Sunday, October 20, 2013

ACTIONLearning games, MS-DOS, 1995.

More allegedly scary games for the under-aged set, meaning naturally kids would want nothing to do with them. (I see this as early as my own 16-month-old, who will happily ignore a bin full of colourful, noisemaking brain-developing baby toys in favour of grabbing a keychain, wallet or utility bill. Look! Grown-up things! I'm now a full-fledged person of complete status! Now change my diaper.) Of course, marketers have two angles to exploit: either sell the kid on it and leave it to the little one to convince the parents to open the purse-strings... or just appeal directly to parents. Granted, the selling-points that work on kids ("over 32 levels of awesome eye-bleeding action guaranteed to give you nightmares for months!") are not always the ones that will compel parents to spend. You'll see.
Get your brain into the action!


Ignatius Mortimer Meen keeps his prisoners in a 36-level labyrinth infested with giant spiders. His nasty pal Ophelia Chill is the mistress of a mansion full of gruesome ghouls. To outwit these evil geniuses, you need lightning reflexes -- and plenty of smarts. Find out if you have what it takes to play I.M. MEEN and CHILL MANOR, two of the most challenging "Doom"-style games for kids ever designed.

CD-ROMs have never been this cool!

"Your brain" is not something any kid ever wants to see referenced in a game ad unless it's in a "this game will totally fry your brain" context. "Learning" is another one, unless maybe in reference to adaptive enemy AI. "ACTIONLearning" as a brand is practically a zero-sum oxymoron, but in this case the baggage of learning still exerts a certain drag factor. And there's the kicker at the end, "for kids". No kid has ever pestered their parent to buy them a game because it was "for kids". Kids don't want to play games for kids, they want to play games for juvenile delinquents of all ages. And because these ads are being run in comic books, more likely to be read by the kids than by the parents, they're missing out on the child-evangelizing factor. When a kid has a comic with this ad in it, they hide it under the bed instead of leaving the book open on the kitchen table with this page exposed.

I gather that Meen is some kind of sinister dungeon-keeper; he looks like an off-brand Count Chocula, and how frightening is that? (There is a visual filter in effect giving things a pseudo-woodgrain look, which I approve of, but overall it doesn't salvage the ad.) I surmise that Ophelia Chill isn't actually a mummy but you can't tell from the ad or the box art. (Is she at top centre, holding the book?) Whatever she looks like, it's not as scary as Boo Berry.

"Find out if you have what it takes" is a depressing challenge when applied to two games clearly made for babies. If it turns out that you don't have it, you might as well just throw in the towel. '"Doom"-style games' is a curious euphemism for the established genre name, FPS for first-person shooter -- a genre with considerably less pull on parents who consider themselves responsible types. (To be fair, it took a while for the genre name to gel; for a while we just called them "Doom clones" and some journalists, Second Life types, tried in vain to champion the name "egoshooters", similarly parent-unfriendly.) But who knows, perhaps these games don't have the player shooting -- I can see in small print at the bottom of the box art, unmentioned anywhere else in the ad, that the first game challenges kids with grammar and the second with world history. That accounts for the "plenty of smarts" requirement, but what about the "lightning reflexes" needed? Defeating spiders and ghouls by hunting and pecking correct answers in real time, like some precursor to the awesome Typing of the Dead? This also, of course, raises the question of just how many Doom-style games were ever designed for kids besides the renowned Chex Quest?

I hope that I.M. MEEN isn't really 36 levels of giant spiders. That would grow old fast. Basically, it sounds like the training section of a MMORPG, with nothing to graduate to. Tetris sustains 36 levels of the same gameplay, but otherwise it's a tough act to pull off.

Myst was probably, at least at the time, a CD-ROM that was much cooler than these games. But really, nothing is less cool that something that anxiously needs to tell you just how cool it is.

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