Dissertation Notes: Paging, Dr. Mario: Medical-Themed SNES Games

“Dissertation Notes” is the oh-so-clever name of my (semi) regular segment briefly highlighting the interesting, unusual, or thought-provoking materials I have come across while working on my dissertation.

1994 was a time of transition for the American home video game industry.  At a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice, lawmakers, educators, and moral activists took companies such as Nintendo and Sega to task, alleging “violent video games” were having a deleterious effect on children; some called for government regulation and outright censorship.  In response the industry formed a trade organization–the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), now known as the Entertainment Software Association (ESA)–and an ratings system–the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB).  Meanwhile members of the industry held follow-up meetings with Congress on March 4, and July 29, 1994, to report on their progress.

As industry reps met with lawmakers, they were quick to assert the ways video games were not what moral crusaders had demonized them as.  During the March 4, hearing, Howard Lincoln, Chairman of Nintendo of America, enumerated upon of games offered by Nintendo that encouraged problem solving and education in both a defense of the medium and a subtle dig against rival Sega.  Among other games, he named a series of “titles designed to teach children about health”:

“‘Captain Novaline,’ Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus,’ ‘Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon,’ and ‘the AIDS Avenger,’ teach children about diabetes, asthma, and the dangers of smoking and AIDS, respectively” (Howard Lincoln, “Responses to Questions Submitted by Senator Lieberman,” Rating Video Games: A Parent’s Guide to Games, 94-5)

So why don’t we take a look at those games?

Captain Novolin (Sculpture Software, Raya Systems, 1992):

Captain Novolin, a superhero with Type-1 diabetes, does battle against Blubberman (an obese man who attacks with pies) and his legion of sentient sugary snacks. 

Novolin’s mission is to rescue a diabetic Mayor who needs his insulin shot lest he succumb to hypoglycemia.  In order to do this, he has to literally avoid sweets in the form of giant donuts and boxes of cereal while gathering healthy snacks, such as bananas, pretzels, and cheese.

MedGames2

The captain’s exploits are interspersed with tips on maintaining one’s blood sugar and reminding players to check themselves regularly.

Bronkie: Health Hero aka Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus (Wavequest, Raya Systems, 1994)

Bronkie is designed to teach children about managing asthma.  Bronkie the asthmatic dinosaur has to avoid clouds of dust and secondhand smoke while collecting lungs to fuel his energy.  Players navigate the aforementioned sauropod past asthma triggers and evil dinosaurs, occasionally stopping to answer asthma related questions.

In between levels, Bronkie gave instructions on how to properly use an inhaler.

In between levels, Bronkie gave instructions on how to properly use an inhaler.

Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon (Sculptured Software, Raya Systems, 1993)

Of the collected games, Rex Ronan earns points for having the most interesting (albeit heavy-handed) story: in which the eponymous doctor shrinks himself to microscopic size and enters the disease-ridden body of a tobacco salesman to destroy his various cigarette-related afflictions with microscopic lasers a la Fantastic Voyage.  Meanwhile, he needs to avoid microscopic robots sent by the tobacco industry to thwart his exploits and keep hidden the dangers of smoking.

MedGames6

I wish I was making this up.

More action-oriented than some of the others on this list, the player’s objective is to clear tar out of various parts of the stricken body and destroy (or avoid) the microbots.

Packy and Marlon (Wavequest, Raya Systems, 1994)

MedGames8

For whatever reason, the folks at Raya Systems felt one diabetes-themed game in their library was not enough and released a second one.  This time around, the game follows a pair of anthropomorphic elephants as they gather diabetes medicine and healthy snacks while managing their blood sugar.  In this case, however, if a player gathers too many snacks, Packy and Marlon’s blood sugar will get too high, requiring a restart.

In terms of quality, all of these games are notoriously terrible (Captain Novolin has been an especially easy target for numerous video game writers; see also this one for Bronkie).  To Captain Novalin’s credit, however, of the lot of them it seems to do the best job of staying on message.  While Captain Novalin actually provided detailed information in a relatively accessible way, the others tended to offer little on actually dealing with their assigned ailments.  The others tend to link together poorly-developed action sequences, and it is hard to say how useful some of them would have been in helping kids manage their medical conditions.  Nevertheless, for Nintendo, a company concerned about the prospect of federal regulation they provided useful examples to show the industry was not all about Mortal Kombat and Night Trap.

Notice that I have left one title out.  However, it’s a game that requires an entire article unto itself.  Stay tuned.

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About kevinimpellizeri

I'm a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Delaware where I am studying the social and cultural impact of video games in America. When I'm not studying history or playing video games I offer my voice on 91.3 WVUD Newark and review bad horror movies at www.horrorsofhorror.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @KDImpellizeri
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