Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Had to Catch'em All

Unlike a lot of American kids growing up in the 80s, I never actually owned a NES.  Sure, I played Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, and Legend of Zelda at the houses of friends and relatives, but at home I only ever had two systems before the coming of the 16-bit era; an old Atari 2600 and an Apple IIc.  For the Apple home computer, I had two cases of 5.25 inch floppy disks.  The first was used to hold all my games, while the other was filled with education software.  I played a lot of the well known titles of that era; Lemonade Stand (a.k.a. Economics 101: Supply and Demand), Odell Lake (Fish Simulator!), and of course Oregon Trail (Dysentery Strikes Again).  Oddly enough I never had any of the Carmen Sandiego games, although I did play them a bit on a neighbor's PC.  Something that I always remember from my childhood is a little interlude I saw between afternoon cartoons.  It featured rapid-fire interviews of kids stating what they thought were the benefits of playing video games.  In nearly every case the grade-schooler answered "hand-eye coordination."  While there is a certain degree of truth to that, I feel like it's a case of losing sight of forest because of all the trees.

Take for example, this ship-and-iceberg game I played in elementary school.  Sure, quick thinking was necessary to avoid a collision, but the rub was the ship had to have its course set in radial degrees.  Want to go straight up?  Type in "90" and hit the "return" key.  Obviously I didn't quite get how it worked at first, so some thought and experimentation were necessary in order to learn how to move the ship with precision, but once I got the hang of it I had indirectly learned a fundamental part of geometry.  This might not come as a surprise considering how many typos there are in my blog posts, but I initially learned how to spell and type from Sierra adventure games.  Moving your character around on screen could be done with a joystick, but unless you entered commands into the text parser like "look," "open," and "take" you weren't going to progress very far into the game.  Modern games can be a lot more educational than you might think too.  Here are just a few recent examples off the top of my head:
  • Besieged taught me about engineering
  • Factorio taught me about manufacturing
  • Minecraft taught me about architecture
  • Kerbal Space Program taught me about astrophysics
  • Children of a Dead Earth taught me about metallurgy
Even games that don't appear to have much educational value can provide little tidbits of knowledge that might not be learned otherwise.  I had no idea what a "hastati" or "triarii" were until playing Rome: Total War.  The same goes for Sisyphus and Rock of the Ages...Anyway, I'm drifting toward tangents here, so getting back on track, let me tell you about this one little educational oddity I played back in the day...

It's called Zoyon Patrol, and takes place on a fictional island in the south pacific.  Vaguely modeled after the Galapagos isles, the premise is you (the player) are the head of a government funded animal control center located in the only metropolitan area on the island.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Well, the thing is this island is home to some bizarre wildlife.  Additionally, said wildlife has a tendency to intrude on human habitats.  Because the native life (collectively referred to as "Zoyons") is endangered, it's your job to capture the interlopers alive and return them to their natural environment.  Each time the player starts a new game he or she is asked to enter their name and choose a difficulty setting.  They are then provided with a budget and time limit in which to apprehend a rogue Zoyon.  Periodic phone calls by eye-witnesses will provide clues as to the type and whereabouts of the creature.  The player can also send out a science team or (during daylight hours) an observation team made up of volunteers to acquire further information.  The former option is more useful, but a bit more expensive than the latter for obvious reasons.  An even more pricey alternative is to release a specially domesticated and trained tracking beast called the "Lempel."  While it doesn't provide details on the type of Zoyon it's tracking, it will pinpoint which part of town the interloper is in quickly.

All this is in service of placing traps, which must be the correct size and have the right bait in order to catch the Zoyon.  Figuring out what species of Zoyon you're trying to apprehend requires the player to compare available data against the creature database.  Since there are fifty different kinds of Zoyon in the game, guessing at random is a surefire way to bankrupt the agency and, consequently, lose the game.  So, the player has to be a bit of a detective, and can even be fed bad info in the form of prank callers.  If the player overcomes these challenges and is successful in trapping the Zoyon, then he or she is rewarded with a victory screen showing the Zoyon they captured.  Incidentally, the Zoyons themselves tend to be based on two or more real-life animals, albeit a bit more grounded in reality than those Japanese pocket monsters.  Nevertheless, Zoyon Patrol could easily be remade as mobile game today.  I don't think it would be as popular as Pokemon Go, but it wouldn't be as mindless either.

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