Welcome to the second edition in a three-part series called RETROspectives! In this series, I am taking a look back at three terrific games from my childhood that encapsulated all the fond memories I have from my earliest days of gaming. If you haven’t read part one, fear not, as they are not connected in any way. If you’d like to read the first installment I wrote about Police Quest, click the link below.
The 90s were filled with some incredibly bizarre and terrific things, and somehow they blend together in my mind and fill me with a constant yearning to go back. Every single day I wish I was back in the 1990s, and that’s no exaggeration – I find myself daydreaming constantly about things from the 90s. They were my formative years and every quirk about me I can attribute to something in that glorious decade. Nothing can ever top that decade for me, in the same way my parents would probably gush about the 70s and 80s, and my grandparents about the 50s and 60s.
In the last installment of RETROspectives, we took a look back to the late 80s and spoke briefly about an emerging, lucrative market of the computer game. As the personal computer still struggled to gain commonplace among the general public, mostly due to the cost of admission, computer games were traded around by hobbyists, and the market was still gaining traction. Fast forward a few years into the early 90s and the PC finally had a functional pair of legs and was creeping into homes across the country.
Of course, these computers didn’t have a whole lot to actually do on them, and playing games was one of the few rationalizations one might have to part with the required cash, about the modern equivalent of several thousand freaking dollars. While the education game wasn’t a new thing at this time, a PC in every household was, and with influx of younger and younger people using PCs, the educational game market exploded. Particularly as computers started entering school computer labs, it became a very lucrative industry.
Here was the thing, though – the definition of an “educational” game changed more often than you got your tips frosted. Technically speaking, an educational game should educate you on a subject. But I can recall many educational games from my childhood that didn’t teach me a damn thing, with the exception of a miniscule amount of patience. Oregon Trail and DinoPark Tycoon were two of my favorites that, while I wouldn’t personally consider “educational,” taught me the vital childhood skills of beating cholera and preventing dinosaurs from escaping and murdering the town.
Who the Heck is MECC?
I actually discovered The Secret of Dr. Quandary years after its 1992 release, as personal computers became increasingly available in my small-town school. It ran on those old single-stack Macs that made even PCs at the time look like the behemoths that would take over entire rooms mere years beforehand. These things were sleek, in the same way that Apple products look today. Of course, by the time my budget school had them, they were also years old, but with that unexpected perk came the fact that the software on them was as old as the hardware itself. Those computers took a strange journey from somewhere in America to my little school, and in the meantime had become host to a number of classic educational games.
You had your Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and Number Munchers, but one always stuck out to me as “that 90s game.” Of course, as is the subject of today, The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary is the one that remains in my memory of being representative of my earliest years on a computer.
I did quite a bit of research on the development studio that created Dr. Quandary, and I was surprised to see that a wide collection of the educational games from that era were from the same company, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, or MECC. A company that doesn’t have quite the interesting background of Sierra OnLine, but still, one with an impressive CV. See, Minnesota was known as the midwest Silicon Valley at the time of its inception, as it started out as a small organization with a state-wide initiative to bring computing to the masses, with the goal of making Minnesota the leader in computer technology. It’s not surprising that MECC would become one of the biggest producers of educational games for kids some years later.
And some years later it was, in fact, still banging all cylinders pushing out software. A few years before the official company closure, Dr. Quandary was born. A quirky, seemingly out-of-place game made for a market of confused kids playing on their school computers. The more that I’ve reflected on this game, the more I realized it is the perfect little time-capsule of the 1990s – a decade defined by pastel colored clothes and Tamagotchis and weird fads that came and went far too fast, but one that left a lasting impression on me.
The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary
As the game begins, you find yourself at a creepy carnival, being summoned over to the Troggle Shoot booth by none other than Dr. Quandary himself! Right away you are slapped in the face with weirdness, and the bizarre sound effects and sound scape further set the tone. Doc Q. (we’re on a nickname basis now) gives you a brief rundown of Troggle Shoot and you quickly learn that it’s a shooting gallery type of game where you must only shoot the specified type of Troggle. The bullet moves fairly slow and so it’s all about timing. Educational, remember!?
Providing you don’t make a fool out of yourself in front of the Doc and hit less than 10 Troggles (I had a hell of a time with a touchpad, good luck with that!), you will be entitled to a prize! Which is… one of three creepy looking dolls. The dolls are named in a pun-filled fashion, which in thinly veiled disguise sets the difficulty of the game. Your choices are B. Ginner, O.D. Nary, and D. Feecult. This is also the point in the game where it becomes obvious that wordplay is a major support beam for this game, as are heavily dated pop culture references.
Once you’ve selected your difficulty, the dolls eyes light up and teleport you to a Secret Island, presumably belonging to a one Dr. Quandary. It is here on the shoreline that your puzzling journey begins! A note left from Dr. Quandary reinforces the point that you are in a bad place – alone on an island with only a doll and your wits!
Recycling the note into a nearby dumpster yields you a letter – a list of ingredients to make a secret elixer to bring you back to your own time. Eureka! Those ingredients are found all over the island. No time like the present to get started, right? Welcome to the Secret Island of Dr. Quandary!
Don’t worry though – if you get stuck, there’s a handy guide still available to ease your puzzly woes.
Throughout the island, you will encounter a randomly generated assortment of puzzles. Dr. Quandary’s puzzles fall into one of two categories: logical and mathematical. While it doesn’t take a genius to solve most of them, there are some that are downright tough if you play on a more difficult mode. On my play through as an adult, I chose the easy route because I couldn’t foresee myself burning more than an hour reliving one of the most traumatizing games from my childhood. Upon a second attempt on D. Feecult mode, I came to realize I did not regret this decision whatsoever.
Next, we’ll look at some of the best and most bizarre of Dr. Quandary’s puzzles. All of the games have a certain charm to them – some of them are so simple, a few are just silly fun, but all of them just ooze the carefree vibe that the 90s had for me. Let’s take a look!
The first puzzle I stumbled upon was the one I remembered the most. And also the one I dreaded the most, consisting of a music-theme rendition of Nim with a woman using her CD collection. In the game, you remove CDs from several rows, and the last one to remove a CD, loses. Let me tell you – this is a simple game that can drive you crazy, particularly on the higher two difficulties.
Upon losing, you are given the last CD and get to do it all over again! Playing the game today will make you realize the extent of how dated the pop culture references actually are. After a few amount of failures, which will most certainly happen depending on your difficulty setting, you will inevitably want to go somewhere else and return to this one later. I think it has to do with the smug look on her face paired with how you always seem to know the exact moment where you screwed up.
This one was actually always one of my favorites. You have to figure out the lock combination to a padlock using the tried and true method of guessing, while Sir Pillory will give you hints in the form of winks and smiles. If you guess one of the numbers right he will wink, and if you get it in the right position he will smile.
You have to guess 2, 3, or 4 numbers depending on your difficulty level, Which can prove to be tricky if you just straight up have a bad luck streak. Eventually you break the code and are given the padlock for your troubles.
Perhaps one of the most notorious mini-games within the island, Tire Tower is based on the simple premise of moving one pile of things to another pile in the most efficient manner. Given three poles sticking out of the ground in the middle of a junk yard, you must move a pile of tires from their starting position to the other side, using the middle pole as a placeholder. I found this one particularly easy, but I always enjoyed those sliding square puzzle games which are based on some of the same concepts.
Correctly move the tires to the other pole so that you can climb upon them and reach a tree to claim your prize: an oil can! And not just any oil can, an antique oil can! Which may not sound sexy, but knocks another item off your laundry list.
While most of Dr. Quandary’s games have some semblance of educational value, be it in the form of math or logic challenges, some contain almost no value except to test your patience. In Headstrong Hop, music is played in front of an audience and you must jump at the right time to knock the note into a musical bar floating overhead. Seems easy enough, no? Well you must do this within a set amount of time, and the notes have the tendency to fly all over the darn place if you don’t jump at precisely the correct time. It’s a serious test of will to not throw your computer across the room.
You control your doll with the arrow keys as various notes fly across the screen. Really, nothing about this game has made sense so far and therefore there’s no reason to start now, but this one in particular really creeped me out when I was a kid. Maybe it’s the gigantic anthropomorphic saxophone man with sunglasses who patronizes you the entire time.
Everyone had a favorite mini-game in The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary, and I was no different. The other similarity is that my favorite game was probably the most beloved out of all of them – Tad-Pult. It could be argued that Tad-Pult was educational in its logical reasoning, paired with knowledge of how to distract pterodactyls, so we’ll just go with that. But boy, did this one hit me just right when I was younger. Maybe because I liked dinosaurs? I mean, just look at this insanity.
The general premise of the game revolves around trying to enter a cave. However, the cave door is shut and there’s a giant monster guarding it! So what’s a human-soul-trapped-inside-a-doll to do? You can adjust both the direction and the power of the catapult to change the trajectory, and you need to use a combination of popcorn, rocks, and flies to open the gate, while distracting the pterodactyl.
First, you fire a rock at a passing fly to drop it into the catapult, then fire the fly into the frog’s mouth to open the cave – but what about the dinosaur? Easy – just fling a piece of popcorn at it to distract it while you run inside and grab your item. And done!
Bringing it All Together
Once you complete the shopping list, you’ll eventually stumble upon a giant cauldron on a beach. It is here that you can complete your final step – mixing the ingredients to create the magic elixer! Placing all the ingredients in the cauldron create a magical explosion that puts all the pieces back together, teleporting you right back to the carnival where it all began.
Now It’s Your Turn!
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve read my little retrospective here on Nostalgia Trigger, and you’ve perhaps had some comforting nostalgic feelings as a result. Why not give it the ol’ college try, and see if you can get through it as an adult? Luckily for you, dear reader, you too can reconnect with this long-lost gem of a game, for free, right in your browser, much like the previous installment.
The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary is a game that has been played by many, but oftentimes forgotten. Look up any Let’s Play video of the game and most of the comments will be people reminiscing about playing the game many long years ago. Most of them probably spent a good long time looking it up to even remember the name of it. I know I did!
But it’s truly one of those games that holds up so well with nostalgia as the catalyst, that one can’t help but smile upon the first screen fading into a creepy looking carnival game. The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary might be a strange game if you didn’t first play it in your formative years, but it’s cemented into the catacombs of gaming history, and it did a terrific job representing the simpler time it was from.
Thanks for reading Part 2 of RETROspectives, where I take a look back at three of my favorite games from childhood. Part 3 is nowhere near completion but hopefully this delivered a nice, well-deserved dose of nostalgia on this dreary Monday! Do you remember playing this as a kid? What were your fondest memories of playing it? Let me know about it in the comments!