Exploring our favorite childhood computer games

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Caragh McErlean/Senior Staff

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‘Nancy Drew’

While my parents were pretty lax with me and my sister when it came to media consumption, one of the core rules was no video games — at least of the Xbox or PlayStation variety. So, in my video-game-less youth, educational PC games were my digital escape. And the greatest of them all was the “Nancy Drew” PC series.

Every Nancy Drew game starts the same way: The screen pans in on Nancy’s desk, where you can find all the information for the upcoming mission. You click open the dossier, and suddenly you’re immersed in the details of a new mystery adventure. What will it be this time? A fashion designer hiding a secret behind a strange mask (“Danger by Design”)? A vandal on a whale-watching boat in the Pacific Northwest (“Danger on Deception Island”)? A murder (“Secrets Can Kill” or “Secrets Can Kill Remastered”)?! But no matter what episode, there’s always drama and humor (and, sometimes, spookiness) and a plot line that’s just far-fetched enough to be believable and entertaining.

And then there are the puzzles. So many puzzles. As you tease out the details of the case, word games, logic puzzles and those stacking games and sliding puzzles that always take an inexplicable amount of time all make up the fun of the game.

Every game takes Nancy to a new locale with a new theme, and woven throughout the plot are fun tidbits of trivia that you can pick up about eclectic subject matter. For example, in “The Haunting of Castle Malloy,” I learned what binary code was for the first time in order to fix the jetpack to expose the banshee terrorizing the castle.

Nancy Drew remains one of my favorite games, and I still come back to old favorites with my friends. But it’s more than just nostalgia — the puzzles and storylines remain classic, and there’s always something new to learn.

Camryn Bell

‘Liberty’s Kids’

“Liberty’s Kids,” a 2002 game accompanying a short-lived educational kid’s show about the Revolutionary War, was objectively unfun to play. I genuinely feel bad for any child receiving this game as a gift this holiday season.

The mechanics were simple: A basic point-and-click game, players moved around historically relevant cities or battle sites such as Boston and Saratoga to “report” on major events. Acting as the young apprentices Sarah Phillips and James Hiller, players would “write” and “publish” stories for Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.

But describing the game as some sort of cute training about the ethics or practices of journalism is generous at best. Before you could interview anyone in the game for quotes, the source would need some random item located 34 clicks away. Sarah and James would randomly espouse long exposition that sounded like it came from a textbook. In the middle of “interviews,” both apprentices would repeatedly voice their personal feelings — what kind of person would possibly talk to a reporter who just said he felt like a traitor for giving a source a box of tea?

“Liberty’s Kids” had virtually none of the basic traits needed for a kid’s PC game to be entertaining. There were no puzzles to solve or monsters to battle. The dialogue was neither funny nor interesting. Most of the time was spent just listening to people rant some G-rated, historically questionable, lukewarm takes.

Did I learn about wars? Maybe. Did I learn how to be a reporter? Certainly not. So what does it say about a person that their favorite PC game as a kid was a dorky, educational snooze-fest about history? On the record: I’m too embarrassed to find out.  

— Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks

‘Minecraft’

When I was a little kid, I loved drawing maps. I loved creating universes in my head, building facsimiles of my castles out of scrap wood in the backyard. But the first thing that truly, satisfyingly unleashed the force of my creative ambitions was “Minecraft.”

At the time, in 2009, it was still in its “classic” era — it was free, buggy and had about 20 different blocks (compared to hundreds now). It had no concept of gameplay, no health nor in-game missions to complete. It was just a blocky, procedurally generated world you could spill your imagination into. And, boy, did I.

Everything that came later with the game was, to some degree, just a distraction for me. “Minecraft” gave me the ability to do something I had previously relied on the definitely-not-a-video-game software “SketchUp” for — designing and molding the world around me.

I’d spend hours finding the perfect location atop a hill. Then, I would spend days clearing the area and constructing castles, their townships, their walls with towers topped by fire-filled lanterns. I would build Colosseum-sized arenas, ports with ships at anchor, minecart railways connecting it all.

It didn’t even matter to me that no one else would ever see or experience my little universes. For me, “Minecraft” was the only thing that has ever kept up with my imagination.

Imad Pasha

‘Zoo Tycoon’

For anyone as insanely obsessed with power as I am, “Zoo Tycoon” is the perfect game.

I remember the day I discovered the cheat code for having an unlimited budget. With inexhaustible resources at my disposal, I was a fearless nine-year-old overlord ruling “Shannon’s Really Cool Zoo.”

My designs were ambitious — elaborate exhibits hosting fearsome Komodo dragons, beautiful aviaries and grand aquatic shows with bottlenose dolphins. In between animal exhibits were glittering carousels, sprawling concrete pathways punctuated by sparkling fountains or reservoirs designed simply to host floating restaurants.

If you were displeased with my masterful creation, I would pick you up with my divine mouse and drop you into the lion exhibit. If you complained about the lack of bathrooms, I would trap you on the top of an 80-foot cliff with only a bathroom and nothing else. If I grew tired of my zoo’s prosperity, I would release the yeti from its tundra exhibit and watch the zookeepers fly into a frenzy. Imagine your overbearing, micromanaging boss from work taking over a zoo, and you might understand the type of leader I embodied.

It was never about creating a fun, financially feasible zoo with satisfied customers and a casual variety of sights to see. It was about domination, about an embarrassment of riches and, most importantly, about playing God. Fear me, love me — I am the ultimate zoo tycoon.

— Shannon O’Hara

‘Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings’

As baffling as it may seem to me now, there once was a brief span of time when my days were not spent consuming my favorite RPG of the month or replaying “Fallout 4” for the apparent millionth time. At five years old, I instead peeked through my fingers over my eyes as I not-so-secretly watched my dad click away with rapid precision at approaching enemy targets in whatever scary new game he was playing.

But this time was different. The screen of his Sony VAIO desktop was lit with an eclectic map of seemingly ancient castles and military garrisons along a river bank where villagers appeared to be harvesting some form of pixelated grain as uniformed soldiers rode by on their horses. I was intrigued – I had never witnessed a game with so many individually reactive parts and pieces working together like some sort of living machine.

Not so long after, I begged my dad to let me try my hand at playing overlord to my own band of tiny virtual villagers in Microsoft’s “Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.” Sitting myself down in chair much too large for myself, I placed my first piece of farmland down on my wide expanse of land and became the fearless five-year-old leader of William Wallace’s Celtic empire.

Through weeks of an exhaustive trial-and-error process, I worked my way to a rather limited understanding of the modern real-time strategy game – not only did I have to assign my villagers to collect enough resources to build the next guard tower, but I also had to send out my trusty soldiers to counter an unexpected enemy breach aimed at bringing down my fortresses. I was reeled in by the game’s ability to react to my own decisions, with both the AI and myself constantly changing the landscape of the empire as we danced around each other in some sort of synchronized battle of the wits.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that “Age of Empires II” in all of its living, breathing glory single-handedly began the wave of gaming obsession that has dominated my life for the past 14 years. Even now, countless consoles and titles later, the ability of a game to react to and engage with its player still baffles me and pulls me into the next RPG on my list. That’s what I love about video games – they are not static by any means. A good video game can move, change, react and breathe like a living being to an extent that no other form of art can accomplish.

There’s an indescribable rush that comes with the anticipation of a real-time strategy game such as “Age of Empires II.” All it took was one click, and I was hooked for life.

— Manisha Ummadi

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  • sinfoman

    Oregon Trail. #KNOWYOURROOTS

    • Kyle

      I want to upvote you more!!!