It's Computer Day!

A look back at the educational (and not so educational) software of the 1990's.
June 14, 2007
There was a lot of good stuff that came with being a kid in the 90's. We had all the pre-obesity epidemic snack food (Dunkaroos, anyone?), toys that did everything from ooze slime to jump on trampolines, and a Nickelodeon/Nick Jr. that hadn't yet gone down that much-discussed slippery slope. But one of the best thing about being a child of the 90's, for me anyway, was our weekly visit to our elementary school computer lab. When we were in the older grades, these visits would most likely be spend doing actual work, but before we were old enough to have essays to type there were all kinds of "educational" programs to make us "computer literate" adults one day.
Granted, I come from a very wired family. One of my earliest memories involves my father bringing me downstairs to play on his old Ameiga system, some game called McGee or something like that. I was probably about two or three years old. And every time we went to Costco, you could pretty much bet that my brother and I would go running to that computer game section the second we walked in the door. Other toys would would. Of course, there was the inevitable disappointment that came with finding out that "That game only works for Windows and we have a Mac". I was probably the only 7 year old who knew any difference between a mac and pc. But I digress. The point is, there are so many articles on here about our favorite retro movies, cartoons, and console games. Why not look back on those so-called educational gems? First up, the big one:Oregon Trail!

Note: This is what my second grade class's version of the Oregon trail looked like. Depending on when you played it, it may have looked different. There are two things I remember about Oregon Trail. First off was that the music was horribly annoying, and the four of five of us crowded around the computer would groan and cover our ears every time it came on, only to be yelled at by our teacher that the Oregon Trail wasn't a joke and real people died on it so we shouldn't be making fun of the music. I also remember the defeat you felt when you "died", and how when someone else "died" you felt no sympathy for them at all. You know, this game taught me a lot about strategizing and planning, but it taught me very little about the Western expansion of the US.

Next, we're going to be looking at two games at one time. They were both made by The Learning Company, and they were:


Gizmos and Gadgets was a permanent fixture in our school computer lab, but it was only played during recess by the three lucky kids from each class who were chosen to go there. Both games involved a villain (the guy with the crazy hair) trying to take over something, and you (Super Solver) had to stop him. In Gizmos... the villain was trying to prove he could build the best vehicles (a car, an airplane, and an "alternative energy" vehicle). He took over a warehouse and filled it with robotic monkeys (I'm so not making this up) and you had to make your way through the three parts of the warehouse finding parts to build a better vehicle than him. Along the way, you solved puzzles that taught you about friction, electricity conduction, aerodynamics, and basically any other concept that has to do with why things move fast or slow. You also had to collect bananas to throw at the monkey robots. Once you found all your parts, you would go here:

This is where you would build your vehicle. When I was a kid, I remember I wouldn't be satisfied unless my vehicle had blue paint, so I would go back into that warehouse and brave all the monkey robots I had to just to get it. After your vehicle was built and painted, you went to the race track. You didn't actually have to do anything during the race, you just watched powerlessly as the choices you made led you to victory or defeat.

Spellbound was a game we kept on our home computer. I loved this game only because it allowed me to input my actual spelling lists from school and practice them. I didn't really need the help, but I thought it was so cool that the game would conform to my spelling lists. Your words would then be put into a word search, crossword puzzle, word jumble, etc, which were all contained in your Super Solver character's handheld console thing. Once you completed all the puzzles, you went to the Spelling Bee and competed against two other random characters. Sometimes it would be Morty, the crazy haired villain, but other times it would be random robots. The computer would then ask you a word, and you would type it in. Granted, you could do this with your spelling list right next to you, but that would be cheating....

If you won (and let's face it, that was pretty much all the time) your character stood on top of an Olympic platform complete with a gold medal in spelling!

Before we needed an actual word processing program, our teachers would just have us write simple stories using the magical program known as...

Kid Works Deluxe served only two main functions-typing and drawing, then putting those together in a "book" that could be printed out. (When printed, the book would be 4-pages to a sheet in that annoying, fold it 5 times before you get it right layout.)

Kid Works Deluxe had a host, a freaky woman in a bee costume who would show you what all the buttons did. This was the first program that made me feel guilty about exiting-when explaining the file menu, the bee explained "The file menu is used for lots of things, like opening, saving...and QUITTING!" in such an accusatory manner that I always felt a twang of guilt every time I hit apple-Q. When you created a "new book" you then had to choose whether each new page would have words or a picture. If you chose to have a picture, you could draw with your mouse (using a pencil tool that had awesome sound effects) and of course erase (using an eraser that had even cooler sound effects that made everyone purposefully make mistakes). You could also use stickers-there were even some special animated stickers. The stickers could be edited to your taste as well, though I didn't discover this feature until I was like 12. Oh, the wasted years.
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