I wanted to talk about these games, but it took a lot of work. What you’re reading here is part 2 of a script for a video about these games, planned for release later this month. Basically, enjoy this excerpt that just happens to be the first half of a longer video article.
Now if you’ve been paying keen attention you might have noticed the way that the games so far have all progressed kind of cleanly across technological lines. Midnight Rescue and Outnumbered work very similarly, implying the same game engine with different assets and ideas, and all the visuals are 16 colour EGA. Ancient Empires, you have the more varied 256 colours of VGA. There were technological developments that each game got to play with because they’d become available. In the case of Spellbound, it seems the technological development was the presence of the sound card. It’s so important, you could buy the game with an AdLib soundcard as a bundle.
In Spellbound, the uh
Okay, lemme check my notes here
Okay, no that really is the plot.
Anyway, in Spellbound, Morty Maxwell is trying to win all the Spelling Bees. Like, there’s a national spelling bee tournament circuit, and he’s in it, and he wants to win it, and I guess there’s the added complication of he’s enrolling his own robots to also win it, which seems like that’s a bit unfair, but also the robots are… bad… at it? Which could be a hilarious joke about the state of speech recognition, but it’s also the lowest-stake scheme Morty Maxwell’s been getting up to. Like, he’s just entering the competition, and your aim is to just win the competition instead.
The game consists of a series of spelling tests – either find-a-word, or flash-cards, or crossword-a-like games, and then when you’ve successfully done enough drills, you can go to the event and try to win the spelling bee. The spelling bee then blows your mind with cool technology by having a number of the words being spoken so you can spell them.
Some of them.
The game will if you don’t have the sound set up for it, flash you the word, then ask you to spell it, which I feel is a remarkably different kind of spelling challenge. Of course, there’s an added difficulty for me, an Australian playing it, where this game will tell me that I’ve somehow spelled the word ‘colour’ wrong.
Going back and playing this game I’m struck by how unnecessary it is and yet how enjoyable better versions of it are. We love to play with words, but a dedicated game you have to run and with this kind of interface is an extremely mediocre way to do that. We all type things into interfaces and if Wordle has shown me anything it’s that lots of people really like having a ready word game on hand to play. Spellbound was just ahead of its curve, and too American, and uh
I’m still trying to get over that plot.
It’s… it’s just Morty trying to compete in the Spelling Bee tournament! And win it! That’s – that’s a thing good students do? Like, surely if you do it, you get praised, but if he does it, he sucks?
Does the US Spelling Bee tournament circuit command an immense political power I was hitherto unaware of?
Gizmos and Gadgets & MISSION: T.H.I.N.K
Gizmos And Gadgets sees Morty Maxwell deploying squads of robots again, this time taking over the Shady Glen technology centre, which is like, a cool science museum full of puzzles and stuff, where you can play around with things like levers and pistons and gears. To oust Morty, you need to beat him in a sequence of races, which I guess is the second time since Ancient Empires Morty’s been involved in race crimes.
Anyway, Gizmos and Gadgets is a collect-em-up game where you roam around a semi-random maze area, avoiding two different varieties of monkey robot, collecting the components that go into making a sick go-kart or personal zeppelin or airplane (hi Nixie) or whatever. So on the one hand you have the building mechanic, where you need to make a thing; then you have to understand what about the building mechanic matters. Does it matter if your biplane is blue? Or green? Does it matter how the wings are shaped? What wing types are better? What about the fuselage?
Odds are good you know what’s perfect, you’re an adult (I assume), which means it’s not difficult, but the difficulty comes from whether or not the pieces you want, the pieces you know are the best are available. Do you go back in to the warehouse to solve more puzzles that are again, not challenging per se, to try and find the pieces to make your vehicle perfect? Do you care about spray painting it?
Do you want the sick viper decal?
Gizmos And Gadgets is notable because the play experience is reasonably slick. The puzzles are satisfying to solve, they’re in a reasonable place (doors in a science centre meant to make you play with that stuff), and the character moves at a decent pace. The game isn’t a endless loop the way Treasure Mountain is, and the conclusion is a conclusion. You beat Morty at fifteen races, and he, humiliated, leaves, but tries to pettily steal your trophy on his way out the door.
Gizmos and Gadgets is definitely a slicker production than most of the other Super Solvers games. It’s not Peak Gaming or nothing, but it’s a game that has the feel of being made by people who had made a bunch of other games, and that those other games were getting better and better.
There’s a phenomenon when you watch the history of media and technology, where the first attempts to use something are interesting but unpolished, and then later iterations build on that until the people who are trying things out move on to other things. You can see it in the last great pixel-based non-3D JRPGs, where the last ones before Final Fantasy 7 shook the world apart were kind of all at a peak of complexity and conceptual depth. Gizmos and Gadgets is that game, that game just before the push of the dominance of a new Operating System paradigm, Windows, DirectX and then, shortly after, the impact of widespread adoption of the internet.
On the other side of that line, Mission: THINK It’s slightly hard to get running on DOSBox now, and it’s basically just a slightly crapper version of Gizmos and Gadgets, so, I didn’t bother. I think Mission: THINK might be a victim of being a made-for-CD game, where the turning of the years put this game at that awkward spot of PC game development, where middle-weight game companies were given 600 megabytes to play with and couldn’t find anything to do with them after the first fourteen. It’s not nearly as visually pleasant as the other lower-resolution games, and the repeated use of voice clips makes everything kinda annoying. It doesn’t look nearly as charming, and it feels like it’s a first step on a new art style rather than a refinement of an existing one.
I dunno, it just kinda sucks.
Oh oh oh, wait, I mean
More like MIssion: STINK.
I have a friend who I talked to about this game franchise a little bit over the years. Time to time I talk to her and offhandedly mention something about the game, and she’ll say something like ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ and then I’ll show her a screenshot from it, and it’s like I’ve unlocked some kind of CIA Activation code. Operation Neptune is possibly the least Super Solversy of the Super Solvers franchise, and it’s kinda stapled on as a brand.
In Operation Neptune, something falls out of space from a satellite, and crash lands in the ocean. You have to go down in a math-powered submarine, and pick up all the pieces, navigating through narrow caves in an environment full of deep sea life that is somehow capable of punching through your hull and destroying your oxygen supply.
The game itself plays pretty well. It’s mostly a game of navigating around the movement patterns of sea creatures, which you learn to identify. Each room is made of predictable patterns, and it’s interrupted by broadcasts from the surface asking you to do math puzzles that are well-framed for things you need to know, like your air and ballast systems, or your mapping and heading.
Operation Neptune is a game I think of very fondly; I like it! But also, I absolutely do not recommend you try it, and I do not think it’s a game you should return to.
The thing is, the game just doesn’t have a difficulty curve. The last few levels of the game are about trying to recover the thing you’ve been slowly learning about, and the difficulty of the game here – and a number of other places earlier on – just jump off a cliff. The game is incredibly unfair, and if you’re a easily frustrated kid, or not an easily frustrated kid, or if you can be frustrated at all, then yeah, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the way the ending of the game just tells you to try again.
If you played this game you probably never saw the way it ends. This is because statistically, the average playtime of Operation Neptune is fourteen years. You know, you play it when you’re a kid and you come back to it in your twenties and work out how it ended and then you find out that the ending is incredbly underwhelming.
Okay, that’s some, but not all the things that The Learning Company did. It’s just the peculiar core of one type of branding, and I’m glossing over other games in the same space that weren’t branded as Super Solvers games. I’ve talked a little bit about why these games feel related, or how they feel familiar to one another, but this isn’t any kind of expert opinion. I don’t have insight from inside — I just have an impression, from the outside.
It’s a story.
It makes sense to me, but it’s just a story.
Don’t let the fact I’m convincing make you believe it’s true. Odds are good there are people who will be able to tell you that it’s completely wrong. People like the people who founded The Learning Company.
The Learning Company was founded in 1980 by Ann McCormick, Leslie Grim, Teri Perl and Warren Robinett. Of those names, Robinett’s probably the one that leaps out at you, thanks to his cameo mention in the culture-shaping megahit movie Ready Player One and also being the one of first recognised programmer to have hidden a secret in a game — basically, the person who’s responsible for the term ‘easter egg’ being coined.
This is what Robinett went on to do.
The Learning Company is a brand with some history; it was founded in 1980 in California, and when they finally went public as a company, they did so with so robust a plan that they were able to deliver 16 consecutive quarters without a down quarter; the story ends in 1995 when The Learning Company was acquired by Softkey in a hostile takeover, along with their former rival companies MECC (who made Oregon Trail and Dinopark Tycoon) and Broaderbund (who made the Carmen Sandiego games and Myst), then that story was wrapped up again in 1999 when Softkey was bought by Mattel in what is historically considered one of the worst deals of all time, wiping out over $2 billion in shareholder value in one day. Except wait, that story was then wrapped up again in 2000 when Mattel sold off the gutted brand at this point after less than a full year of not doing anything with it to a company called Riverdeep Interactive Learning, and finally wrapped up again again again in 2018, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the company that Riverdeep turned into, decided to stop publishing stuff under the Learning Company Brand.
That monster of a paragraph is the summary.
It’s a summary because I don’t have sources on this. Oh, I can read public trading paperwork, and announcements from companies like Softkey and Mattel, but it’s all in a system that’s deliberately designed to be boring to read and occasionally hard to deciper for people outside the space. If you want I can list the sequence of events, but I can’t tell you the stories about it more than you’d get if you went and checked Wikipedia for it yourself.
What I found myself wanting was a book like Masters of Doom, a well-researched book with access to meaningful sources that could talk to the story of the history of the company as it was lived. If you’re a writer with access to Warren Robinette, hey, you know, I’d buy a copy.
It’d be nice, after all, to buy something related to the Super Solvers.