15 '90s Computer Games That Made Learning Unbelievably Fun
Real talk: I think learning is always fun. But when it’s a literal game? Then it’s even better, especially when you’re a kid. This is probably why there were so dang many fantastic educational ‘90s computer games — the rise of home computing (by extension, computing in the classroom) during the decade opened up a whole world of possibilities, including tons of ways to make learning a blast for the up-and-coming generations. And you know what? These games are still fun. And yes, I say that as a grownass adult.
As is often the case with the things we remember from the decade, a lot of the games us ‘90s kides grew up playing were originally developed and released long before the ‘90s. Many of them were part of long-running series, though, and still more of them received a number of remakes and reboots as our technology improved. Though the graphics may be laughable now, just remember — once upon a time, they were the pinnacle of our technological achievement.
So, in the spirit of nostalgia, here are 15 computer games from the ‘90s that made learning incredibly fun. Most of them are available to play on the Internet now, so in these cases, I’ve also included links to where they can be found — frequently either an app store or the Internet Archive’s glorious collection of browser-based, emulated DOS games.
Have fun, kids!
1. Number Munchers and Word Munchers
Created by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (better known as MECC — I don’t know about you, but I have vivid memories of seeing those four letters scrawled across a huge number of the educational games I played at school), the Munchers series taught kids the basics of math and grammar. Number Munchers was originally released in 1990 for the Apple II, while Word Munchers had arrived a few years earlier in 1985. Gameplay-wise, it kind of reminds me of a turn-based version of Pacman; the object is to “eat” all of the numbers or words that correspond to the instructions on the screen (multiples of five, etc.) without getting caught by a Troggle.
The original Math Blaster! was released in 1983, but it wasn’t until the ‘90s rolled around that the series really hit its stride. Between 1990 and 1999, a whopping 20 games were released in the Blaster Learning System — and somewhat astonishingly, a few more follow-ups trickled out between 2000 and 2008. It’s available to play online now; additionally, a bunch of ports of the math-teaching game arrived as Android apps in October of 2013, so the series appears to be alive and well (if somewhat frozen in time).
Like many early computer games, Scooter’s Magic Castle consisted of a relatively large environment full of what we now call mini-games. Released under Electronic Arts’ EA*Kids umbrella in 1993, the game involved players working their way through a variety of activities designed to teach everything from problem-solving to typing. Also, it has a super earworm-y theme song, so if you now have it stuck in your head for the rest of the day… sorry. My bad.
No list of educational ‘90s computer games would be complete without an appearance by this mysterious, trench-coated criminal mastermind. The four major entries in the series — Where in the World, Where in the U.S.A., Where in Europe, and Where in Time — were all first released by Broderbund between 1985 and 1989; the deluxe versions of Where in the World and Where in the U.S.A., however, came along in 1992 and 1993, and as a result, it’s those versions that most of us ’90s kids remember so fondly. There was no better way to learn geography — and hey, Where in the World deluxe is playable at the Internet Archive, so it looks like I just figured out what I’m doing with myself this weekend.
Fun fact: A Facebook version of Where in the World was available to play in 2011; I’m not sure how I missed it, but it stuck around until 2012.
I’m really dating myself here, but Kindercomp is probably the first computer game I remember playing. Initially released in 1983, it’s exactly the kind of game that appeals to very young children: It consists of six mini-games that teach kids their way around a keyboard by having them draw pictures, match pairs, and other simple activities. The one I remember is the 1984 version, but the Internet Archive has a whole bunch of ‘em available, so knock yourselves out.
As a child in a house full of gamers, I of course adored Mario Teaches Typing, which first hit the scene in 1991. One of five educational Mario games, it put the pixelated plumber to good work teaching us how to type.
I’ll be honest, though: I actually learned how to type by frequenting chatrooms. As a result, I can type an impressive number of words per minute; however, I definitely don’t use the “correct” fingers. Ah well. Whatever works, right?
7. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing
Mario was second perhaps only to Mavis Beacon in the world of beloved typing program — and what’s more, it’s still around: The first version debuted in 1987, and it has remained in production, continuing to get new and improved updates, pretty much ever since. You can download it for free right now if you like.
I was, by the way, absolutely devastated to learn over the summer that Mavis Beacon isn’t a real person. Everything is a lie.
Launched by Knowledge Adventure in 1993, 3D Dinosaur Adventure was little more than a glorified encyclopedia specializing in what we knew about dinosaurs at the time (although the "Save the Dinosaurs" game within it was legimately terrifying). That didn’t matter, though, because dinosaurs.
9. Odell Lake
Like the Munchers series, Odell Lake was created by MECC and therefore a fixture for many an elementary school computer lab. It debuted in 1986, but it stuck around for long after that; it’s why so many of us ‘90s kids remember playing it when we were young. In all honesty, it wasn’t really that exciting — all you did was swim around as a fish, trying to figure out whether you should eat, ignore, or run away from every other fish you encountered. I’m also not totally clear on why this was classified as an educational activity, but hey, I suppose survival skills are important, right?
Odell Lake is a real place, by the way; it’s in Oregon. Just, y’know, FYI.
10. Reader Rabbit
You know the old saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? That’s pretty much the Reader Rabbit series in a proverbial nutshell: It’s so effective at teaching kids to read and write that it’s survived all the way since the first game launched in 1986. The last major PC releases were in the early 2000s, but in 2011, a Wii version of it was announced. Many of the games are also, of course, available to play online courtesy of the Internet Archive.
Mixed-Up Mother Goose may not have had a ton of replay value — once you’d sorted out all the nursery rhymes and put them back in order, your work there was done — but the world was so delightful that I played it over and over again as a small child. Released by Sierra in 1987 (with a handful of remakes throughout the ‘90s), it was a point-and click adventure game that encourage problem-solving; it also gets bonus points for having tons of diverse avatar options.
I’ll be honest: I actually have no recollection of playing 1990’s Treasure Mountain, Treasure Cove, or any of the other Treasure titles in this series. Many other people seem to remember these games fondly, though, so I think they deserve an inclusion here. Like many educational games, Treasure Mountain seems to have involved solving riddles that will lead you to the key to unlock each successive level; you also collect treasure as you go, returning it to the chest at the top of the titular mountain once you get there. A prize was awarded for depositing the treasure back into the chest.
Maybe giving the game a play-through on the Internet Archive will jog my memory…
13. The Dr. Brain Series
Admittedly I never played the fourth game in the series, and I wasn’t a big fan of the third — but the first two? Classic. The Castle of Dr. Brain , released in 1991, and the follow-up, 1992’s The Island of Dr. Brain , were a step up from a lot of the other puzzle-solving games out there; they were geared towards slightly older kids, so there was more to each puzzle than simply picking a matching shape or selecting the next number in a sequence. We’re talking intense logic puzzles that might stump even some adults. Heck. And yes.
Like Scooter’s Magic Castle, 1993’s Eagle Eye Mysteries and 1994’s Eagle Eyes Mysteries in London came to us courtesy of the now sadly defunct EA* Kids division of Electronic Arts. Unlike Scooter’s Magic Castle, though, they were meant for an older crowd The games followed siblings Jake and Jennifer Eagle as they solved mysteries throughout first their hometown, then in London, not unlike a modernized, digital version of Encyclopedia Brown. If you were a pint-sized fan of whodunnits, this was the game for you — and it helped you learn how to piece together different pieces of information until a complete picture emerged. A valuable skill to have, I feel.
15. Oregon Trail
I don’t really need to say anything about this one, do I?