Welcome back to That’s Edutainment, which looks at educational video games of the past and considers whether they hold up today, focusing on their development and on the relationship between education and entertainment. Previous articles can be found here.
Today, we’re looking at the 1994 game Math Blaster Mystery: The Great Brain Robbery, a horror-themed spinoff of Davidson & Associates’ popular Math Blaster series, as well as the subsequent titles in that spinoff series. It’s not only the story of a fascinating curio of mid-Nineties edutainment, but also the story of how a massively successful studio became near-irrelevant by decade’s end. This article’s header image is from The Collection Chamber; all other resources are cited throughout.
The Great Brain Robbery is the sort of oddball game released either by a studio just starting out, or by a successful company that can afford to experiment a little. In this case, it was the latter.
By the mid-Nineties, Davidson & Associates was one of the biggest names in edutainment. Jan and Bob Davidson had started out selling self-published titles through mail order catalogues, and just over a decade later, Jan Davidson now headed a company that was publicly traded on NASDAQ, boasted a staff of five hundred employees, and had total sales of approximately $60 million U.S.
Much of this success came from the popularity of the Math Blaster series, which had made Davidson & Associates a household name. The newest entry in the series, Episode One: In Search of Spot, had sold 1.6 million copies, a feat for an educational title only outmatched at the time by Broderbund’s Carmen Sandiego games. (I wrote about the origins of Davidson & Associates, and the history of the Math Blaster franchise, in a previous column.)
It would have been easy for the company to continue making variations on Math Blaster, now “the world’s best-selling math program,” but someone at the company had a different idea. The result? 1994’s Math Blaster Mystery: The Great Brain Robbery, a Math Blaster ‘spinoff’ with an entirely different setting, brand new characters, horror influences as opposed to the main series’ cheerful sci-fi aesthetic, and point-and-click-inspired gameplay. Its very existence is one of the biggest surprises and, well, mysteries of ‘90s edutainment: how did a company dedicated to fairly straightforward and family-friendly educational software make this?
The Great Brain Robbery didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. The game was a spiritual sequel of sorts to the 1989 title Math Blaster Mystery, which includes early versions of minigames that would reappear in The Great Brain Robbery, including searching an old house for clues. (The two titles are otherwise unrelated.)
The Great Brain Robbery stars an intrepid young boy named Rave living in the town of Bizarroville, who learns that the villainous Dr. Dudley Dabble has stolen the brain of a math genius for his own purposes. Rave vows to get the brain back, and travels to Dr. Dabble’s mansion with the goal of retrieving the brain and stopping the maniacal doctor’s plans.
During the course of Rave’s adventure, he solves various math puzzles presided over by characters who toe the line between cartoonish and creepy – a vampire, a fishman, a neon-hued Frankenbunny – while collecting items and ultimately gaining access to Dr. Dabble’s lab. (Frankenbunny is inarguably the game’s best character; a brilliant design with which Davidson & Associates did literally nothing else.)
Very little information about the development of The Great Brain Robbery exists; I couldn’t find any staff interviews or press releases, and relied only on credits I could find online. (Some of the existing screenshots are from the Swedish version of the game.) Nevertheless, The Great Brain Robbery wears its influences on its sleeve — in particular, its debt to the classic LucasArts point and click adventure Maniac Mansion. The two share aesthetic similarities; both are set in creepy mansions and have blue-skinned mad scientists for antagonists. (In Maniac Mansion, it’s Dr. Fred Edison).
The games share similar mechanics as well. The Great Brain Robbery, with its inventory at the bottom of the screen and focus on collecting items and solving puzzles, isn’t too distanced from a typical point-and-click adventure game. Its only arcade element comes at the end of the game, where Rave must fend off various monsters on his way to Dr. Dabble’s lab by throwing goo at them. But where Maniac Mansion evoked a “cheesy horror movie”, the neon hues, eerie atmosphere, and limited soundtrack of The Great Brain Robbery make the game its own, idiosyncratic entity.
The Great Brain Robbery also marked one of the earliest projects for many of its staff; quite a few of the people who worked on it would later have noted careers in their own fields. Lead artist Benjamin Harrison later worked on Tomb Raider titles, and composer Tom Zehnder became an established composer for video games and TV ads.
Perhaps most interestingly, The Great Brain Robbery featured the talents of voice actors/puppeteers Alice Dinnean and Peter Linz. Both were just starting out in their careers, having only played minor roles on Sesame Street, but not long after Robbery was released, both secured major roles on various projects, including The Puzzle Place and the bizarre ABC sitcom Aliens in the Family. Dinnean would later work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and Linz would voice Walter in the 2011 Muppets movie.
Despite the later success of its creative team, and the fact that it was published by one of the biggest names in edutainment, The Great Brain Robbery remains a somewhat obscure title. The game easily could have become a curio, an early but forgotten example of the influence of adventure games on edutainment. However, it did well enough to warrant a remake sporting the considerably less evocative title Math Blaster Pre-Algebra. (There’s some confusion about when Pre-Algebra was released; the fan wiki states it came out in September 1996, but it may have been released in 1997 instead.)
The plot of Pre-Algebra is somewhat different than the original. Dr. Dabble has now stolen a brain containing all of the world’s math knowledge, and Rave must thwart Dr. Dabble three times before retrieving the brain. As before, he explores the mansion and fights his way to the doctor’s tower laboratory. The art style is brighter, more detailed, and more cartoonish. The creepier aspects of The Great Brain Robbery are gone – Frankenbunny is nowhere to be found – but it’s overall a more refined version of the previous title.
The cosmetic and gameplay changes in the Math Blaster Mystery series were mirrored by significant changes behind the scenes at Davidson & Associates itself.
In February of 1996, the New York Times announced that both Davidson and the landmark adventure game developer Sierra On-Line were to be acquired by the conglomerate Comp-U-Card International to the tune of $1.8 billion. Comp-U-Card International, also known as CUC, was at the time “best known for its membership shopping clubs.” The acquisition was perhaps unexpected; as a financial analyst told the Times, “It really came out of left field. … CUC is incredibly successful at production distribution and direct marketing … but it is not a software developer, or even anything close to it.”
CUC’s goal in acquiring both companies was to “take advantage of their expertise in building new interactive products for the Internet’s World Wide Web.” (It’s unclear if these products ever saw the light of day.) CUC reportedly also set its sights on acquiring LucasArts and Broderbund, but the heads of both studios declined the offer.
The acquisition initially seemed ill-fated; the Times announcement caused CUC stock value to fall by seventeen points on the New York Stock Exchange. However, Davidson and Sierra actually benefitted from the announcement, at least at first; their stock prices rose after the announcement, and both companies were able to keep their current management. Bob Davidson commented that “we knew it was inevitable, just a matter of time. A lot of companies are ending up in places they didn’t necessarily want to be. This merger puts us in a condition to control our own destiny.” (This was not the first time in the 1990s that a major edutainment company would be acquired by a larger corporation, nor would it be the last.)
The acquisitions were finalized in February of 1997, upon which CUC International created a new division, CUC Software, under which Davidson & Associates and Sierra On-Line could operate independently of the main company. CUC Software based its operations around Davidson & Associates’s offices in Torrance, California, with Bob Davidson as the new division’s CEO and chairman.
Later that month, Jan and Bob Davidson announced that they were stepping down from their positions at CUC Software and Davidson & Associates; they remained on the CUC International board of directors for the time being and would soon focus their efforts on philanthropic work. Bob Davidson was replaced by a CUC Software executive, and business continued as usual – for the time being.
The decision to revive the Math Blaster Mystery series, which was far from Davidson & Associates’ main focus at the time (the mainline Math Blaster series remained their priority), feels even more like a passion project for a studio increasingly encroached upon by outside influences. By this point, many of the studio’s releases were tie-ins to existing kid-friendly properties, including Fisher-Price toys and Richard Scarry’s classic Busytown children’s book. The Mystery series, on the other hand, comes across as more personal, idiosyncratic work; nothing else on the market was quite like it.
Pre-Algebra spawned two more titles in the Mystery series, Reading Blaster Ages 9-12 and Reading Blaster Vocabulary. Both games further expand upon the series’ main setting, the town of Bizarroville, and its quirky inhabitants, many of whom had been briefly mentioned in Pre-Algebra; among them, among them, the mummified starlet Gloria Ghastly, librarian Gorky Barf, and gym teacher Gulliver Lilliput. (These games delight in puns and references in a manner that recalls Humongous Entertainment’s zanier titles.)
In Reading Blaster Ages 9-12, Dr. Dabble traps six of Bizarroville’s citizens inside his mansion and attempts to turn them into cyborg household appliances, among them a human garbage disposal and a baseball pitching machine. With the help of a ghost named Lydia (perhaps named after Winona Ryder’s character in Beetlejuice), Rave collects evidence and clues to restore each resident back to their original selves. (I may be reading far too much into this, but a game in which characters are nearly transformed into unrecognizable objects seems a bit on the nose for a company that had just gone through a fairly dramatic merger.)
Each case ends with a newspaper article describing the character’s history with Dr. Dabble and how Rave saved them from their plight. The descriptions generally toe the line between whimsy and horror, although inventor Lou Fright’s colourful tale of how Dr. Dabble nearly turned him into a garbage disposal, gears and all, falls firmly into the latter category.
After Rave frees all six citizens, Lydia grants him access to her secret diary, which includes the story of her untimely, young demise. The tale of Lydia’s death is remarkably hair-raising, with shades of Edgar Allen Poe, and I’m surprised it made its way into a game made for nine-to-twelve-year-olds. Edutainment doesn’t often go to horror for its influences, but when it does, it’s almost always incredibly effective.
I can’t find much information about the future careers of most of the team that made Ages 9-12 (and, I presume, Pre-Algebra, given the games’ shared art style), which is a shame, because they’re visually impressive and highly polished titles. From what I can find online, voice actors Michael Gough and Dian Andrews (also known as Diane Michelle) went on to have very prolific careers. Gough has voiced everyone from Deckard Cain in Diablo to Gopher in a Winnie the Pooh cartoon, and Andrews has done a lot of work in animation, video games and anime, including voicing Daisy Duck.
Reading Blaster Vocabulary includes seven proper mysteries for Rave to solve, each implicating a different Bizarroville citizen; the crimes in question range from turning on the gym lights at night to rearranging the entire east coast of the United States. The overall tone is far more lighthearted than the previous games; more in line with that of a Humongous Entertainment title from the Freddi Fish or Pajama Sam series.
Vocabulary was developed and published by Knowledge Adventure, an edutainment studio which had merged with Davidson & Associates, in October of 1998. By that time, both studios were owned by Cendant, a brand new company forged from the merger of CUC and hotel franchisor Hospitality Franchise Systems (HFS).
The $10.9 billion merger between CUC and HFS was designed as a “merger of equals” to result in a “cross-marketing” company. Davidson & Associates and Knowledge Adventure were now both under the aegis of Cendant’s newly-minted software division, aptly titled Cendant Software. This did not last long.
In November of 1998, following events detailed here, Davidson & Associates was sold off to French company Vivendi, and has further decreased in relevance from there. It’s rather surprising – and admittedly sad – that Davidson & Associates went from a highly successful edutainment developer to a corporate footnote in just over five years.
That said, the idiosyncratic charms of the Math Blaster Mystery series show that at least some of the company’s spirit remained intact. The Mystery titles were among the first horror-inspired educational games and remain strong titles in their own right. Their blend of surrealism, eeriness, and charm feels a bit like if Pajama Sam was more strongly influenced by Tim Burton films.
It’s unlikely that these games will ever be re-released. The Math Blaster series, seemingly now owned by JumpStart, has been retooled and reimagined numerous times – there’s even an MMO. However, the Mystery branch of the series remain largely forgotten by its new owners. (Pre-Algebra is seemingly still available for sale on the official Math Blaster website; however, it’s pricey and for older operating systems.)
I hope that in writing this article I’ve been able to highlight an unjustly forgotten edutainment series; one whose development is somewhat shrouded in mystery and had its potential overshadowed by its more profitable sibling. The Mystery series also demonstrated how adventure game mechanics and concepts could be used in an edutainment context; a development that would significantly impact the creation of educational software in the second half of the 1990s.
Join us next time as we look at one of the most popular, and successful, edutainment titles of the modern era: the language app Duolingo. See you then!