For many, Roberta Williams is best-known as the creator of the King’s Quest series. But I’ll always think of her as the designer of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, the first adventure games I ever played. I first encountered the game on school computers a few years later. It was nothing like many of the other “edutainment” games that were on the machines, which were mainly about solving math problems or memorizing geography. Instead, Mixed-Up Mother Goose invited kids into a magical world populated by the nursery rhymes they were already familiar with, and tasked them with fixing their “mixed-up” components.
The first version of Mixed-Up Mother Goose was released in 1987 by Sierra On-Line. It uses the Adventure Game Interpreter (AGI) system that was used in previous Sierra games, and the game plays like a simplified version of one of those titles. There are no failed world states that you only learn about hours later, little of the random clicking and guessing that plagued early adventure games. Because Mixed-Up Mother Goose was aimed at children, it was a much more easygoing experience, with plentiful hints and straightforward interactions.
But the version of the game I played was the 1991 CD-ROM release, which was Sierra’s first-ever CD-ROM game. It was remade with VGA graphics, voice acting, an improved interface, and a map. It was probably the first game I ever heard “talk,” and the idea of voices coming out of a computer kind of blew me away. I know, I’m old. But the addition of voices brought Mixed-Up Mother Goose to life, pulling you into the world and playing off the gorgeous visuals to create a world you couldn’t help but fall into.
The core gameplay mostly involves wandering around the world and reuniting various characters with the appropriate items, so it’s sort of a distillation of adventure game design at the time. Mary needs her little lamb, Jack and Jill need their pail, and so on. It’s pretty simple, but as a kid the idea of messing up nursery rhymes was funny and even seemed vaguely naughty.
Sierra later released a “deluxe” version of the game in 1995. I remember finding this one in the mid-90s and having one of my first experiences of nostalgia. It seems silly now, but when you’re a kid, a few years is a long time — and it was a neat experience to get to revisit a game I’d loved when I was in grade school when I was moving into junior high.
Weirdly, in writing this piece I learned that there was an apparently-unrelated 1980 children’s book called Mixed-Up Mother Goose, which the titular character is planning a party for her friends but falls and suffers a minor concussion. There’s also a Sesame Street Golden Sound Story called Mother Goose Mix-Up, but that came out in 1995. I guess mixing up Mother Goose is just one of those great narrative themes like man versus nature.
Oh, and fun fact: the original cover of Mixed-Up Mother Goose depicts Mother Goose reading stories to two children — that’s Roberta Williams herself, though not her kids.