Mario captured

Can educational video games from the 1980s and 1990s still teach us something? Are these games simply artifacts from the past, or can they hold up to the high standard of educational games today? Let’s find out!

Anyone who played video games in the 90s probably remembers this little gem. Mario is Missing is an educational, geography-based game which made its way to the PC, Mac, NES, and SNES in 1992. The game is notable for being one of the first titles prior to the hugely popular Luigi’s Mansion to use Luigi as the hero.

In case you need a refresher, here’s the basic premise of the NES version of the game. Mario has been kidnapped, and Luigi must travel around the world searching for “clues” about his whereabouts. You’ll visit a handful of different international cities, such as London, Moscow, and San Francisco. In each city, you need to collect stolen items by finding and defeating Koopas. A ‘picture’ of each stolen item will appear in your inventory, and once you have collected them all, you return them to the “tourist booth” in each level and answer a couple of trivia questions.

The questions relate to the city you are visiting and some of the local landmarks. For example, when you return the picture of the Empire State Building in New York City, the tourist booth asks you to guess the height of the building (it’s 102 stories tall, just in case you were wondering).


After finding all of the items and completing the levels, there’s a quick battle with Bowser and you’re done the game. Boom. Easy as pie.

After beating the game for this review, I was left wondering why I felt so dissatisfied. And after giving it some thought, I think it had a little something to do with this screen.

Ending screen

See, this is the score I received at the end of the game. Can anyone tell me what it means? In the past, without the benefit of leaderboards, scores like these existed in a virtual vaccuum, providing almost no context for gauging how well you played.

Then again, this isn’t exactly the game’s fault. For games that were  published before the age of the internet, there was often no way to compare your score to other players. This was one of the great things about rented video games, since they contained a compendium of high scores from every player who had come before you. And that gave you much more incentive to do better the next time you played.

These days, global leaderboards and achievement systems are a commonplace thing. World of Warcraft rewards achievement points and “Realm First” feats of strength for being the first to reach specific goals on a realm or in a guild. Recently, iPhones and iPods have begun using the “Game Centre” to share your results with friends and even the worldwide leader boards for some games. Yes, even the New Super Mario Bros. 2 has a system for tracking your total coin count, which is then shared with other players using SpotPass.

It goes without saying that the social media aspect is big in games. And part of the reason why features like global leaderboards are so appealing is because they motivate us to do better. As Walt Disney once said, “I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”

Now, lest you think I’ve lost sight of education in this review, let me get to my main point. As it turns out, healthy competition can actually be a normal part of the learning process. When used correctly, it’s motivating for students because it offers them real-world challenges to tackle. Instead of just striving for the top grade, students can measure themselves against their peers and experience a real sense of accomplishment when they achieve more than their competition. When students compete in teams, they learn a lot about the benefit of collaboration and see the truthfulness behind the statement, “two heads are better than one.” Of course, the key word here is definitely ‘healthy.’ If a student is ever faced with such intense competition that it undermines their success, or makes them feel undervalued, then there is absolutely no place for that in the classroom.

But the bottom line is that healthy competition can be a really effective tool for teaching us how to respect others, appreciate our teammates’ efforts, and even lose gracefully. And even more importantly, without a mechanism like competition to help gauge your progress as you learn, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the material.

This brings me back to the game in question. To conclude my thoughts about the educational value of Mario is Missing, I could talk about geography. After all, the game did test my knowledge of several major cities on a world map.

World map

I could point out the fact that the game provides trivia questions about important landmarks, such as the Great Wall of China.


But when it comes to assessing a learning game, I like to think beyond just facts and figures. Playing Mario is Missing has made me realize that one of the most important aspects of learning games today is their ability to inspire collaboration and cooperation. And that’s the element of education here that is sorely ‘Missing.’

Have you played Mario is Missing recently? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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