Monday, April 7, 2014

"TINK! TONK!", ~1984.

A problem with documenting what is essentially undocumented is that if you don't get around to putting it down in print, you run the risk of rediscovering things that you have already discovered -- and then forgotten entirely. That's not rediscovery, it's wasteful redundance!

Here, an intrepid amateur video game historian (sadly, of the late variety) documented a link between children's author/illustrator Mercer Mayer and an Angelsoft text adventure, part of the "bookware" wave the Digital Antiquarian has been covering as of late. (This historian was a librarian in their day job, and they brought their professional tools to a critical but underdocumented corner of the software world: educational software. Too uncool to save, who would bother pirating it and in many cases only sold directly to schools anyhow? Thus barring exceptions such as Carmen Sandiego or the Oregon Trail, in many cases these titles can only be found in the memories of grown schoolchildren. A healthy piracy scene is a great boon for digital historians!)
Last year, my partner brought me back this book from a thrift store, imagining that its "big pixels" aesthetic (which must have been cutting-edge in the early '80s) would be up my alley. Indeed it was, and the appearance of Mercer Mayer's name on the cover rang a little bell in the back of my head. Seeing a mention of Angelsoft inside the front cover rang another one in harmony, and I had to dive back into the bubbling brain tank to extract some history goo to spread around for you to enjoy.

You can see how it piqued my curiosity, even second-hand. I guess the character names represent the bleeps and bloops you could expect coming out of early microcomputer speakers. The "inside a computer" theme is just a skin for the characters, not integrated into the setting or the kinds of stories told as in, for example, Reboot. I'm not going to spoil the story for you, as it is pretty much entirely beyond the concerns of this blog. What I dig is an artist almost surely using straight edges and masking (as in the commissioning of Piet Mondrian's geometrical paintings) to produce images intended to evoke computer graphics -- Tink is entirely composed of pixels, but his hat is slanted in such a way as would be impossible to depict without jaggies on a period screen. Ditto for his dog's slanted eyebrows and rounded muzzle and tongue. You've seen it before here -- I love it when artists interpret screenshots in game ads, because there are some artistic liberties they are unable to avoid taking and other fidelities they have a hard time observing. Consumers need to be given a general idea of what they'll be seeing on-screen without seeing a direct reproduction of it -- because early on, screenshots are difficult to make happen! Magazines would typically use photos taken of the screen.
That's not right! Four nibbles = two bytes! Leaving that nit-picking aside, I appreciate the inconsistency that makes tricycle tires pixelated but allow car tires to be rendered as part of the real world.

Anyhow, so this appears to be some kind of early edu-tainmental synergy going on in books and on computers. One VulcanJedi appears to operate the Internet's pre-eminent (and, let's face it, only) webpage about the TINK!TONK! phenomenon, and I'll be giving it a run for its money in this blog post. There are a handful of games, and the following advertisements for the overall franchise, and then they disappear from the record entirely. Were they a flop? Perhaps they were instead a modest success but the overall industry downturn meant that their parent company couldn't be saved by them? From here, it remains a mystery. Now putting us back, at last, in this blog's purview, here's an ad scan borrowed from an interesting post by Mery Lalper about the marketing of educational computer materials.

Meet your kid's new teachers.

At first glance, they look like funny creatures right out of a computer game shoot 'em up. But underneath the funny surface, they represent one of the most serious approaches to home education you've ever heard of.

INTRODUCING SPROUT SOFTWARE -
GAMES THAT TEACH

These amazing teachers are called Tink and Tonk. They come from Sprout. Software for kids 4 to 8.

The beauty of Sprout is how we balance entertainment with a healthy dose of education.

While kids are having fun at home, they're reinforcing what they've learned at school. Things like the alphabet, spelling, vocabulary, counting, adding, and pattern recognition.

You'll also like how Sprout prevents boredom. Our games grow up, instead of wear out. As kids get older; the game gets harder — with many variations and many decisions to make.

Sprout didn't learn how to do all this overnight. You see, we've got a hundred years of experience to lean on. (Our parent company is SFN, the country's #1 textbook publisher for elementary and high schools.)

We've also got the experience of Mercer Mayer who has written or illustrated 80 children's books. He dazzles kids with ideas and pictures that keep them coming back for more.

So let TINK!TONK! software teach your kids. And when they play at the computer, they won't be playing around. They'll be learning something.

sprout
Games that grow up.
Instead of wear out.

That's Tink! on the left and Tonk! on the right. Adaptive difficulty? It definitely sounds like they're at least hand-waving toward that territory if not actively describing it. SFN was on top of the game for nearly a century, coasting on such successes as Dick and Jane, but within two years of this venture they would be throwing in the towel. Some good catch-phrases here, and I dig the raster patterns on Tink and Tonk, as if they had literally just been cut out of a screen. I might have been sold on this ad. Anyhow, that isn't even the ad I was looking for -- this was!
Modern times have created a new breed of teachers.

We've cleverly disguised them as funny creatures from a computer game. But underneath the funny exterior is one of the most serious approaches to home education you've ever heard of.

INTRODUCING SPROUT™ SOFTWARE.
GAMES THAT TEACH.

Your kid's new teachers are called Tink and Tonk. They come from Sprout. Software for kids from 4 to 8.

The beauty of Sprout software is how entertainment is balanced with a healthy dose of education.

While kids are having fun at home, they're actually reinforcing what they've learned in school. Things like the alphabet, spelling, vocabulary, counting, adding, and pattern recognition.

You'll also like how Sprout prevents boredom. Our games grow up instead of wear out. As kids get older, the game adjusts and gets harder. Because there are many variations and many decisions to make.

Knowing how to do all this isn't something Sprout learned overnight.

You see, we've got a hundred years of experience to learn on. (Our parent company is SFN, the country's #1 textbook publisher for elementary and high schools.)

We've also got the experience of Mercer Mayer, who has written or illustrated 80 children's books. He dazzles kids with ideas and pictures that keep them coming back for more.

With TINK!TONK!™ software, kids see that learning can be more fun than destroying space creatures.

sprout
Games that grow up. Instead of wear out.

This two-page spread covers much of the same territory as the previous ad (all of the content, twice the price!), but we also get to enjoy getting a gander at today's captains of industry.

There are some curious lingering questions remaining about the relationship between Mindscape, Angelsoft and SFN, and as best as I can unravel them: SFN was the parent company, Mindscape was an electronic subsidiary, and Angelsoft would have been I suppose an imprint of Mindscape. Somehow the Mindscape brand kept chugging along after SFN called it quits (perhaps being sold or buying itself out), only to be snapped up by The Software Toolworks in 1990. (Er, or in 1998, following acquisition by Pearson -- which was closer to SFN's business. Wikipedia is ambiguous on this point.) It got bundled up with a number of other companies (SSI, PF Magic), they all end up under the Mattel name briefly, and Mindscape finally departs the software biz in 2011, with its stable being inherited by Electronic Arts, naturally, the game industry's drain filter. I would be very surprised if Tink and Tonk ever depart EA's legendary vaults, rivaled only by the basement of the Vatican as a one-way accumulator of the wisdom of bygone ages.