You know that thing our brains do when we’re falling asleep and we remember something from the distant past with no real reason? Most of the time it’s something mortifying that we have desperately tried to forget but can’t, like when you accidentally called your teacher “mom” or loudly farted while giving a presentation in front of your whole class who, for the first and only time in your entire academic career, were paying you silent, rapt attention. This happens to me a lot. The random memory thing, not the farting in class thing. I swear. I have a theory about it (it’s probably nonsense because I’m not a neuroscientist): I think it’s kind of like the brain’s way of tidying up. It’s like the Marie Kondo practice, except the opposite. The brain goes through all the neglected neural pathways, and paying extra attention to the ones that have gathered a little dust, tucked away in a drawer or closet, and if it sparks shame, you keep it!
Sometimes, though, I dust off some of those random memories that don’t spark shame, they’re just… something I haven’t thought about in a very long time, like someone you haven’t seen in 20 years and have lost touch with, or an old ad jingle, or a bizarre fad that took your second grade class by storm. This time it was old computer games.
My parents always had a computer as long as I could remember, though if they got it before I was born, it wasn’t long before, and while I spent a lot of my childhood playing outside or with Barbies or dinosaurs, I also spent a bit of time with those old computer games. I can’t reminisce about most of them with my peers, though, because none of my friends had the same games. My friends were all PC people and I had grown up with Macintosh.
With a little bit of research, you can find almost anything on the internet, especially when it comes to researching computer things. And sometimes you can find modern software to recreate those retro programs of yesteryear, but I have had surprising difficulty with nearly all the games I most enjoyed as a kid.
One of my absolute favorite programs as a kid was less of a game than it was a kid-friendly tutorial. It was known simply as Mouse Practice. I always figured that Mouse Practice came with our computer to teach new users the basics of how to use the computer mouse, as that was still fairly new technology in the early 1990’s. But maybe Dad sought it out and brought it home after realizing that I had begun using the mouse turned 90 degrees from how it “should” be, with the button resting under my thumb. My little pre-k brain was still dripping with plasticity, and I had absolutely no trouble using the mouse, pushing it straight forward to move the cursor to the right, pulling it toward me to go left, moving left for up and right for down.
After working at the library and realizing how much of the public never had an opportunity to learn basic computer skills, I remembered Mouse Practice and wondered whether it was still available to put on a computer to teach adults and kids alike the basics of using a mouse. I found a recording of it on YouTube that took me right back (and several other people as well, judging by the comments), but I couldn’t find the program itself available to download and play. The premise was simple though. It began with a scuba diver on a raft ready to embark on a dive. As the diver makes their way through the ocean, simple instructions are given like moving the mouse around to shine a flashlight on deep sea creatures, clicking on the fish, and clicking and dragging treasure into a treasure chest. I would play it over and over and over. I can still hear most of the dialogue in my head, so I’m sure I played it enough that my parents got sick of it. Still, it was a useful program and captivating for a four-year-old.
The game that got my mind started on this pathway of old computer games, though, was one I never quite got the hang of. In fact, I had do to some research to even remember what it was called. It was called Thinkin’ Things Collection 2. It had come with a new computer and a disc of game demos, some more interactive than others. The program had several mini games designed to introduce various educational concepts like basic music and rhythm, patterns, and spatial awareness. The one that I enjoyed the most, though, was called “Tooney’s Tunes” and featured a stork that played a digital xylophone that you could change to a handful of different styles. One was a traditional xylophone, one was a large tuba-like instrument, one was odd shapes that made electronic noises, and one was a line of sheep that each baaed a different note. Rather than striking them with a mallet, thankfully, they were struck with a fluff ball on a stick. It was very much like the Monty Python Sketch with Ken Ewing and his Musical Mice, but more suitable for children.
During my internet expedition down Memory Lane, I did find a whole history of Power Pete, a game that came preloaded onto the Power Mac we bought in 1995, with a vaguely Toy Story meets Super Mario feel (it was 1995 after all), and which was an all around great game. Pete was a toy soldier on a mission to rescue bunnies that were being held captive in a toy store gone mad, with five different themes, beginning in Prehistoric Plaza (dinosaurs and cavemen) and ending in the Bargain Bin (playing cards, spinning tops, and loose billiard balls). The game was later rebranded as Mighty Mike and dispersed to a slightly wider audience. Eventually the software company that made it (Pangea) was able to buy it back, and has since made it available as a free download. Of course, I had to see if it was still as good as I remembered. If anything, it’s even better, although the tiny little arrow keys on my laptop are certainly harder to navigate than the big square ones (or better yet, the number pad!) on the bulkier keyboards of yore.
My all-time favorite computer game for kids, though, is one I’m afraid to search for. I sometimes see people my age reminiscing about the joys of scribbling a random shape in MS Paint and filling in the spaces with various colors. But I had a game that was better than that. It had those same capabilities, but it also had stickers you could stamp on the page and letter shaped stamps. It had stamp that would form the shape of a tree when you held down the mouse, growing larger the longer you held it. It also had a feature where it would choose a random mystery image for the user to reveal by “scrubbing” at the page, like a reverse eraser. My favorite was the horse, but there was also a mammoth that I really enjoyed. I’m afraid to search for videos or images of people using the program though, because it was called Kid Pix and I don’t want to put that into Google and end up on a watch list.