Retronauts Pocket Episode 11: Number Munchers, Oregon Trail, and More Educational Treasures from Minnesota

Retronauts 11 Pocket cover

Hello, friends: It’s Bob again with what might be the most educational episode of Retronauts to date — hey, get back here! (We promise it won’t hurt.)

If you’re of my generation (or maybe a little older), you may remember investing dozens of normally boring school hours into the many games of MECC — otherwise known as The Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation. This topic is a bit outside of Retronauts’ typical subject matter, but MECC’s output makes up a shared cultural experience for everyone who spent their “computer classes” pecking away at the keyboards of ancient Apple IIes. Enjoy, and thanks again to contributor Amy Sutedja for giving us the idea!

Libsyn (33:53 | MP3 | 24.7 MB) | SoundCloud

This episode’s description:

“If you’re a child of the ’80s, you may remember whiling away valuable school hours planted in front of  an Apple IIe, playing one of the many games developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation. From munching numbers to carving a path to the bounty of Oregon, the fine people of MECC gave plenty of kids a respite from long division and the shame of gym class — and we thank them for it. Join Bob Mackey, Ray Barnholt, and Jeremy Parish as the Retronauts crew explores the wonderful world of Midwestern edutainment.”

This episode’s musical breakdown:

(Note: This episode contains selections from Wild Arms since the MECC games don’t have much music to speak of.)

  • 13:10 | Wild Arms “Lone Bird in the Shire” (Michiko Naruke)
  • 31:54 | Wild Arms “Into the Wilderness ~ Into New Voyages” (Michiko Naruke)

Relevant Links:

The History of MECC

1996 Oregon Trail Documentary

Tombstone Pizza Commercial

37 thoughts on “Retronauts Pocket Episode 11: Number Munchers, Oregon Trail, and More Educational Treasures from Minnesota

  1. I loved those games when I was in elementary school. Since I live in Canada we never received Oregon Trail, only the Muncher games. But we did have a brilliant little game by the name of Cross Country Canada; the main highlights were eating breakfast, delivering commodities, and picking up hitchikers. Ahhh, so many fond memories.

    • Another Canadian listener here. Number Munchers and Cross Country Canada bring back tons of elementary school memories.

  2. Guys, can you try to embed the soundcloud on the blog page itself? It seems that’s the only way I can stream it on my phone…
    Thanks!

  3. This all sort of passed me by. The first comp I can remember having in a classroom was an Apple, but we were not to play games. We were each given journal time and it was all about teaching a) typing and writing skills and b) making sure we new how to save files to floppy disks and then if we needed to delete them….. holy crap I grew up to be an Information Manager, did I just discover my own origin?

  4. Like Bob I grew up in Ohio, though on the other side of the state. At my public school we still had Apple 2e computers until at least 2000. Apparently my school bought heavy in the 80s and never saw a reason to upgrade.
    I played number crunchers in Kindergarten in 1990, and the Apple 2e was practically the only computer in my middle school. We had one in my sixth grade class that we played Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego on, and there was a “computer lab” across the hall that was made entirely of 2es. The only memory that I have of using it was playing some game for science class where you had to build a house to withstand the natural disasters of the region it was built in. In our technology class, which was really just shop, we had a unit on programming in BASIC and used the 2e to played a game where you created a car in a wind tunnel. I think I also remember a paper airplane designing game.
    In eighth grade, my science class was the first to upgrade to an eMac, the educational variant of the iMac. It came preloaded with MDK, which we had a lot of fun playing in our free time until an idiot kid told the teacher that the name stood for murder, death kill.
    I wish you guys had discussed some of the Oregon Trail successors. There was Yukon Trail, which was basically an upgrade/sequel that was set in Canada to go gold mining in the Yukon. It wasn’t on the 2e, but I played it somewhere and remember it being entertaining. I also know there was Amazon Trail where you were going up the Amazon river, but I never played that one.

  5. I remember as a kid I had the distinct impression that in Oregon Trail you were traveling East. I just don’t think I could understand why anyone would want to go towards Oregon.

  6. Number Crunchers was the birth of survival horror as it would mark the first time a video game frightened me in Kindergarten (1988).

  7. I found learning and education in my podcast this morning, thank you guys. I remembered the year computers were introduced to my school, obviously in Mexico, we were light years away from those sophistcated Apple II or TI computers. My school bought Printaform PCs, a mexican brand, where we used the turle LOGO as they used to call it.

  8. In elementary school, I remember our computer class having limited “free time” when we could play whatever we wanted, with the obvious choice being Oregon Trail. All the rest of the time we were forced to do lame stuff in Kid Pix or Storybook Weaver.

    None of the other games ever topped Oregon Trail. I could never get into Yukon or Amazon Trail. Super Munchers was the best Munchers game. I vaguely remember playing The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary. We had the fish game Odell Down Under. There was one game I can see in my mind but I don’t know the name of it. You had to solve grammar/math questions to unlock parts of locked doors or gates to ultimately get somewhere on a map. Each answer would do a dissolve animation of the lock or chains on the door/gate.

    In Intermediate school it got better with Carmen Sandiego, DinoPark Tycoon, and even Sim City 2000. I guess my teacher decided kids were too stupid for Carmen Sandiego, because she made a guide that would tell you what the clues referenced. It wasn’t small either, it was a folder with multiple pages and every kid got one.

    Also, Bob was a teacher?

    • I taught an introductory writing class for three semesters while in graduate school, which was a lot of fun because I got to design it from the ground up — so of course I made it nerdy as hell.

  9. Super weird that I never encountered these games during my years of elementary and high school in the mid-late 80s. I remember my first exposure to a computer in school was the Commodore Pet. The one game I most vividly remember on that platform was Ratrun, which was a first person maze game. To this day, I’m still obsessed with the first person dungeon maze to the point it informed my first Xbox indie title, ‘LCD Dungeon System’.

    In high school, I can’t recall the specific model of computers we had, but I’m sure they used MS DOS, so they would have had to have been PC clones of some kind. The only game that we uncovered on those systems was something called ‘Nuke War’, which was quite a bit like Battleship, but had cities and bases and you flung nuclear weapons against the PC opponent. There were no graphics in the game; it was all done via ascii.

    Even universities, at least at that point, were not big on upgrading their 80s investments. During my initial programming classes at the University of Toronto around ’89-90, we were using some monochrome Texas Instruments computer to program in a mongrel version of BASIC and C called TURING.

  10. Lone Bird in the Shire doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s ripping off Ecstasy of Gold.

    Whenever I hear about other people’s Elementary School experiences I can’t help but to think how fortunate I was: my school was the ‘good’ one so we’d ended up having Mac LCs and IIs, in color, with all sorts of MECC software. I remember that Word Munchers had some incredible graphics for the time and, of course, Oregon Trail was amazing.

    We never had a problem with being unable to complete a serious OT game though since the version we had let you save your progress to disk. I’ll never forget it being my last day at my elementary and finally finishing it myself, it’s a memory I’ll always carry with me.

    Great episode, gentlemen.

  11. I knew from the start once the soundgarden reference was thrown out that I was going to love this episode.

    Now to go find my copy of Yukon Trail and see if I can get it to work.

  12. Ditto Catholic schools in Iowa keeping 2e until the early naughties. Our school had ONE special Apple with a color screen and flying-toaster screensaver available upon special teacher request. All the scrubs (like me) were stuck playing the various trails and munchers on green screens. I finally got Oregon Trail for my Windows PC from a book order for forty bucks in the late nineties. Felt like a HUGE upgrade. Another great episode!

  13. I have fond memories of playing these games endlessly. Museum Madness is probably the one that I spent the most time with altogether, but I did enjoy Oregon Trail and Number Munchers immensely.

    • YES! Museum Madness was fantastic! We had it on a Mac in our otherwise Apple IIe classroom. I couldn’t get enough. Never did finish it, but I blame it for my love of adventure games today.

  14. Retronauts,
    Thank you for all that you do, providing entertainment for free. I’m not here to be a jerk, but to provide feedback that this was the 1st show that really felt underdeveloped. It was almost entirely rosy nostalgia when there’s actually a great story behind Oregon trail and the company:
    http://www.citypages.com/2011-01-19/news/oregon-trail-how-three-minnesotans-forged-its-path/full/
    I credit you for mentioning the documentary and I know it was a lister suggestion, but it’s a pretty important chapter in gaming that could have been a full episode. Just my 2 cents…

  15. One guy in my class room peed himself rather than ask to use the toilet for fear of losing his upcoming turn on number crunchers. It meant that much to him.

  16. Growing up in CA out schools were filled with Apple 2 computers. And I got to play these games usually durin computer hour or library time. I was always pretty good and lucky at Oregon Trail. Another game we got in middle school was by MECC was called Taipan, where you had a ship and traded , goods and silk and opium between ports in Asia and tried to amass a fortune while while fighting off pirates and whatnot. And random people stealing your goods and ship maintenance etc. I guess I learned that drug trading was once highly profitable! That game and Oregon Trail really stood out for me. I guess they were supposed to teach you some historical perspective or something. Could think of worse things they could be making you play on a computer.

    And in our household we also had a TI 99-4A. It wasn’t nearly as cool as the Apples at school. But it was what we could afford. I used to manually type in programs from magazines on that thing. And save them to a tape cassette.

  17. I also went to a catholic grade school in Ohio and we had a room full of Apple IIe computers, one Apple IIgs (a much faster version of the IIe; ours also had a color screen) and a handful of early Macs. My grade school had some sort of subscription to MECC software so we would get new edutainment on a regular basis.

    We definitely played Oregon Trail as well as all sorts of Munchers, but my favorite memory that I have is of a game called Freedom!. In this MECC Apple II game, you play a slave trying to escape to the north via the underground railroad. It had roguelike elements such as randomly being able to read or know which was North was by way of the stars. It was a very interesting game that, of course, was recalled due to perceived racial insensitivity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom!

    As a note: I don’t often visit this site directly, but I am subscribed to the RSS feed and read every post. I sort of assume that posts read via a reader don’t show up as hits to the site, and if there are others like me out there, that might contribute to not as many hits as you might expect. I really love the work you guys do as retronauts. Thank you all so much!

    • Unfortunately that Wikipedia link isn’t working — the trailing exclamation point is required and I don’t know if I can edit the post or fix that…

  18. Loved the episode. Lots of different computers I was exposed to as a child had versions of Oregon Trail and Sim City, which I assumed at the time was also meant to be edutainment.

  19. Archive.org has started a “Historical Software” section and among Atari 2600 ET and Pac-Man, they have a browser version of Number Muncher

  20. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that while I did play Oregon Trail and Number Muncher back in the day, I never gave much thought to who made them until today. I had no idea that Minnesota has a history of computer programming.

    As far as my personal memories go, my elementary school had Apple IIgs computers in every classroom at least through fourth grade (I remember the computer lab upgraded to Power PC Macs at one point, but I can’t remember if this filtered out to the classrooms). I don’t remember a complete journey being that long, but I’m pretty sure I did complete it and get to end with no deaths. I could be completely wrong about that.

    One thing I want to add is that I actually remember playing a third MECC game called Lemonade Stand. The game is exactly what you’d expect from the title where you ran a stand and you had to decide how much money you wanted to spend on Lemonade, what price to set, and how much to spend on advertising. Each day they would give you a weather forecast for the day and you’d make your decisions on how much to spend on it. The game would play a little animation of a children’s lemonade stand and give you a summary of how you did with some notes about the day.

    The most distinct memory I have of it is whenever the forecast was for a heatwave I would max out both the amount of lemonade I could make and the price I would charge. I remember on those days the summary would mention that your stand attracted a road construction crew who’d buy out your stock. In retrospect I wonder why that construction crew put up with me obviously taking advantage of their thirst?

    • Oh I almost forgot. If you ever want to revisit the subject of edutainment I recommend the Learning Company’s Super Solver series. Most of them are action platformers where periodically you have to solve math or word problems. From what I remember, the action parts were pretty decent and some of the puzzles in the more advanced titles were interesting.

      All of the games feature a Dr. Wily knockoff named Morty Maxwell (“The Master of Mischief”) and a bizarrely faceless protagonist with a puffy blue jacket to give a bit of consistency to the series.

      Well, except for Operation Neptune. That one you controlled a submarine collecting pieces of a crashed satellite while shooting ink pellets at hostile sea creature. That one was a little weird in retrospect.

      • Yeah.. I played one of the Super Solver games on a friend’s Tandy and it seriously haunted my dreams for years afterwards. Murderous robots appearing out of nowhere in an abandoned school? THAT’S survival horror.

  21. I never did end up finishing Oregon Trail at my elementary school. We had computer classes from 4th-6th grade (late 80s/early 90s) that were all Apple IIs. These involved a lot of Carmen Sandiego, Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, some weird drawing program with a turtle, and Odell Lake. And in all those years, never could finish the damn trail!

    Odell Lake was pretty fun at the time, though.

  22. I could be mis-remembering, but I think the DOS version of Oregon Trail had game saves. This is the only way I ever finished the game: some kid, much more adept at wagon trailing, had gotten to the river raft part at the end. We would just load that save and crash the raft over and over. Good times.

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