Last time out I wrote about Mega Man 3, which was great and all but because I've played it so much I didn't learn anything new. I'm always looking to expand my horizons and fill my head with pointless knowledge, though, so to counterbalance Mega Man 3 not teaching me anything except an even deeper love for the Rush Jet I'm going to play an educational game. By happy coincidence, this will also let me write an article that isn't almost 8,000 words long. So, Unicorn Software, teach me everything you know about my cousins across the pond in your 1987 Amiga eduventure All About America!
Yes, America: a land of freedom and prosperity where the nation's twin flags fly proudly against the purple sky! A land of revolution, of the struggle against oppression, where Lady Liberty welcomes all with open arms and the dancing frogs wear natty waistcoats and star-spangled top hats!
What, you're telling me that your strongest mental association with the country, nay, the concept of America isn't a disturbing humanoid frog doing a soft-shoe routine? Don't you remember the surprise referendum of 1995, when the America public voted to replace the Bald Eagle as America's national animal with the noble frog? It was a tumultuous time indeed, what with all the coins and presidential seals having to be redrawn so they had a cheerful cartoon frog on them. Once the French ambassador had been assured that the new designs weren't mocking him, thing went pretty smoothly, though.
Before I get into the game itself, I'd like to quickly go back to Unicorn Software's splash page. No, wait, no I wouldn't. Having seen this picture, why would I want to look at it again? What is wrong with me? It's simultaneously extremely boring and punishingly unpleasant to look at, like a manual for vacuum cleaner with a nude David Cameron centrefold.
To help you learn all about America, the game offers two modes: History Lessons and Map Reading Skills. Quite how the developers managed to cram the whole sweep of US history onto two Amiga floppies is something I have to see, so I'll be starting with History Lessons and praying that I'm not doomed to repeat them.
What a magnificent tapestry, woven from the lives and dreams of those who made America what it is today. There's the man who first pointed at America! Thomas Edison's famous Very Excited Sewing Machine! George Washington's legendary "I am vexed by all this god-damned snow" speech is covered, as is the early US's desperate need of an influx of competent barbers. I'm not sure who the cowboy in the middle of the bottom row is supposed to be, but I'm sure he's on his way to take bloody vengeance on the man who made his hat so wonky.
Each picture represents a portion of American history, and clicking on a picture will give you some text and yet more pictures about the events in question, the information pitched towards very young readers. I'll be starting with the top-left, because as we all know time flows from the top-left to the bottom-right.
Things are off to a bad start, and not just because the picture is very boring. It is not true that everyone thought the world was flat - humans have known it's spherical for a very long time - so there's a glaring factual error on the very first screen of All About America's history section. That does not bode well for little Timmy's grades.
"Sail over there," says Columbus. "I'm pretty sure that's Asia."
I hope you're paying attention to this text, because once you've read it you knowledge of the subject is put to the test.
The quizmaster is no less than Abraham Lincoln, or at least a mannequin of Lincoln from a struggling waxwork museum that has been possessed by the spirit of the great man himself, because he'll be damned if he's going to let Timmy get a worse grade than that snot-nosed punk who said the Lincoln Memorial was "lame" on their class field trip. Take a good look at Honest Abe, because he's quite a sight to behold. His blue suit and shirt looks frilly even though I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to, and his iconic stovepipe hat has been replaced by something I'm almost certain I made as a kid when I was trying to construct a wizard's hat from construction paper and double-sided sticky tape. Still, he knows how to run a quiz, does ol' Abraham. Make sure you don't get any questions wrong. You wouldn't want to upset Abraham Lincoln, would you?
See? Heartbreaking. He's so disappointed in you, in your refusal to learn about America, in your contempt for his beloved country. Once this article is done, I look forward to pulling out the Big Book of Things I've Done (Thanks to Videogames) and adding an entry for "made Abraham Lincoln pull a face like a drunken divorcee listening to his wife's favourite song."
Your reward for reaching the end of the quiz is this macabre image of the sun setting against a jet-black sky. I don't really understand what mood you were going for here, Unicorn Software. Existential dread? The realisation that all of human history is utterly meaningless in the face of the grinding aeons of the universe's span? A nice "Congratulations" banner might have been better, maybe Benjamin Franklin dancing a jig.
That's about it for the history lessons. Once you've finished the quiz you can go for another round of questions, although they start repeating almost immediately and many of them are simple transpositions like "What Day is Columbus Day?" and "October 12th is what day?"
Other than that, you can try a different style of questions, which are literacy-based: what word rhymes with this one, put the right word in the sentence, that kind of thing. They're easy enough for a seven-year-old kind of age range, I suppose, although they're hardly likely to keep a kid hooked for long unless they're weirdly into making sure Lincoln approves of them. We've only looked at one tiny segment of American history, though, so I suppose we'd better experience some of the others.
Aww, isn't that sweet, the pilgrims and the Indians have made friends with each other, having bonded over a mutual love of corn. As All About America was released in 1987 the native peoples are referred to throughout as "Indians" and not Native Americans, and everything is presented in a sanitised manner that suggests the entire history of America has been a jolly jamboree where nothing bad ever happened. All About America is probably okay for learning a few dates, but not how events actually took place, which is predictably shitty.
Also shitty is the logo on this crate of furs. How are you going to see that in a busy shipping yard? Oh well, at least I learned that the Dutch were bang into furs. Furs and flowers, that's the Dutch.
"Oh maaan, I thought we were friends, Mr Indian! I thought we were Corn Buddies! This is not cool. My vest is ruined."
Here you can see what I mean about the historical truth being made more palatable for younger minds: "Sometimes the Indians and the colonists fought and people died" is quite the understatement. It's such an understatement it's practically subterranean.
Redcoats, huh? Not, I dunno, salmon-coats? "The rose-coats are coming!" does not have quite the same ring of urgency to it, I agree. I'm not saying America would have remained under British control had the soldiers of the crown worn fuchsia rather than red, but if you're an alternate-universe fiction writer then a world where the British army's uniforms were accidentally bleached might be a good jumping-off point for you. Of course, I've played so many retro RPGs that I can't look at this picture and not see it as the king of a fantasy kingdom sending a party of adventurers off to find the magical crystals / kidnapped princess / fortress of the Dread Lord.
Oh hey, I know the answer to this one without even reading the text, because I've been playing Fallout 4 recently. And they say videogames make you stupid! Well, this one might. It's not going to make you any smarter, that's for sure.
"General Washington was a very brave man. Year after year, he kept fighting the redcoats. The loneliness of his leadership position eventually took its toll on Washington's mental state, so he built himself a friend from old blankets, a log and a clown's hat. Logfriend Blanketon was immediately field-promoted to the rank of sergeant and later served as Washington's vice-president."
Here's a fact I did learn from All About America: legendary pioneer Daniel Boone founded a town and named it Boonesboro, the egotistical weirdo. Also, if we're to assume he's meant to be shooting at the Native American in the picture then I've also learned that Daniel Boone might not be the great hunter he is portrayed as.
There's a section about Lewis and Clark's expedition to map the western territories. One of them looks much less thrilled by the prospect than the other, although I couldn't tell you which one was Lewis and which one was Clark. Maybe he's upset because he graduated from a university that hands out giant novelty diplomas.
As I was reading this section, I thought "hey, I already know this" and I couldn't figure out why. Then it hit me: as with possibly every other facet of American culture and history, The Simpsons did an episode about it. I realise this article is implying that I get all my knowledge from cartoons and videogames. You will just have to take my word for it that I have read a book and I do intend to do so again in the future.
Apparently Lewis or Clark later invented the sewing machine. Prior to this, each American had to make all their own clothes by hand, which explains his horrible grey suit but not his weird, stumpy arms.
Some men found gold and others didn't. This man found gold. You can tell by the way he's shouting "GOLD!" and holding a big chunk of gold. Yes indeed, there can be no doubt that this is a man who has found gold. The great thing about this man is that I'm sure that when you look at him, you can hear what his voice would sound like. I know I can. We may differ in whether we think the next word out of his toothless mouth will be "dagnabbit" or "goldurnit," but in essence we all share the same mental voice for this man. Thank you for bringing us all together, grizzled prospector.
Yikes. Obviously anything that purports to cover American history is going to have to include slavery, but I'm not sure this was the best way to go about illustrating this grim facet of the past. Did the slave owner have to be smiling? The game also never comes out and says slavery is bad, just that "the southerners really wanted to keep their slaves," proving again that All About America is a repository of breathtaking understatement if nothing else. You'd think people would already know that slavery is a terrible thing and shouldn't need to be told, but having seen certain comments on the internet there are still definitely people out there who need to be firmly reminded of this fact.
Then things get all rushed together to bring us up to the modern age, with talk of spaceships and one of the worst pixel representations of the Statue of Liberty that I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. Do you know how many videogames take place in New York? Even games that aren't set in the Big Apple feature the Statue of Liberty, like the NES Superman game where the statue has relocated to Metropolis. It's the face that's the real issue here. I'm going to guess that it was the last thing the game's artist drew, possibly late on a Friday night as they muttered to themselves "why does no-one take pictures of the Statue of Liberty? Then I'd have something I could use as a reference!"
All About America poses a dilemma for moon landing deniers: do they stick to their ludicrous beliefs and answer "no," forfeiting the point, or do they answer "yes," secure in the knowledge that they know the real truth despite what the man is trying to indoctrinate them with via the medium of an Amiga quiz game? A difficult decision indeed, unless you're not an idiot.
Then there's the map reading lessons, split into three categories: The Thirteen Colonies, America Before the Civil War and The United State. This is the Thirteen Colonies, where it tells you the names and locations of the thirteen colonies and then points to the colonies on the map and asks you to name them. It's as exciting as it sounds and considerably browner than than you might imagine.
This is the Before the Civil War map, and I think something has gone awry because this is a quiz to test your knowledge of state postal codes. Did those even exist before the Civil War? My only explanation is that Unicorn Software were trying to warn us that a Second American Civil War is coming soon.
And finally, there's the modern US, with such captivating quizzes as naming state capitals and describing the relative positions of two states using compass directions. Look, I never bothered to learn the counties of England, why would you think I'd spend time doing the same for America? Geography is a skill that I, being essentially a hermit, do not require. I'd have much rather learned about each state's representational symbols. For example, Georgia's state shell is the knobbled whelk. I feel happier knowing that. I'll feel even happier next time I tell someone this fact in real life, but that's mostly because I will have said aloud the wonderful phrase "knobbled whelk."
Now I'm done with All About America, but did I learn all about America? No, I did not. It might provide a quick overview suitable for younger kids, but then the difficulty would be in keeping kids interested in what is a pretty dull experience all around. I mean, you saw those maps, right? No, I think I'll stick with getting my historical facts from reputable sources like the aforementioned cartoons and videogames. On a related note, please do not ask me to join your pub quiz team. You will regret it.