these educational gems to make our education a little bit easier.

Living Books

Living Books was exactly what the title suggests. Essentially, this is the birth of e-books. It gave us books that we could read on our computer. Or, rather, it gave us books that would be read to us by the computer. Living Books gave us the entire experience of reading our favorite picture book, right down to the same illustrations. They also gave us funny animation, loud music, and help pronouncing words we just couldn't sound out ourselves. They made reading much more fun. I wish my college textbooks came in Living Book form.

Planetary Taxi

This game was introduced to us in the third grade-the same year we began learning about the solar system. The concept of the game was that you were driving a taxi between the nine planets (this was before Pluto got kicked out of the planet club) and you were out to make as much in tips as possible.

At each stop, a passenger would get into your cab. You could only see their eyes in your rear-view mirror. The passenger would present a situation to you, such as this one that I remember:

I'm entering my prize pig in the heaviest hog contest, and I want to record her weight on the planet where she'll weigh the most.

Thus, your task was to choose the planet with the strongest force of gravity. Some of the situations were pretty out there, but it was a really good educational tool for learning about the planets-all nine of them. Pluto will always be a planet in my book.

Now as I prepare to wrap this article up, I'm going to leave you with two pieces of software that didn't really fit into any of the categories but still left a rather big impression on my life.

The first of these is Vitsie the VideoSitter

I'm Vitsie, and I know lots of things
I live right in your own TV
I'm Vitsie, and I know lots of things
Wanna know something? Watch me!

For the longest time, I thought I was imagining this creepy woman and her annoying theme song. Then somebody posted a clip of it on YouTube. Seriously, if the song's melody didn't already play in your head when you read the lyrics, go to YouTube and search for "Vitsie". You'll see what I'm talking about.

And don't think that Vitsie was just dressed like an alien because that cover was for the space video. Vitsie looked like that all the time. I had two Vitsie CD's-one about the ocean and one about dinosaurs. Essentially each CD was a very long Quicktime movie that let you jump to the various parts-you could jump to each section of information, each project, and each song. Yes, there were more songs. As creepy as Vitsie was, I'm at least pleased to know that she did not originate in my imagination.

And, finally, we have the game that started it all.

The Manhole

In my first article, I said that one of my earliest memories was playing a game at age two or three on our old Amegia system. It took a great deal of hunting around with my sparse memories, but I am now certain that this was that game.

The game was based in exploration. A beanstalk grows out of a manhole which, in my memory at least, is at the bottom of a pool. You could either climb up the beanstalk or go down the manhole, and explore the various worlds and interact with the animals that inhabited them. As I read more about this game, it began to make perfect sense that this was the first video game I ever played. As we grew up, my brother became more into the video games with actual goals and missions, but I was more into my Sims games and Animal Crossing-games where there were no specific goals, nothing trying to kill you, and that you were free to explore at your own pace. I really think it was my early exposure to games like "The Manhole" that set me up to enjoy that type of game.

And with that, we've come full circle with my retrospective on nostalgic computer games. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go try to get Vitsie's theme song out of my head.
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