Apparently I really have run out of old games to talk about, because this is the second in a row of my world-renowned, award-winning retrospective series dealing with a program that isn’t a game. Much like After Dark, Encarta is a relic of the 1990s, a period when I was a young strapping lad mystified by all the new features that computers were offering and by the novelty of the internet. Upon buying our second family computer in the mid-90s after moving across an ocean and leaving the old one behind (might have been sold or put in storage; I never was sure what its fate was) we received a bundled disc labeled Encarta 97, an electronic encyclopedia published by Microsoft.
If you’re under 20 years of age, you likely have no idea what an Encarta is. The best description I can come up with today, twenty years into the age of the internet, is that it is an extremely gimped version of Wikipedia with some amusing tools and features added. Microsoft began producing the Encarta series in 1993, a few years before the average family had a dial-up subscription and several years before the internet was more than a mess of bad corporate websites and pornography hosted on Angelfire pages. The idea behind Encarta, at least as I understand it, was that it would provide said average family with all the information contained in a massive, heavy, extremely expensive set of Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book volumes without being expensive or weighty. I’m not sure whether Microsoft ever succeeded in that goal, but in 1996 when Encarta 97 was released it sure seemed to have a hell of a lot of articles.
If the Encarta experience had merely been reading unadorned blocks of text about the letter A and El Aaiun, it might not have been so memorable. However, the single Encarta 97 CD-ROM contained a lot more than text. Many of its articles also contained relevant images, and a few even featured really terrible-quality video. This was one of the things that set it apart from physical encyclopedia sets, which contained no videos and only very small illustrations, sometimes just in black and white.
The encyclopedia itself was the centerpiece of Encarta, but the program also offered several other features that could be used to waste some time that your parents thought you were spending at your studies. Most of these were contained in the “Interactivities” section.
One of my favorites was the Personal Nutrition feature, which calculated your daily intake of calories, proteins, cholesterol, and other nutrition-related stuff based on your diet.
Another feature I enjoyed was Orbit. At this stage in my life I still had some notion of becoming an astronaut, and I took an interest in anything related to space or space travel. Orbit gave the student a basic education in the essentials of orbital paths and gravity and acceleration, and all that physics stuff that is extremely complicated if you get down to the math. In Orbit, you didn’t have to deal with any of that: just set a path for a moon to circle its planet and watch as it attains a stable orbit, flies into space, or collides into the planet.
One of the more standard features in Encarta 97 was the Atlas, an interactive globe that you could click on to zoom in and find information on the world’s countries and major cities and towns.
Atlas is interesting to me because it’s a sort of Google Earth before Google Earth – infinitely less detailed, showing only the vague outlines of the Earth and its various states. Still, this was several years before the first Google Earth release, and several more years before Google Earth really got good and you could explore New York and Berlin and Tokyo in 3D, down to their multitudes of alleyways and hole-in-the-wall bars.
If there’s one single thing that most people around my age remember about Encarta, though, it is Mind Maze.
I say that Encarta was not a game, but like the screensaver program After Dark, it was a non-game program that contained a game within it. Mind Maze was a trivia game set in a cursed castle in which the inhabitants were trapped. You, the player, had to travel from room to room answering “riddles” in the form of questions about various subjects contained in the electronic pages of Encarta. The player could choose from four difficulty levels and a variety of topics or a mix of all topics to test his knowledge. The game was won when the player accumulated 20,000 points, which could take a while depending upon the difficulty of the questions, more difficult questions being worth more points.
The creators of Mind Maze didn’t just throw the game into Encarta as a trifle to go along with the rest of its features – there was some care put into its art, and each room contained a character who usually had something amusing to say to the player. It was usually a complaint about their shitty king and the curse that they were suffering through.
All in all, Mind Maze was a really nice addition to Encarta. It’s not anything amazing, really, but it was a real novelty at the time and was, to me, the most memorable part of Encarta.
So what was the fate of Encarta? The shrewd reader might have already guessed that the program has been long dead, killed by the internet and specifically by the user-edited monster that is Wikipedia. By the early 2000s, there was simply no longer much of a need for an electronic encyclopedia that you paid for when Wikipedia was around. Microsoft did take steps to introduce a few online features into this and future editions of Encarta, and in 2000 all of the program’s content became free to access online. But by 2009, Microsoft apparently felt it was time to let Encarta go, and the program was completely discontinued.
Despite its obsolescence (perhaps because of it?) Encarta still has a little nostalgic appeal to me and to a lot of other people who were also bored kids in the 90s on their family computers. It’s a bit like Blockbuster Video – massive in its day, but made useless by the modern internet. Unfortunately, you can’t visit a Blockbuster anymore unless you happen to live near the several locations that are somehow left operating (mostly in Alaska – because of poor internet connectivity up there?) but you can check out Encarta thanks to the good people at the CD-ROM Software Library at archive.org.