Amelie's Story Machine - Edutainment on an Atari 800

Bill Loguidice's picture

Alphabet Zoo (1983)Alphabet Zoo (1983)As many of you know, I have a large collection of vintage hardware and software, and, as is par for the course in collecting, I've ended up with certain atypical software genres either by design or simply because they were included with other things. One facet of my collection that fits that definition are all of the educational titles I have for various consoles and computers. As many of you may also know, Christina and I have two daughters, Amelie, who just turned 6, and Olivia, who just turned 4. They're obviously right at the age where it's use it or never use it time for some of this educational software. The good thing is that our girls have grown up around this stuff, and that, combined with what comes naturally to children, makes them ideal users. I decided that instead of taking the easier way and going console (the CD-i and VIS platforms in particular come to mind, but I have many others that have at least a few titles on them), I'd use it as an excuse to break out one of my older computers. It was a toss up between the C-64, Atari 8-bit and Apple II, since those three systems feature the most educational software of the old computers in my collection. I had already spent enough time with the C-64 and had broken out the Apple II stuff a few times before, so I decided to go with the Atari 8-bit for this attempt with my daughters.

Here's what happened:

I pulled out Alphabet Zoo and Story Machine from Spinnaker, Match-Up and The Alphabet Factory from International Publishing & Software, and Stickybear Bop and Stickybear Basket Bounce from Weekly Reader Family Software. To keep things simple, my initial plan was to play the two Spinnaker titles on cartridge so I didn't have to pull out the disk drive. I schlepped up the software, Commodore 1084S monitor, power center, Atari XEGS joystick, and my upgraded Atari 600XL from the basement and set it up on the kitchen table. The first game in was Alphabet Zoo (1983).

As you can tell from the screenshots from the link, we're talking a pretty straightforward maze game here. On the easiest difficulty level, the object is to simply capture the first letter of the picture shown (Submarine = S) by maneuvering your character over the correct letter and pressing the fire button. The main issue that I found with the game was that no matter what joystick I used, I found navigating the maze sloppy and frustrating, which is a big no-no with young kids. There should be pinpoint control here because, let's face it, this is not exactly pushing the limits of the machine. In any case, control issues or not, my girls struggled mightily with the joysticks (they do rather better with modern controllers). First, I tried the standard Atari XEGS joystick (which is the classic Atari 2600 joystick in gray and black), but they struggled with the stiffness. I then tried a Competition Pro style joystick, which appears to be all the rage these days in the retro community. Still no go as it didn't have enough play in the joystick either. I finally settled on my trusty Epyx 500XJ - which became my go to controller for the era - and Amelie had a little bit of an easier time with it, but, as I said, the game itself has flawed maneuverability. Amelie and Olivia briefly played the welcome two player simultaneous mode where they both compete for the ever changing letters, but the frustration level proved too high for all of us, and, sadly Olivia ended up leaving to go find Christina. That left me with Amelie and our next attempt, Story Machine (enhanced 1983 version, not the 1982 version).

Story Machine promised to be more interesting because it claimed to allow children in Amelie's approximate age group to construct simple stories and have it played out on screen. Unfortunately, after putting the cartridge in and choosing "Watch a Story" to get our bearings, the characters were made up of garbage. I eventually figured out that it was probably an incompatibility with the newer OS's in the later Atari 8-bits, so back downstairs I went to bring up the Atari 800. I put the cartridge in (after remembering that the system doesn't work unless the trap door is closed) and it functioned correctly. Amelie was delighted at the silly story from "Watch a Story" and she was ready to create a story of her own. Luckily, the only control in the game is typing, so there were no joystick frustrations to worry about.

Amelie and an Atari 800

Though the link to the 1983 version we have doesn't do the game justice - there's a bit more color than the monochromatic characters indicate - it's still a bit on the rough side (it appears that other versions, like the TI-99/4a version, are superior), but Amelie certainly didn't mind (kids don't seem bothered in the slightest by poor graphics as long as the characters are reasonably identifiable). Players can type whatever sentence combinations they want from a pre-defined database of nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc. Nouns include words like Apple, Box, Boy, Bumpus (a monster), Cat, Dog, Fence, Flower, Girl, House, Rock, Store, and Tree, and the plural of each. Verbs include words like Go, Dance, Eat, Hop, Jump, Run, Sing, Walk, and Zot, and the plural of each. So, with the manual open and my guidance, she was able to type out the necessary words, like "The Cats (which makes cats appear right after a space is entered) Walk To The Store (which makes a store appear, and the cats walk to it)". Simple, clever and fun, and it works, though it does stop some of the more gruesome actions (no "Cat Eats Dog", but you can do "Cat Eats Apple"). It even allows for some fanciful activities, like "Store Hops to Flowers", and sure enough, the store hops over to the flowers on the screen. Needless to say, Amelie enjoyed this creative process a great deal and she was able to combine words she already knows (like Cat--she's still in Kindergarten) with words she doesn't know by referring to the manual and copying the letters she needed to type. I can definitely see this being a valuable educational tool if a child doesn't get frustrated by hunt and peck typing (mine didn't). I'd love to know if there's a modern variation of this software because it's a very fun idea that's just begging to be a bit more advanced (for instance, after she filled the screen with a modest amount of "characters", it wouldn't let her add anymore--she was restricted to telling a story with just what she already put on screen).

We ran out of time to try some of the other disk-based stuff, but so far, so good. We look forward to trying more educational titles on some other platforms, be they console or computer.


Rowdy Rob
Rowdy Rob's picture
Joined: 09/04/2006
Great post, Bill!

Bill, this was a brilliant idea! I'm surprised no one else has commented on this post yet. Getting your kids involved in an "educational" quest while allowing you to involve retro platform(s) is a stroke of genius!

Your description of "Story Machine" was very intriguing. It sounds like an amazingly advanced concept for such a "limited" computer. I'm surprised (like you were) that this concept hasn't apparently been modernized for today's powerful systems.

Unfortunately, most of the educational software I saw for the Atari 8-bits looked like crap, using lower-res graphic modes and limited sound effects. Perhaps the C64, Apple, or other platforms have more exciting options in the educational arena.

I do recall there was a series of "Stickybear" games that were available on several 8-bit computer platforms, and were apparently well-received at the time. Apparently, "Stickybear" was an attempt to create an educational "franchise," but it didn't really catch on. They were fairly high profile titles back in the day, though.

I suspect that the Commodore 64 might have the best educational games for young children of today, since it had great music and sprite capabilities, and great software developers. This combination would make the C64 seem to age the least in comparison to the Apple II (with its spartan graphics and internal tinny speaker) and the Atari (clunky graphics modes, barebones software development).

Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Thanks, Rob. As you know, the

Thanks, Rob. As you know, the Apple II was the premiere educational computer of the day, lasting in schools from the late 70's through to the early 90's. The breadth and depth of titles is astounding. I have a decent collection of Apple II educational stuff, but I try not to get too much for obvious reasons of getting much, if any use out of it. I don't think it mattered much what platform these educational titles were made for because they rarely focused on graphics and sound, so there really isn't anything significantly better on the C-64 versus other 8-bit platforms I can think of. Lots of 8-bit computers had plenty of educational titles to choose from and I think some of the standouts include Apple II, Atari 8-bit, C-64 and TI-99/4a in terms of quantity. On the console side there were several notable titles for the Atari 2600, Intellivision and ColecoVision. Heck, there could be a whole Website just dedicated to this stuff, sort of like "Armchair Arcade Education"...

The Stickybear games were indeed popular back in the day and highly publicized. I've tried to collect as many Weekly Reader Software titles as I could, Stickybear included. Unlike the statement in my previous paragraph, Weekly Reader Software DID tend to nail the visuals in their games, educational or otherwise. Other than the Stickybear titles, I have the board game/computer game hybrid Chivalry (Apple II) and a game called Beach Landing (Atari 8-bit), with both exhibiting very interesting visuals, particularly for the time. I'd be curious what engine Weekly Reader Software utilized or developed to achieve this level of quality (it may have just come down to good artists).

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
That does take me back. The

That does take me back.

The first educational game I remember playing was a Commodore 64 BASIC game called Pizza Delivery (or something like that). All you had to do was enter the right coordinates from a grid drawn on the screen. I think a big thrill for little kids is just being able to do something right on the computer; it's a good feeling to make your parents proud of you.


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