Friday, December 2, 2011

remember Number Munchers? I DO.

When you’re a kid, there’s always something that scares you: monsters in your closet, spiders, the phrase “you’re going to be a big sister.” All of these things made me nervous, but nothing struck terror in my heart more than a computer game called Number Munchers.

As many of you know, Number Munchers is a MECC computer game that was popular in the early 1990s. It was supposed to be fun and educational, but to me, it was simply terrifying. Your character was a little green guy called a Muncher, and you had to munch numbers. 

The computer would tell you which numbers you were supposed to munch. They started off easy: multiples of 5, numbers divisible by 3. You had to eat all the applicable numbers on the board in order to go on to the next level. The farther you advanced, the difficulty of the problems increased. Prime numbers? What six-year-old knows what a prime number is? Not me, that’s for sure.

All of this sounds harmless enough, but while you were munching numbers, you were being pursued by purple monsters called Troggles. 
See how mean he looks?
They sound like something cute and cuddly from the Muppets, but they were nothing of the sort. If you made a move, the Troggles made a move. If you spent too much time thinking about which number to munch, a Troggle would creep up behind you and eat you. If you ate the wrong number, they’d eat you. The longer you lasted in the game, the faster the monsters got – and they multiplied. There were different kinds of Troggles, too, and they each could do something different to make it more difficult for you. On the bright side, the Troggles would occasionally eat each other, but there were always more waiting in the wings.

I don’t think we played Number Munchers in kindergarten, but we definitely played it in first grade. First grade was when you started taking computer class with a beast of a teacher who loved to make children cry. At first, I loved computer class. We didn’t have a computer at home, so it was great fun for me to go and play these electronic games, even though they were educational. I don’t remember any of the other games we played; clearly, they didn’t have the profound impact on me that Number Munchers did.

The very first time we played it, I had no idea what to expect. I thought it was a fun game where you just had to stroll around as this little green creature and answer the math questions. I was a sitting duck and was eaten by a Troggle almost immediately. I was horrified. I immediately froze up and got eaten again and again. The stress was too much for me. I’d make stupid mistakes, like walking right into the monsters or eating “4 + 1” when you were supposed to be looking for answers that were divisible by 2. And of course, we had to play Number Munchers for the WHOLE CLASS PERIOD. Computer class was probably only twenty or thirty minutes long, but it seemed like hours.
Look at the sad extra lives in the corner. They know they're next.
From that point on, when I wasn’t worrying about our house burning down, I was worried about Number Munchers. Wednesdays were computer class days, so on Tuesday nights, I’d lie in bed and wish for the flu. I begged my parents to schedule dentist appointments, eye exams, ANYTHING to get out of Number Munchers. I actually had nightmares about being eaten by giant Troggles. I’m sure I would wake up my parents and tell them about my ridiculous computer game inspired nightmares; it’s truly amazing that my parents kept me around.

Computer class was right after lunch, so on Wednesdays (because I never got the flu, nor were there any appointments to be had), I’d stare at the clock, willing it to skip past the 1 o’clock hour. Around lunchtime, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, knowing I was about to meet my computerized doom. With a heavy heart, I’d file into the computer room with the rest of my classmates.

Some days, I got lucky. We usually played Number Munchers, but every now and again, we got a different game. Other days, a computer or two would be broken, so we’d have to double up. I’d always volunteer to share my computer, and I’d let my partner take my turn with Number Munchers. My partners were always confused; why would I give up my time with this game? I shrugged it off, casually stating that I didn’t think Number Munchers was THAT fun. My partner would leap right in, munching to their hearts’ content. I was a favorite in the computer lab for the duration of the school year.

If I couldn’t weasel my way out of playing Number Munchers, my only salvation was the “safe square.” Every now and again, a safe square would appear on your board. It was a space that you, the muncher, could get into, but it was Troggle-proof. I would move my muncher to the little box and wait it out. Unfortunately for me, the safe square would eventually disappear, and I would have to scurry to wherever the next safe square showed up. The Troggles tended to wait right outside the safe squares, so when it did eventually vanish, you had to move quickly (as I found out the hard way, no doubt).

When computer class was over, I’d be the first one out of the room. I would still be a little shaky from my near-death experience with the munchers, but I felt great knowing that I had lived to see another weekend. Of course, the vicious cycle would start all over again on Sunday, where the Troggles would creep their way back into my mind. First grade was a long year for me.
The only good part about Number Munchers was the dorky
skits they'd throw in every few levels. I believe they were
called "Great Moments in Muncher History."
I blame Number Munchers for a lifelong aversion to math problems – especially those dictated by speed. Starting in second grade, we had to take timed math tests: the teacher would give you a sheet of problems, and you had to finish them all with a passing grade in less than five minutes or something like that. Whenever I would see those tests, I would immediately think of Number Munchers and those stupid Troggles that were after my blood. The pressure was too much for my eight-year-old brain, and I choked. I still passed the timed tests, but I never passed with the flying colors that I was used to. I don’t mean to brag, but I was a smart kid, so it was hard on me to find something that I kind of sucked at.

Number Munchers probably isn’t the reason for my timed test difficulties; maybe I’m just an idiot. But I’ve always done well under pressure… except in math. 
Seeing this more than a decade later still stresses me out.
Dad used to ask us kids math problems for “fun,” and he still does. He’s always been something of a human calculator, so he’d ask us mileage questions on road trips, or percentage questions in stores. Again, I would choke. I think Dad enjoyed the deer in headlights look: he still likes to ask these questions. Now we just tend to ignore them, but I have learned to answer the percentage questions (finally).

Many years later, I found a copy of Number Munchers on the internet, and I opened it up to see what the big deal was to six-year-old me. I found that I didn’t get eaten nearly as often, and I didn’t panic when the Troggles appeared. However, seeing those really-not-frightening-at-all monsters, I clearly remembered that repressed first grade terror.

I’m not sure if it actually was the Troggles that made my first grade Wednesdays a living hell, or perhaps it was the cruel computer teacher herself. One day, I crept up to her desk and quietly admitted that Number Munchers scared me, and would she please not make me play? She more or less called me a wimp and sent me right back to the game. Maybe I was being wimpy, but most teachers will at least let you down easy. Not this one. Come to think of it, the computer teacher looked a little like a Troggle.

In any case, Troggles no longer strike fear in my heart, but I’m probably not going to go out of my way to play Number Munchers. Give me a nice harmless crossword puzzle instead.


  1. HAHAHAHAHA!!!!! You and me both sister ;)

  2. Oh my sweet lord. As a child, playing Word Munchers on my grandma's old Apple computer was like my life. Maybe that's the problem - you should've been playing "word' instead of "numbers." Seriously, MECC-obsessed, this one. I want nothing more right now than to crank on an old iMac, craft a novel via Storybook Weaver, get dysentery on the Oregon Trail, and fend off Troggles on Word Munchers. :)