Games from My Childhood Library: A Retrospective Look at Christian CD-ROM Games
Screenshot: Construction Zone Main Menu
Written by: Katelyn Vause
“Games from My Childhood Library” is a series where editor Katelyn Vause discusses games she played growing up. Titles include the not-so-scary I Spy Spooky Mansion, the beloved point-and-click Pink Panther’s Passport to Peril and the warm-and-fuzzy-feeling inducing Arthur’s Birthday. Click on her author link to read more!
It’s getting warmer outside, and while the circumstances of life right now couldn’t be less normal, one thing remains true: summer is coming. I know it’s mid-April, but for those of us living in the south, summer starts by the end of April.
Summer during childhood meant many things. Of course, it meant a break from school and sleeping in every day, it meant reading in trees and playing games when it was too hot; it also meant there might be lemonade in the fridge if I was lucky. One of the weeks I looked forward to the most during the summer was when my church held its annual week-long Vacation Bible School.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Vacation Bible School (VBS), I can best sum it up like this: a themed weeklong daycamp held at church where you have mini Bible lessons, do crafts, eat snacks, sing songs, and otherwise give your parents a break for a few hours a night while you learn about Jesus. Were the campy themes, bright decorations, and cheesy characters increasingly cringe-worthy the older I got? Absolutely. Did I still have a blast? You bet.
At the end of the week, there were giveaways where the director of the camp would pull names out of a jar and pass out prizes. Somehow, I ended up winning the CD-ROM prize three times.
Construction Zone, Trading Places and Take the Plunge correspond to the name of the theme for each respective VBS. They are not cohesive, story-driven games; instead, they are collection of very simplistic mini-games that range from being very Bible-oriented to seemingly unrelated. Looking back, I now realize that a lot of them remind me of common mobile games.
Construction Zone is from one of the first VBS’s I remember; I believe I was seven years old when I won the CD-ROM. Of the three I’m writing about, it has my favorite mascot, Darrell the Barrel. Darrell will forever hold a special place in my heart because I got to play him during the skits that served as the “pre-show” ceremony to camp starting each evening. Yes, everybody knew Darrell was a boy, but the camp director also acknowledged I was the only kid willing to dress up in a construction cone costume and say lines in front of a crowded church.
The first mini-game involves you conducting various demolition projects to earn money for “the company.” You lose money if you hit things you aren’t supposed to demolish, including cars, trees and other houses. When you complete the project, a blindingly yellow window will pop up and tell you how much money you earned for the company that day, as well as show a Bible verse about working hard. I am not sure if this is because the developers wanted to gesture toward the whole Protestant work ethic thing or what.
Other mini-games include an obnoxious sort of keep-away where you have to move around construction cones in order to guide a worker to the right level of a building. It’s obnoxious both because the timing is so finicky, and because the worker says something every single time you move him. His snarky, nasal voice saying, “I’m not sure you know where you’re going,” still makes my blood boil. There’s also a coloring page section that allows you to color pictures from various stories in the Bible, such as the birth of Jesus. See my Crayola Vehicle Voyages article for why that isn’t exactly my cup of tea.
Trading Places is a bit of a mixed bag. I remember enjoying both the camp and the game when I was kid, especially because I was already interested in the world and other cultures, though looking back as an adult I do cringe at a lot of the stereotypical to bizarre representation of countries and their lifestyle. I also have no idea how they managed to avoid a copyright lawsuit with the name.
The two mini-games that are set in Poland are very basic: one is a Tetris-type in which you’re playing as an airport worker adjusting stacks of colorful luggage, and the other is a game in which you’re a worker catching stones that fall down while your crew is working on building a castle. It turns out that Poland is home to several castles, so that particular part is a nice touch at least. I always liked playing Tetris, so I liked the luggage game.
All of the games I’m discussing in this article contain a mini-game where you to play a hangman style letter game in order to spell out the main Bible verse from each camp. It tends to be rather dull, all things considered, though Trading Places has perhaps the most…interesting take.
Imagine a combination word search-Battleship game. Imagine you are directing a panda to eat bamboo to reveal those words before the AI can find them, get more letters, and thus beat you. It sounds like a strange concept, but that’s how Trading Places decided to do their variation on the mini-game. I always enjoyed it, though I have to admit it is a bit unusual.
I like the art style in Trading Places a lot; it’s bright, colorful, and cartoony without overdoing it. However, a good number of the mini-games are locked behind an expansion pack that you have to purchase, which I never did. Conceptually, Trading Places would be my favorite, but in reality it’s probably the worst game of the three.
Take the Plunge is a waterpark themed game, and it is unique in that you frequently play as the penguin JP, the mascot of the theme. (JP, by the way, stands for “Just Plunge,” though many of us at camp assumed it stood for “Jesus’s Pet”).
You can enter JP into waterslide or lazy river races, or you can (much more cruelly) launch him out of a waterslide and see how far he flies before crash landing, though he might bounce on a few snack stands and trash cans before skidding to a stop. The Bible-verse mini-game involves you trying to spell out the verse before JP’s floaty deflates. This is both anxiety-inducing and confusing; he is a penguin, so gently sinking into a pool shouldn’t be that big of an issue for him.
Another confusing element of Take the Plunge is that one of the mini-games involves building sand castles with random materials, including candy wrappers. There’s no end goal other than to create something you like and print it out. I’m not sure who thought that an otherwise waterpark themed game needed to have a random beach themed mini-game. The text at the start talks about the verse where God shaped Adam out of the dust of the earth, so maybe the developers thought “Eh, sand is close enough to dust.” I’m still not sure.
Take the Plunge is the best game in terms of capturing the feeling of summer. It knows its theme and (mostly) sticks to it. Both it and Construction Zone have merits, but in terms of which one I enjoyed playing more, it would probably be Take the Plunge.
With that being said, none of these games are what I would consider to be classics. Most of them simply riff off of existing games and go from there. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though I do wonder what these could have been like with a bit more creativity involved at the development level. But at the end of the day, they were free, they were simple, and, they were, usually, fun and relatively mindless ways to spend time playing games and reminiscing while waiting for next summer to arrive.
Have you played any of these games or do you own more VBS CD-ROMs? Tell us in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org!