Richard Cobbett goes back to school to face an old fear. The Witch has returned, and she wants your soul. Or to see if you can handle basic literacy puzzles for six-year olds. One of the two.
Hers is the face that haunted a thousand nightmares. Hers is the laugh that chilled the blood of almost every child during the decade that taste forgot. There was no running from it. There was no hiding. If you were at school in the 80s, facing her was as close to a rite of passage as figuring out what the older kids were actually doing behind the bikesheds. She was Freddy. She was Jason. She was the blood-soaked murderer in your older siblings' carefully hidden videos. And at some point, your teachers would nervously plug in your school's single BBC Micro computer and make you dance for her amusement.
She was... The Witch. And if this blocky cyan face means nothing to you, know that across England, a generation of gamers is even now crawling back into their skins after seeing it. Oh yes...
Back in the 80s, computers were rubbish and expensive. Most schools only had a handful - inevitably the BBC Micro, which was built by Acorn Computers for a BBC-operated programme called the BBC Computer Literacy Project. The BBC Micro pre-dated the more popular ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, and was the first 'real' computer that most kids got their hands on until at least the mid-80s. Most teachers were completely clueless about them, and in my school, they were generally kept out in the hallway where they wouldn't scare anyone, and used for exactly three things: writing simple programs in BASIC to make it print "WILLIES!" a thousand times, very primitive word processing, and playing games.
Of course, by 'games', we're really talking 'edutainment'. Obviously, there were plenty of BBC Micro games out there, but they were deemed far too frivolous for school use. At least, until someone inevitably came in with a disc of pirated ones, like Frak and Repton. That usually took... ooh, whole seconds!
Of the Approved Games For The Improvement Of Young Minds, there were four that most people knew of: Podd, in which you gave orders to a tomato man to see if he could do them ("Podd can Dance" he was okay with, "Podd Can Shit Himself" wasn't likely to happen, no matter how often kids tried), and three adventures from a company called 4Mation: Dragon World, Flowers of Crystal, and Granny's Garden.
Of the three, Dragon World was by far the easiest. A typical puzzle was working out that "Nogard" is "Dragon" backwards, and that love and friendship are the greatest of all treasures - a heartfelt sentiment that taught young kids everywhere the true meaning of the word 'bollocks'. As for Flowers of Crystal, it was just... insane. I remember much of the game, but I can't for the life of me explain what the hell it was meant to teach, how you were meant to work anything out, or... or anything at all. Maybe I'm just thick.
Last, but by no means least, there was Granny's Garden. It was aimed at ages 6-10, and for the most part, not very difficult. This is the one that absolutely everybody remembers, if only for The Witch. Make a mistake? The Witch would get you. Trip a trap? The Witch would get you...
But why mention it here? Isn't it a BBC Micro game, and thus by definition not a PC one? Yes, but 4Mation is still around, and still distributing it - both a modern update, and an emulated version of the original. The classic game, running on your PC. How can anyone put a price on nostalgia like that?
Oh. Turns out 4Mation found a way. And it's £15. Grr.
(They also sell Flowers of Crystal for around the same price, adding "which is less than the price it originally sold for!" Okay, fair enough, it's cheaper than it once was. It's also a game from 1983. Not exactly the greatest deal this side of a Steam sale, even if it does come with the full extras.)
Granny's Garden is an odd title, since as far as the game's concerned (until the very last line), you're actually a noble adventurer questing through the mysterious Kingdom of the Mountains in search of the King and Queen and their missing children. This made lots of kids scratch their heads at time, wondering just who this Granny was. Was she the witch? No. The whole thing is a game being played by a couple of her grand-kids to entertain themselves in her apparently phenomenal garden full of caves, huts and dragon cities, but you'd only know that if your teacher bothered to read the manual and tell you.
Said manual is actually pretty ballsy, not just for all the typos (including talk of kids' "motovation", the game's "grate" features and the "Wiched Witch"), but for a whole section that suggests teachers actively think up explanations for the game's nonsense logic, like why one character eats keys, how the hell an apple can kill a snake, why a witch's broomstick simply appears out of nowhere for one puzzle, and most incredibly of all, why a Chinese caricature called Ah-Choo keeps sneezing. "Is it Asian flu?" it asks.
Sigh. Somewhere, Gene Hunt is grinning. Still, never mind. Onward to adventure!
The first puzzle really sets the tone. Here it is.
Did you solve it? No, you didn't. It's pure trial and error. Welcome to Granny's Garden.
Probably the oddest thing about the game is its bizarrely authoritarian tone. At least, that's how it feels to me, although it could well just be my bad memories of Miss Wood's classroom. Miss Wood was five foot of evil wrapped in the stolen skin of a bitter old bitch, but she provided my introduction to this game, and so it's hard to play without thinking of her voice narrating it. "Do you want to go into the cave?" the game asks. NO, you type. "Yes you do!" it informs you. "Do you want to help the King and Queen?" NO, you protest. "That's not very nice!" it snaps. "Do you want to help the King and Queen?" And so on.
Basically, Granny's Garden is a SEE ME note carved into my soul. Your nostalgic memories of it will probably be different, because it was quite a small class and I'm pretty sure you weren't in it.
Much like Miss Wood, whose catchphrase was "It's a disgrace! A disgrace!", Granny's Garden has little tolerance for stupidity, real or imagined. The puzzle above is the first real one (and bear in mind that this is a game for kids). What's the password? Get it wrong and it patiently tells you it's written on the wall. Get it wrong again and it tells you to look for the blue letters. Get it wrong a third time and it just tells you the answer outright, but still insists you type it in yourself. Otherwise, how would you learn?
(In Miss Wood's class, it was funny to pretend not to be able to solve this. Just stare at the screen for several minutes, lost in deep thought, trying to unpick it and savour her frustrated fury at not being able to shout "It's FIG! FIG! Are you blind AND stupid? FIG!" Sigh. Good times. Good times...)
Inside, the Witch has set some Traps. One of them is fairly obvious - a red broomstick. Do you take it? "Silly silly silly!" the game shouts, summoning the Witch to tear off your flesh and make a puppet out of your still quivering bones send you back home. Fair enough. Red does mean danger after all.
Unfortunately, the other traps... make much less sense. For instance, there's a snake in the basement. You have a stick and apple in your inventory. Throw the stick? Oh, you idiot. You blundering arse. "The stick was an evil magic wand," the game chortles, like the most punchable kind of Dungeon Master. Think you can do better in the Kitchen? Just try it. "There is a huge cooking pot hanging over a very hot fire," the game teases, whistling innocently. "I wonder what is in there. Are you going to look in the pot?"
Well, a pot seems safe enough, right? It may even have a spell in it that I can use later. So, yes, Granny's Garden, I call your bluff! YES, I say. I am going to look in-
"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!" laughs the game, summoning the Witch to curse your family with branded images of your screaming face on their buttocks send you back home again. It doesn't even explain why. Was the Witch in the cooking pot? Was it alarmed? Doesn't matter. You're done.
Having defeated the snake by throwing an apple at it, which makes a green broomstick appear elsewhere in the house, which turns into the missing princess Esther when you take it... or something... it's onto the next challenge. This one is set in the Giant's Garden, and is much more fun. Guided by a talking toadstool - just roll with it - you have to use a set of animal friends to find the next kidnapped child, Tom. There aren't any Witch attacks in this bit, which helps, and it's an entertaining concept. Need to cross a pond? Call the giant butterfly. Need protection? Climb into the snail's shell, and don't think too carefully about it. Need to get past a dog? Get your friend the bee to sting it, oblivious to the fact that you just sent him off on a suicide mission and are therefore a stupendous dick. Ah, well. At least it died a hero.
Garden crossed and Tom saved, your next mission is in...
Oh. Oh dear. The City of the Dragons. Apologies on behalf of the 80s...
Ah-Choo sets you a challenge involving feeding baby dragons, which is far, far too hard for the age-group this game was made for. Even sillier, he makes the greatest mistake a game for kids can ever make - letting players type things for the characters to say. In this case, he wants to know what your favourite food is. Whatever you answer... oh, who am I kidding? Here's every playthrough ever:
Cheery racist caricature out of the way (and in fairness to Granny's Garden, this was in no way unique - the popular kids TV show Knightmare had its own, even worse example in the form of a trader called Ah Wok), it's onto the thing in the world more terrifying than the Witch.
Welcome to The Land of Mystery. You will come to know it as "Hell".
I know what you're thinking. Doesn't look like much. Don't be fooled. This is, without a doubt, the single cruellest, nastiest, most obtuse bit of game design in the history of adventures. It's the interactive version of the teacher's cane. It is the puzzle box that Satan would make to prove his existence to a skeptical world. Torture. Genocide. The Land of Mystery. Debate over. Dawkins, get in the Poo Lake.
The only way to complete this section is pure, bloody-minded trial and error. Go to a location in the wrong order and the Witch shows up to grind your bones into bread that weeps as she slices it with her serrated scalpel send you home. Solve puzzles in the wrong order and you'll lose the items you need to win the game. To get the water to put out the forest fire for instance, you have let a monster eat a key you found... but if you do that, you can't get into the Castle. The Castle isn't actually your final destination. Instead, it's a tower that you're not actually told about, up in the Forest. And if you try to go to the wrong destination at the wrong time, oh, you poor, poor fool. "That was not a good idea!" the game chides, giving you a big squelchy, terrifying face full of cackling Witch horror. How I hate the Land of Mystery.
Need more proof? Here's its most infamous puzzle.
THE CORRECT ANSWER IS "YES". See, if you say 'Yes', he admits he doesn't really eat people at all, and you get to collect a stone you need from his hill. Say 'No' and he just chases you off. As far as lessons to kids go, this really is right up there with "Strangers often have the best candy."
Being Hell, there's no saving in the Land of Mystery. Every time you snuff it - and you'll snuff it a lot - you have to go back to the title screen, hear a few bars of classical music, enter a password, be told the names of the kids you're trying to rescue, watch a magic raven slooooowly welcome you to the Land, and then retrace your steps and try and work out how to avoid screwing yourself over this time. For instance, go to the Witch's Cottage, and you're given two options - to take a key from outside and leave, or venture inside. Inside, the Witch is just sitting there with a cake in her hand. You're given the option to take the cake... but no explanation at all of how you'd actually get away with that. Since earlier in the game you could die by looking into a cooking pot or throwing a stick, surely this stupidity is suicide?
Nah. You just pick it up and walk out. Of course, try to walk to the Lake afterwards...
BUT YOU WERE IN YOUR COTTAGE! I WAS THERE! I TOOK YOUR CAKE!
Back in the 80s, this is as far as I ever got - not really because it was hard, but because a little cartoon of the Witch labelled "Miss Wood" led to the disks being put away forever in favour of silent long division exercises. Replaying the game now, with a pen and paper to get through Hell, I finally saw the ending. Was it worth waiting about twenty years? Probably not, no. Still, at least it's a game I don't need to regret never having finished. And I can finally put the cyan-drenched nightmares to rest. At least, for now...
Or, if you were in Miss Wood's class, an hour of silent long-division. Sob.