I hated math as a child, so my parents bought me a computer game to help me enjoy math. It was called Super Solvers: Outnumbered! This game took me from hating math to fearing math.
It is sadly the norm for kids in the United States to hate math. It’s especially true for girls. So, I grew up in an environment that normalized the idea of me hating math. I hated it so much, though, that my intense dislike raised enough flags for my teachers to call home and ask my parents what was up. Mostly because I kept writing “I hate math” on my schoolbooks. That’s frowned upon.
To clarify, I was not bad at math. I just hated it. Somehow, I was also good at it, although I didn’t realize that until years later when I finally stopped refusing to do math. Why did I hate math so much, for so long? I still don’t know.
I do know that Super Solvers: Outnumbered used fear to fuel the flames of my hatred into a bonfire.
The Learning Company put out Super Solvers: Outnumbered in 1990, the year after Super Solvers: Midnight Rescue, the first in the Super Solvers series. Both games star a sleuth who cuts a far-from-stealthy profile in a bright red cap and shoes, a neon green windbreaker, and yellow shorts.
As a kid playing this game, I thought I was a fool for finding it scary. As an adult, I can see all the hallmarks of horror here. Sure, the sleuth wears a garish outfit, but the game still has low lighting, creepy music, and angry enemies. I think Outnumbered wanted to make math feel like a noir thriller, but instead, the game crept too far into the darkness.
The opening moments of Outnumbered treat the player to show-don’t-tell environmental storytelling that puts Super Metroid to shame. Just kidding! The game throws two full screens of expository text at the player about the Master of Mischief, who has taken over a local TV station for no stated reason and has “cleverly placed” several math problems that, if solved, guide our hero to his secret hideout. Also, the TV station has been overrun with the Master of Mischief’s evil robot henchmen.
As the sleuth walks up the starlit path to the front entrance of the television station, a beam surges out from the TV tower. This beam strikes the sleuth’s handheld remote, turning it into a zapper that can kill or disorient enemies. You’ll need a weapon in here, because these evil robots are going to try to hurt you, force you to do math, or both (in that order).
First, though, the sleuth runs into a disaffected TV station worker who must have let the Master of Mischief inside and couldn’t care less. This employee also can’t be bothered to turn on most of the lights in the building, or turn off the ominous chiptune rendition of Mozart’s 40th Symphony that plays in every hallway. The song’s minor key, as well as its too-fast, too-precise pacing, underscores Outnumbered’s unnerving vibe.
As an adult, I don’t find the game’s TV-shaped robot to be scary. The reaction time required to hit the robot before it hits you feels easy, now, much like all those math problems turned out to be. But I can’t blame my elementary school self for finding this alienating.
If the hallway robot does hit you, the sleuth hits the ground in visible pain, complete with yellow stars floating over that iconic red hat. It’s like, all the stress of getting called on in math class, except instead, it’s a robot beating the shit out of you. Once you manage to hit the robot, you get to do simple arithmetic problems. 12 - 9 = fill in the bank. The faster you answer, the higher your score. Fun!!
Even as a child, though, I could handle this robot. My biggest fear in Outnumbered was the LiveWire.
The sleuth has to solve math problems inside each room at the TV station. The more you solve, the more clues you collect about the Master of Mischief’s location, and the faster you can catch him and kill him—well, obliterate him into a fine powder with your zapper. You have to go in and out of a lot of rooms to beat this game.
Sometimes, when the sleuth walks into a room, the LiveWire is in there, waiting. The LiveWire is an extension cord that whirls along the floor to attack you.
Other times, you walk into a room and it appears empty. It might really be empty, or it might not. You won’t know until after you solve the room’s math problem, after which, the LiveWire could show up and attack you. So, punishment for solving a math problem! Why is Outnumbered like this?!
As an adult, I realize that the LiveWire moves slowly, in spite of its appearance and sound effects. It’s easy to use my zapper to kill him before he even gets to me. But as a kid, I was too terrified to even go into rooms.
I never beat the game as a kid. I now have as an adult. This past weekend, I solved problems, outsmarted robots, obliterated every LiveWire, and beat Outnumbered. I murdered the Master of Mischief. I exorcised this game from my nightmares.
Once you beat Outnumbered, the game gives you the option to put in multiplication and division problems which are harder and also seem more effective at teaching math skills than the original word problems on the game’s “Junior” mode. I had no idea this was an option. As a child, I couldn’t beat the game on “Junior” mode, so I never knew about this.
I remember my parents encouraging me to play Outnumbered, realizing how scared I got, and then, telling me I didn’t have to keep playing it. I asked my parents if they remembered the game, but they didn’t until I showed them a video of it. “My memory of this game was that you wouldn’t play it,” my dad told me. “Not much more than that.”
My mom affirmed that they “got it so you could hopefully enjoy the math part.” After watching a video, she agreed that “it’s not a very good game. It’s just word problems or quick drill math facts with nothing clever to go along with it, as far as I can tell... And I agree that the ‘LiveWire’ is scary for a little kid!”
Soon, the conversation devolved into memories of the educational games that had actually been a hit for our family, from Oregon Trail to Number Munchers. My mom asked me to look into the current landscape of educational games, theorizing that they’d all be much better now. Sadly, the edutainment genre dropped off significantly after 1999. One contemporary math game that I did enjoy is The Counting Kingdom, an indie game for iOS where you count monsters. It’s not scary, despite the monster theme. It’s cute enough that perhaps it could have softened my childhood disdain for math.
Instead, sadly, I got saddled with Outnumbered, a game that haunted me for decades. I’ll say this much for The Learning Company, though. That team took some big risks. It had to be tough to sell a game that made math feel so isolating and confrontational. Outnumbered’s influence can still be felt today, such as in Resident Evil’s piano puzzle, or Silent Hill 2’s coin puzzle. It’s too bad that all of Outnumbered’s math problems cluttered up what otherwise serves as an early benchmark in the horror genre.