I draw a lot of pleasure from introducing my eight-year-old niece and five-year-old nephew to the old PC games I grew up with. Fortunately the Internet Archive has preserved practically every title from the early days of PC gaming history, and have made them playable through any internet browser via DOSBox. If I could tell my childhood self that the games I struggled to find room for on my dad’s IBM 386 could be loaded instantly on my modern computer’s temporary memory, well I’d never believe me.
It never ceases to surprise me that these kids—exposed to the slick graphics and contemporary plots of modern console and cellphone games—can get excited about (or at least tolerate) the pixelated, 16-color EGA graphics that represented cutting-edge technology from 1984-1987 (key years in my childhood). This era saw the transition from monochrome and low-fi CGA to the comparatively vibrant 256 colors of VGA and SVGA, and was dominated by a handful of game developers including Sierra, Brøderbund and Origin.
One game maker during this time that focused on educational games was The Learning Company, often abbreviated as TLC (not affiliated with the cable channel). Launched in California in 1980 as Advanced Learning Technology, founders Ann McCormick, Leslie Grimm, Teri Perl, Warren Robinett and Frona Kahn switched to the more marketable name the following year. TLC was bought by Softkey International in 1995, a fate that befell Brøderbund three years later. Softkey was then acquired in 1999 by Mattel, which (after facing intense investor backlash) quickly offloaded it to a German private equity firm that broke it up and sold TLC’s intellectual properties to Ubi Soft in 2001. The TLC name eventually fell into the hands of the Houghton Mifflin publishing group.
Perhaps TLC’s best-known title was Reader Rabbit, which debuted in 1983 and imparted basic reading comprehension and spelling skills to children up to nine years of age. One of my favorite early TLC titles is Think Quick!, that has you moving through the rooms of a castle collecting simple clues and avoiding Dune-esque worms as you assemble a knight to drive away a dragon. The Learning Company also owns the rights to the iconic pioneer history game Oregon Trail—originally developed for the Minneapolis-area school system in the late 1970s—now in it’s fifth edition. I will never forget the grunting sound of an Apple IIe as it prompted me to turn over the 5.25-inch floppy disk halfway to Oregon.
The game I want to talk about today is from TLC’s Super Solvers series, geared toward the 9-12 age group. Each of these games feature the player as the titular Super Solver—a faceless, race-less, androgynous school kid dressed in a red ball cap (pulled down low), blue bomber jacket (collar popped), white gloves, red All-Stars and a colorful pair of board shorts us 80s kids recognize by the brand name “Jams.” Your nemesis is a salt-and-pepper mustachioed Boomer named Morty Maxwell—the self-described “Master of Mischief.” In each game you defeat Morty by solving various puzzles involving math (OutNumbered!), spelling (Spellbound!), ancient history (Challenge of the Ancient Empires!) and other areas of study depending on the title’s focus.
The original Super Solvers game that debuted in 1989 was Midnight Rescue! It’s focus was reading comprehension and critical thinking skills, which is probably why it appealed to me so much. I used to freak out when the teacher gave us 10-minute math challenges—it just wasn’t my strong point. But I was always an enthusiastic reader and even penned a short book in elementary school: The Shar-pei of Shar-pez, in which a royal dog ate an evil pig that was terrorizing the local school. It was very much inspired by Mike Thaler’s Cream of Creature from the School Cafeteria and a momentary fixation on the wrinkly-faced dog breed.
In Midnight Rescue!, Morty has taken over the Shady Glen School, and has created five robots—Buffo, Pogo, Lectro, Rollo and Turbo—equipped with paint brushes to cover the entire school in invisible ink. Armed with magnifying glass and camera, you must read the various clues Morty has placed around the halls and classrooms, and compare them to photos you snap of the robots in order to determine which robot Morty is hiding in. When you take a picture of a robot, it disappears in a puff of smoke. If you come into contact with them, you fall down and precious time is lost. If you don’t solve the mystery before midnight, the school will disappear!
Clues take the form of newspaper articles, diary entries, notices, book reports and book excerpts—from either a real or made-up title—and are each three or four pages long. At the end of each selection Morty asks a question with four possible answers, the correct one corresponding to one of four cues in the photographs you take of the robots. The true robots will bear at least one clue that does not match up with the correct answers, but the robot hiding Morty will have all four correct cues in its photograph. If you run out of film, a dispenser can be accessed for a limited number of refills.
Once you’ve figured out (or think you’ve figured out) which robot is really Morty, you can summon the robot and accuse them of the deceit. If you are right, Morty will appear and your final score—a sum of your score based on your correct clues, the amount of film you have left, and the remaining time on the clock—will be tallied while Morty’s eyes bulge out of his head with each additional point. Then the Master of Mischief vanishes and you do a little break dance to celebrate—TLC really had it’s finger on the pulse of popular youth culture.
With each successful unmasking you advance through the ranks from Trainee until you become Champion. With each rank you achieve the game gets more difficult—you receive less film and have to take more photos of each robot to assemble all the clues, time passes more quickly, and more time is deducted if you are knocked down by a robot. After you’ve attained the 500,000 points needed for Champion, each defeat of Morty is accompanied by a silly scene that I won’t give away here (and I don’t totally trust my memory) as an incentive to make it through all the ranks.
One thing I distinctly remember is being positively terrified of Morty’s robot accomplices. Rollo in particular haunted my nightmares, due to his frightening grimace and the screeching sound his paint-roller wheel made. The robots appear out of nowhere or are already in a room when you enter, and if you’re not close enough your photo will miss. I’m afraid I inadvertently transferred my anxiety to my niece, and the first time a robot appeared she screamed and covered her eyes. Kids are very impressionable! Fortunately after a couple times playing she decided she wasn’t such a wimp as her uncle Kabluwe.
Anytime you play a beloved childhood game you run the risk of discovering that it’s not actually as good as you remember. But playing Midnight Rescue! as an adult I discovered an intriguing new layer to the Super Solvers games—Morty Maxwell’s back story. While many of the clues you read refer to books or events contemporary to the game, some date back to Morty’s childhood in the late 50s and early 60s. From these hints you begin to develop an idea of why he wants to erase the school. Diary entries and news articles paint Morty as a sad character, trapped in a past when he could command the attention of his classmates with his antics and magic tricks. I could even feel a bit of sympathy for him, if it weren’t for the taunting messages he intersperses with his clues.
When I graduated high school I didn’t look back—I’ve never even set foot in it since. Even though I was a performer and a bit of a class clown, I was at heart an introvert and fairly sensitive. I definitely took my licks at the hands of bullies, mostly because my mouth was writing checks my ass couldn’t cash. While I harbor no ill will toward the teachers or the school itself—I certainly don’t want to make it disappear—I can sort of relate to Morty Maxwell and his bittersweet relationship with his youth. It’s an aspect of the game added by TLC’s game developers as a wink to any adults who might be playing along with their kids. I certainly didn’t appreciate it in my youth, when I could relate more to the break-dancing, shorts-rocking kid than the angry little genius stuck in his past. What have I become?
The reading comprehension lessons of Midnight Rescue! are timeless, making it a game that still holds meaning for kids today. It’s classical soundtrack, features snippets of compositions including Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, adds another layer to it’s educational aspects. While the graphics are naturally outdated, there’s something very satisfying about the Super Solver’s victory dance.