“Check You Feet for Dry Skin.”
As a member of a generation who grew up with video games as a constant part of our lives, many of us have memories of the “edutainment” titles from our childhoods: Those games developed with the goals of both educating and entertaining. And as games intended to be played during some of our most formative years, the memories of them can tend to stick with you. For me, the title that most continues to linger in my memory is The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary; and boy howdy, do I remember it vividly. Even though I had already encountered the likes of Doom by the time I got to Dr. Quandary, I still recall being deeply unsettled by what his secret island had on offer more so than any imp or cacodemon that might’ve caught me off-guard in a dark hallway. One of the very first visuals that a child is subjected to in the game is watching themselves get sucked into the mouth of a terrifying doll, as tense music plays and an old man maniacally laughs at them. Can you think of any better way to ease a young mind into learning and puzzle-solving?
The early 90s were sort of an odd time for edutainment software in general, come to think of it. There was this sense that kids had such easy access to what I’ll call “non-educational” video games, it was something of a challenge to get them interested in games that were more obviously meant to serve as teaching tools. And so, you saw developers having to try slightly more subtle approaches: Straight up terrifying kids in the case of Dr. Quandary, ecasting recognizable characters as virtual teachers à la Sonic’s Schoolhouse, and sneaking anti-drug messages into otherwise straightforward genre games like Wally Bear and the NO! Gang. If you were a developer looking to hook kids into your edutainment game, you had to come up with some creative way to grab their attention, and convince them that they weren’t just in for an interactive lecture.
And so, I picture in my head the creative team at Raya Systems sitting together in a boardroom, pondering as to how they might be able to interest kids in a game that would serve to educate them about the rather unamusing subject of diabetes. Just as they’re all about to call the whole thing off, one of them jumps out of their chair as they’re struck with a bolt of inspiration, and excitedly proclaims “Kids love superheroes!” The game practically writes itself from there, and the infamous end result is 1992’s Captain Novolin for the Super Nintendo. Today, we’ll be taking a crash course on the often-mocked release, and grading it on its abilities to both educate and entertain.
“Hello Ranger. I Have Diabetes.”
In 1994, representatives for Nintendo and Sega of America stood before a Senate subcommittee, and plead a case for keeping the government away from taking a direct role in regulating the sales of video games. It’s a hearing we’ve covered at length before on this site [during the course of our Night Trap article], and it’s fairly well-established that these hearings directly resulted in the creations of the ESA and ESRB. It’s also worth re-addressing the lesser-discussed rumor that Nintendo deliberately instigated and provoked the hearings in an attempt to paint a crosshair on their competitors in Sega, as alleged by Night Trap director Tom Zito: “[Nintendo of America] hired a lobbying firm, and the lobbying firm basically started going around banging on doors to see if they could find a congressman who would be interested in taking this up as a cause.”
Of course, I mention all this here for a reason. See, if the allegation by Mr. Zito is to be believed, and Nintendo knew they were setting themselves up for a day in court, they knew they were gonna have to prove themselves far removed from the “filth” they sought to paint their competitors as peddling. In addition to pleading that even the most violent games on their hardware (the likes of Mortal Kombat or what have you) were far more toned down in comparison to comparable releases on Sega’s console, they had another ace up their sleeve: A library of edutainment titles they could point to. When prompted by Senator Lieberman and asked “What percentage of your games are educational from an academic perspective,” Nintendo of America’s chairman and representative Howard Lincoln had a prepared statement at the ready:
“Nintendo’s library of educational games is growing rapidly, and includes more than 20 diverse and entertaining titles. […] We have titles designed to teach children about health. ‘Captain Novoline,’ [sic] ‘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, Nintendo of America
Coincidentally, all four of these titles cited came courtesy of the same publisher: Raya Systems (stylized as “raya systems”), a company established with the goal of “creating fun video games that educate young people about vital health and social issues.” These games also all happened to fall under Raya Systems’ “Health Hero” series — a label which would eventually become the new name for the company itself (“Health Hero Network, Inc.”) in or around 1997. But we’re getting a little bit far ahead of ourselves here, as Captain Novolin was the first game in their line-up to see release, and it had already done so back in 1992.
Prior to Captain Novolin, Raya Systems had already been in the business of “digital therapeutics” since December of 1988. Founded by one Steve Brown – a Stanford grad with a background in Physics – his company seemed to trade in some other number of product pitches and software concepts, before eventually landing on the idea of self-publishing video games for home video game consoles. The company would later be able to boast of being “the first company to show in randomized controlled clinical trials that our approach could change health behavior and outcomes,” as per a line from Steve’s own LinkedIn profile. And while I can’t verify the claim that they were actually the first of their kind to participate in this kind of study, I can at least confirm that their contributions to these sorts of clinical trials are well-documented, with results showing that kids who played the games were more likely to effectively manage their conditions of asthma and diabetes.
Steve himself was no game developer however, and so would rely on contracted developers in order to bring his game concepts to life. In the case of Captain Novolin (as well as Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon), this would lead to a collaboration with Sculptured Software: A developer largely known for their work in conversions and ports of other studios’ work, though they certainly had a number of original titles under their belt as well. Perhaps most infamously, they would be responsible for the botched conversion of Mortal Kombat to the SNES. More to their credit though, they did also manage the “impossible” feat of getting DOOM to run on that same piece of Nintendo hardware.
For all their contributions to the SNES though, I get the impression that Sculptured were probably originally slated to develop Captain Novolin for home computers — possibly even for Amiga computers, specifically. One of the most telling clues is a programming credit given to one “Cosmo Conder”: A semi-pseudonym I would attribute to veteran programmer Craig Conder, whose portfolio up to that point consisted largely of conversion work to Amiga platforms. There’s also the matter of some early footage for the unreleased AIDS Avenger game that is seen operating via a mouse cursor, and a prototype for Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus which prompts players to “Press Esc to resume” and generally looks as if it was being run on some sort of PC hardware.
If I had to guess, home computers were dropped as the platform of choice in an attempt to make their software more broadly accessible, and to better facilitate programs where doctors and hospitals could loan the games to young patients. Simply put, families in the United States were more likely to own a Super Nintendo than something like an Amiga computer, with something like 23.35 million SNES consoles ultimately being sold [in North America] versus an estimated 700 thousand Amigas. And on top of all that, I have a theory that Nintendo probably pushed hard for Raya to bring their line-up to the SNES, if only so they could bolster their number of edutainment titles on the console. In any event, the SNES would eventually serve as the exclusive platform for Captain Novolin, as well as the remainder of Raya Systems’ releases.
What remained to be done was to find financial backers and distributors for each of their titles in development. As part of their business plan, Raya weren’t content to simply put their games on store shelves: They wanted to work with hospitals and health initiative programs, in order to make sure all the relevant demographics of afflicted children could have a chance to experience these games for themselves. In the case of Captain Novolin, a deal was struck with Novo Nordisk — a pharmaceutical group specializing in diabetes care. Through Novo Nordisk, loaner programs were established for the game through hospitals in the United States, who could send diabetic children home with copies of the game [to be returned to the hospital at a later date]. These copies came complete with NovoCare-branded sleeves for the box copies of the game, as well as an additional pamphlet providing a pair of “codes” to adjust an in-game insulin regimen that players must adhere to. (1, 2, 3, 4)
The game’s impending release seemingly wasn’t advertised as much through the traditional channels of comic books and games magazines, as it rather was primarily via medical journals and health magazines. Though there’s at least some evidence of poster-size ad flyers making the rounds, even these point to the fact that ads were being made to run “in major diabetes magazines as well as others,” and claiming the “potential to reach at least 14 million people estimated to have diabetes in the US.” While I seriously doubt the potential reach of the game to it’s target market, the ads running in diabetes magazines can be confirmed: A December 1992 issue of Diabetes Health magazine promoted the game as starring “the first superhero to have diabetes,” as well as further claiming that “test markets have shown Captain Novolin to be a hit with children who have diabetes, and their friends and family enjoy it also.” What remained to be seen was if general consumers would take quite as interestedly to the release.
“This Sounds like a Job for Yours Truly, CAPTAIN NOVOLIN!”
Deep within his underground bunker, the superhero Captain Novolin diligently trains himself for any number of dangers that may face his home city Pineville. One fateful day, while practicing his power walk, he catches an urgent news bulletin: Aliens have landed on the scenic Mt. Wayupthar, and abducted Mayor Gooden as part of their plot for world domination! Further raising the stakes is the fact that the good mayor is diabetic, and only has enough supplies on him to last 48 hours, thereby adding a “ticking clock” element to this already tense scenario.
With the force of the US military apparently unable to do anything about this direct threat to our country, it falls on Captain Novolin to infiltrate the alien’s spacecraft, take out their leader, and rescue the mayor before diabetic shock might possibly set in. Either predicting this particular threat to their plans, or perhaps simply being their typical modus operandi, the aliens adopt disguises as sugary foodstuffs and take to the ground to intercept Captain Novolin. How simply disguising yourself as junk food is meant to have an additionally damaging effect on our hero remains unexplained — I mean, it’s not like they’re forcing our hero to ingest massive doses of sugar on contact, are they?
One could probably nitpick this premise and ask a hundred questions about the logistics of the aliens’ plans, but I’m not trying to be quite that petty. As a simple framework aimed at conveying the dangers of sweets and junk foods to kids, it’s all effective enough. So instead of mocking the plot itself, I’ll instead be harping on how utterly ineffective a superhero Captain Novolin is portrayed to be, since I get the impression that even the youngest of players are clever enough to recognize when a superhero isn’t a particularly powerful or practical force for good. And to be clear here: I’m not saying that the idea of “a superhero with diabetes” is some inherently stupid or bad idea. What I’m saying is, the extent to which diabetes defines Captain Novolin and literally every action he takes is a bad idea.
First off, let’s take a look at Captain Novolin’s super powers. Whoops, as it turns out, he has none! He can’t shoot lasers from his eyes, shrink to a microscopic size, sling webs from his wrists, or anything else of that sort. He certainly can’t fly or run at super speed, since if he could, he wouldn’t have to hoof it on foot for two whole days just to get from the city to Mt. Wayupthar. You can’t even make the Batman argument for him being some rich dude relying on gadgetry, since he has no weapons or tools at his disposal either — hell, the guy can’t even afford a car, from the looks of things! Just about the only thing Captain Novolin has going for him is a strong vertical leap, and enough body mass to effectively stomp enemies to death. Color me unimpressed.
This is honestly a major problem for me with the premise of the game. If you’re going to make “a superhero for children with diabetes,” make him someone that kids can actually attach themselves to; a character they’re gonna wanna buy action figures of, or who they can bring up during playground debates on who the strongest hero of all time is. I can’t imagine Captain Novolin being any kid’s favorite superhero, even if he somehow materialized in the real world and rescued them from a burning building. With this in mind, what’s there to make a kid want to listen to a single bit of advice Captain Novolin has to say? Granted, it’s not as if Captain Novolin even has any wisdom to personally dispense in the game, but that’s another matter entirely.
So, how exactly does Captain Novolin’s single “superpower” factor into the game anyhow? Well, as a side-scrolling action title, it’s the Captain’s task to crush the alien menace beneath his feet, like Mario stomping so many a Goomba. Jumping into the air and landing on an enemy quickly disposes of them… so long as you remember to also hold down as you’re descending. If you don’t, it’s just as good as letting the baddies punch you in the gut; as Captain Novolin’s reaction to injury is to clutch his stomach while falling to his knees. Four hits, and our hero collapses on the ground; forfeiting one of your lives and having you start again from the beginning of the current level.
Along the way, you may also notice smaller, healthier walking foodstuffs, which I guess are an entirely separate entity from the evil aliens? In any case, these are foods that you’re meant to actually collect (and presumably digest), as doing so helps keep your blood sugar levels in check. That said, it’s also possible to collect too many of these healthy foods, and actually throw off your levels in the process. So, at a certain point, you’ll find yourself in the ridiculous position of having to avoid apples in your path because you’ve already eaten one, while also trying to jump over and out-maneuver vicious boxes of sugary cereal or what have you. Mechanically, it can actually be a bit frustrating at times, as dodging an enemy might lead you to accidentally picking up too many of the good foods.
There’s also the additional element of some floating stars and question marks, which provide pertinent diabetes trivia and quizzes on said trivia respectively. You’ll typically see an informative star near the beginning of a level, get educated on an aspect of diabetes care, and be tasked with remembering that bit of information until you reach the question mark at the end. The quizzes are presented as simple multiple-choice affairs – usually with at least one “joke” answer for flavor – and reward you with points if you manage to get them correct. Seeing as you’re rewarded with an extra life every 100,000 points, answering the trivia questions correctly is one of the fastest ways to get 1-ups. That said, you can also bypass them entirely, which I feel maybe detracts some from the purported educational value of the game here?
Those are all the basic mechanics of the game in a nutshell, but I don’t reckon just listing them off like that really tells the whole story here. If the game was as simple as just a standard side-scroller with some diabetes trivia tossed in, it’d honestly be a forgettable affair. No, what really sells Captain Novolin as a true oddity is how bizarrely every aspect of the game is programmed, presented, and intended to be processed by young players. Sculptured Software may well have been competent hands committing the game to code, but all the elements of the design read like the work of Steve Brown and a table of executives, all of whom were only vaguely familiar with how video games work.
The first thing you actually do in the game [after pressing start and selecting your language] is punch in a three-digit code as “provided by your doctor.” If your parent happened to buy the game off a store shelf for you, rather than receiving the game from a hospital or your physician, this bit must’ve seemed super confusing. Incredibly, not even the manual indicates what codes might correspond to you! As such, most players will likely take the screen’s advice: “If you don’t know your code, use 000” — the default input. For those curious, the two other recognized codes by the game are “356” and “762.” And what exactly do they do? Why, they allow you to manually make adjustments to your insulin doses, with the higher number also requiring you to administer an additional two injections per in-game day (for a total of four).
Yes, before / between every level, you’ll be required to check your blood glucose level, by measuring a blood sample result against a colored chart. Based on your sugar levels, you’re intended to determine how much non-alien food you should intake over the course of a level, and how much insulin to inject yourself when prompted. On the default “000” game setting that most players are probably familiar with, these glucose and insulin screens likely just amount to a small bit of busywork: Matching a color against a chart precisely, and watching the game automatically dictate how much insulin you need to draw from a bottle.** With the manual dosages enabled, you’re expected to balance the food pick-ups against how much insulin you decide to inject; which, all of this sounds great in theory, I guess? But unfortunately, the game doesn’t actually tell you how much sugar any of the given food items are made up of, so there’s a certain level of guesswork involved as far as how much food is “too much” or “too little.”
This presents itself in the most infuriating way if you should happen to overeat or not consume quite enough food before the end of a level; where upon reaching the proverbial finish line, you’ll keel over without warning as if you took too many hits. It’s at this point that the game will inform you what mistake you made in terms of food consumption, before kicking you back to the beginning of the given stage with whatever blood glucose level you may have come in with — even if you came into the stage completely in the red end of the chart, where the balancing act is at its most precarious. Generally speaking, your safest bet is always to collect just one of every given good food item that pops up over the course of a level in order to try and stay in the green. But of course, this is easier said than done, and discovering at the literal last second of a level that you messed up is a most unpleasant surprise.
Part of the problem is that character sprites in the game are absolutely massive for a side-scroller, while the good foods are relatively tiny; not giving you as much screen real estate to work with as you might need for tight maneuvering, while also making the vital foods easy to overlook. Matters are not helped by Captain Novolin only being a step’s distance behind the vertical center of the screen as you scroll forward, often giving you what feels like inadequate space to deal with screens where a collectible food and snack-based baddie are on-screen at the same time. Oh, and you also can’t scroll the screen to the left at all, so if you walk or jump two or so steps past an item you might’ve wanted to collect, it’ll usually land off-screen and be gone for good.
But the most frustrating consequence of the cramped screen space is probably the inadequate warning you get for incoming enemies. With a variety of baddies who can either deliberately time their jumps to throw you off, begin to rush towards you when you get too close, toss projectiles with the most narrow of gaps between them, or who generally just have aggravating patterns; the lack of space between Captain Novolin and the right edge of the screen is woefully too small to deal with any of these adversaries. When it comes down to it, you have to inch forward through the game, running back to the left-hand side of the screen the second you can see a single pixel of an enemy approaching from the right. It’s a slow, tedious way to play, but it sometimes feels like the only way to make sure you’re not just giving away your precious few hit points.
This frustration really comes to a head in the game’s two boating levels, where the toughest enemies seem to come out to play — often in very closely-knit pairs. It is an absolutely cruelty for the developers to position enemies so close to one another in these stages, as managing against single foes already feels like life-or-death dueling on a near-constant basis. Stack two aggressive enemies next to each other with barely any space between them, and it’s practically a guarantee that one of the two will collide with you. You see, the boat stages control just the same as the standard side-scrolling walking and jumping, except with the added element of slightly less friction on the water’s surface (sort of like in an ice level in a game). This all adds up to bring you the two toughest stages in the game, by my estimation. I continue to routinely struggle with them on replays, and I like to think I’m a bit more platformer-savvy than the ten-year-olds this game was really intended for.
Oh, but I should’ve mentioned by this point: Captain Novolin is not alone in his journey! For one, Captain Novolin recalls sage advice from a pair of doctors to aid him on his quest — presented as digitized likenesses of real physicians, in stark contrast to the rest of the game’s cartoon cast. The lady with the blonde hair and shark-like black eyes is likely based on the “Consulting Dietitian” Joanne Hattner credited in the manual, while the man who can’t stop talking about food is probably “Consulting Diabetes Educator” Lois Rountree.*** Their cameos are certainly well-earned and all, but the fact they appear only in thought bubbles and stand out in super-stark contrast from literally every other graphic in the game make them an oddly surreal sort of element… somehow even more surreal than the anthropomorphic pistachio ice cream men tossing globs of their ice cream scoop heads at you.
You’ll also catch up with a lifeguard and pair of park rangers along your way to the top of the mountain, who also provide vital support to the Captain. The lifeguard, for one, gives you a pair of socks and shoes to wear, despite Captain Novolin clearly already wearing a pair of boots as part of his superhero get-up? This initially seems like an absolutely bizarre little scene when it’s presented without any sort of explanation, and only makes sense if you happen to stumble upon one of the game’s randomly-selected trivia answers: A somewhat infamous tidbit informing you to “Check you feet [sic] for dry skin, rubbing and any red or white places that are not always there.” Again, this is a scenario where the information is certainly pertinent, but the game chooses to provide it in such an odd way.
The rangers, on the other hand, seem to offer backup for Captain Novolin. By which I mean, Captain Novolin makes it his duty to immediately inform them of his diabetes upon meeting them, and practically relying on them to resuscitate him if he should somehow slip up and forget to maintain his blood sugar. Hell, he even has a medic alert card on-hand to give to one of them, with “I HAVE DIABETES” in big capital letters printed at the top! You see, this is what I mean by diabetes completely defining Captain Novolin: The dude seems completely unable to manage his condition on his own, and has to rely entirely on ordinary citizens and doctors to constantly keep him alive and in check. You would assume that a superhero who literally takes his name from a line of insulin product would have half a clue as to how to effectively take care of himself, and not have to put bystanders in harm’s way to give him assists!
Against all odds, Captain Novolin may manage to hike to the top of the mountain, where the alien mothership awaits. After battling your way past a final hit squad of killer snack foods, you are confronted by the big bad himself: “Blubberman.” Eyup, the final boss is an obese man in a hoverchair who launches cherry pies and electrical currents at you, standing his ground between you and the mayor. And naturally, the only way to dispatch of him is to send those electrical currents back at him, and continuously electrocute him until he is burnt to ashes. The escalation here seems just a tad bit severe, don’t you think?
From there, it’s just a matter of approaching the imprisoned mayor, answering a final trivia question based on his current condition (depending on whether he’s currently conscious or not, which is apparently randomized), and proceeding to the ending screen. In addition to claiming that your actions have “saved the world,” Mayor Gooden presents you with a key to city and a firm handshake, as the alien spacecraft can be seen behind you flying off into the sunset. The framing of the shot itself is also weirdly off-center, in order to create space for a large speech bubble. All these elements add up to an altogether underwhelming ending that just, feels “off” in some weird sort of way? But that’s practically a running theme here, as we’ve established.
Something I may have failed to properly establish though is how the game’s soundtrack figures into all this. Captain Novolin represents an earlier video game composing effort by one H. Kingsley Thurber — who would later go on to write semi-surrealist soundtracks for the likes of Virtual Bart and Dirt Trax FX on the SNES. In sampling his entire body of work, a few trademarks stand out to me: Frequently strange instrument choices, an abundance of prolonged off-key segments, and a near-constant sense of looming danger? This begins to make a bit more sense once you discover that before his work in video games, his professional portfolio seemed to mostly consist of soundtracks for cheapo late 70s / early 80s horror movies. Of particular note is his title track for the 1981 slasher flick Don’t Go in the Woods, which I guess he envisioned as warranting an oddly-plucky acoustic ditty with rambling Randy Newman-style vocalisms?
For Captain Novolin, Thurber pulls out all the stops: A shrill MIDI guitar wails through the game’s menu theme, serving a pretty fitting introduction for the cacophonies to come. A track meant to accompany the aforementioned boating levels is a consistently shrill affair, with another guitar-like instrument modulated to sound like a duck being strangled by a rubber chicken. A touring horn section who showed up the wrong gig do their best to fit in during a song meant to play during the mountain-climbing stages. Hell, even the trivia screen music manages to sound completely ominous; as a knock-off Jeopardy theme continues to escalate in key with every successive repetition, up until the point you have to imagine the SNES soundchip itself gives up for fear of shattering itself like a pane of glass.
Outside of testing the limits of what constitutes acceptable noises to come from a games console, Captain Novolin doesn’t bother trying to push much else techwise. Visually, the game runs the gamut from dreary to gaudy with barely any middle-ground: Character color palettes either fall on the side of being too dull or sickly vibrant, with an inconsistency as to who is drawn with black outline and what is rendered with more “natural” edges. And while the game is wise enough not to try toss multiple dozens of enemies at you at once – for as absolutely cluttered a mess as that would be – the game still experiences slowdowns the moment more than two characters inhabit the screen at the same time. On top of all that, Captain Novolin himself is, just, a wholly unpleasant character to look at? Aside from his generic costume, he largely seems to take his personal grooming and style cues from that hideous ghoul who used to host TV’s The Apprentice.
The game also doesn’t seem all too concerned with taking advantage of the array of inputs available on the Super Nintendo controller, as it is perfectly content to rely on just one button and the D-pad. Again, I have to wonder if this is something like a holdover from the game possibly beginning development on something like an Amiga, designed with basic single-button joystick controllers in mind? In any case, the simplicity at least makes for a game that is mechanically accessible, and relatively easy to master. Having to hold down to effectively stomp enemies might not be intuitive, but it’s a habit you pick up quickly enough. The failing here comes back to an earlier point about Captain Novolin simply not being a very impressive hero: More buttons could’ve meant for more easily-accessed superpowers at his disposal, and yet he is left almost completely lacking.
There’s also the matter of a complete lack of options in-game, other than the obtuse method for changing up the insulin regimen. Why couldn’t the game simply have a menu where you could more personally customize your routine, as well as maybe being able to adjust the game difficulty (possibly slowing down enemies or reducing their damage)? The answer probably lies somewhere in the disclaimers that constantly appear through the manual and the game itself; attempting to dissuade children from altering their own real-life insulin regimens as a result of what they see in the game. That would at least explain obfuscating the different dosing options behind the three digit codes, though that still doesn’t explain the lack of any other game settings or options. When it comes to this matter, there’s really only one explanation: Captain Novolin wasn’t considered worth the effort of rebalancing, or designed with any expectation or thought towards players “mastering” the game.
Captain Novolin runs eight short stages long, and can be beaten in under twenty minutes with minimal practice. Despite frustrations that may occur with some unpredictable enemies and unclear design, the game is incredibly forgiving when it comes to replenishing your extra lives, and each stage is short enough as to ensure that you shouldn’t get stuck on any one of them for all too long. And once a kid is finished with it just the once, is there really any motivation for them to run through it a second or third time? Not for most, probably. And again, I don’t reckon the developers really ever thought much about that fact. In a word, the game is “disposable” — a one-time consumable meant to be tossed away / traded back in as quickly as it is used.
Clearly, this was a deliberate design decision from the very beginning: To create a game that kids can complete in a single sitting, hopefully retain at least some of the knowledge gained along the way, and return to whomever lent it out to them to begin with. Of course, this becomes a slightly more shady proposition when you remember that the game also went to retail, and consider that some poor parent may have well paid the full $59.95 MSRP intending to make it a permanent part of their child’s games collection. It’s hard to imagine the few copies of this game that did apparently land on store shelves not being quickly returned, and just as quickly discounted and gotten rid off by retailers. But it didn’t have to be this way. With just a few additions and alterations, not only could Captain Novolin have been a better game, but a better teaching tool for diabetes as well.
Naturally, expanding on and extending the length of the adventure would be a good first step. After all, more game time also means more opportunities to teach about the subject matter at hand, even if it simply amounted to more trivia questions making appearances. I could also see a few more minigame-type scenarios being developed for this same purpose: Increasing the length and variety of the game, while also providing more space for lessons and information. That said, a more overtly educational selling point could’ve been the ability for a player to input their age or comprehension level; providing older or more informed players a more challenging questions related to diabetes, and perhaps doing a better job of covering “emergency” scenarios. As it stands, the game only really prepares players for the basics of adhering to an insulin regimen, and doesn’t delve too deep into what can occur if procedure isn’t followed.
Of course, to justify all those expansions, the base gameplay should also be expanded upon somewhat so as to keep kids engaged for longer, and more eager to stick with the game until the end. Something as simple as giving the Captain a projectile attack — some sort of superpowered breathing, or maybe a gun to shoot insulin syringes at the baddies? Honestly, anything to give Captain Novolin some sort of edge or leg up on his enemies, and to convey to kids that he’s not a complete joke of a character. Because when you’re making an appeal directly to kids afflicted by some sort of medical condition, teaching and lecturing them about it shouldn’t just be “good enough.” You should want to inspire them, and give them hope. You should give them heroes they can look up to, and games made specifically for them that are actually fun to play.
As it stands, the game we got falls way short of these aspirations. By all accounts, it’s effective enough at conveying the small parcel of information it seeks to convey, by surrounding it with a equally sparse supply of gameplay just competent enough to get kids through it. Forgive me an old cliché: It’s not angering. It’s just disappointing. For me, as someone who truly believes in the academic potential of edutainment titles, I can only hope that some kids out there genuinely learned a thing or two from Captain Novolin in spite of its flaws, though I certainly wish they had been presented with something better — more effective, entertaining, and educational.
** Thankfully, the game spares you having to see Captain Novolin actually stick the needle in himself — a visual I’m admittedly quite squeamish about. That said, I almost feel like there’s a missed educational opportunity here, where kids could probably learn some legitimately helpful tips on how to be safe with syringes?
*** The other credited doctor from the manual – “Medical Director” Darrell Wilson – is a bit easier to track down photos of and profiles on. And seeing as he seems to be of caucasian descent, not particularly resembling the black physician portrayed in the game, I’m gonna go with process of elimination here and say that Dr. Rountree (who I can’t find a documented photo of) is probably the man to be featured in-game.
“The Mayor Can’t Swallow Them Since He Is Unconscious.”
It’s foolish to try and quantify Captain Novolin’s success by the traditional metrics of critical reception and sales figures, since it’s doubtful Raya Systems were particularly concerned by either statistic. As a matter of fact, one of the few games-dedicated outlets to even cover the game – GamePro magazine – let spill a couple of very interesting tidbits in a September ‘92 preview for the game (which also demonstrates some prototype graphics on display in screenshots): Not only did the game seem to miss an initially slated October launch window, but the first 10,000 cartridges off the assembly line were given away “free of charge” to hospitals as part of the larger effort to give as many children as possible a chance to play the game.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the game was published just so that Raya could watch their money burn away: There was clearly a business model in place here, ultimately designed with making some amount of profit in mind. In the short term, the likes of Captain Novolin and other titles such as Rex Ronan and Bronkie The Bronchiasaurus seemed to fund themselves through their associations with pharmaceutical companies, allowing Raya to build up a portfolio of titles that they could submit as the subjects of studies and clinical trials. Through endeavors like this and the hospital loaner program, they were likely looking to build long-lasting relationships with medical institutions, so that they could secure distribution for some future projects already in early planning stages.
A Wired article published in June, 1993 opens with a laughably appalling line: “Video game superheroes usually shoot bad guys, but Captain Novolin, the first diabetic Super Nintendo character, appeared early this year to teach kids to ‘shoot’ themselves – with insulin.” But more importantly than how terrible a hook that is, there’s a very interesting line from Steve Brown toward the end, where he mentions “this current edition of the game doesn’t deal with patients’ actual data; it’s very generic. We’re developing a product that uploads real data from a blood glucose meter into the game, which will be available in 1995.”
Needless to say, a “revised” edition of Captain Novolin with support for this planned peripheral never materialized. What Raya did release in 1995 was the title Packy and Marlon, serving as a sort of second attempt at an edutainment title centered around diabetes. But again, this game failed to tie into any sort of glucose-detecting accessory, and serves as another standalone release. As a matter of fact, Raya Systems never released a device that could match this sort of description… but the Health Hero Network eventually did.
Enter the “Health Buddy”: A device described by its creators as “serving as the interface between patients at home and care providers, facilitating patient education and monitoring of chronic conditions.” To this end, it served as a internet-connected device, which could provide health and treatment recommendations, based on input from doctors and other medical experts. For accessories, the device came paired with a blood pressure monitor, peak flow meter, weight scale, and – wait for it – a blood glucose monitor. The Health Buddy was evidently Raya Systems’ true endgame, and the culmination of their efforts in edutainment games software. And though this product would ultimately lack the advertised ability to connect to their Super Nintendo cartridges, the final product would morph into something that stood entirely on its own.
As it turned out, the Health Buddy would prove to be a long-running and respected product line, receiving continuous updates and iterations over the course of the following years. In 2007, the brand would be acquired by the Bosch Healthcare company, who would continue to support and evolve the product — even attempting to re-imagine it as a smartphone app at a certain point. Development of the platform would continue until June of 2015, with the Bosch company ultimately shuttering its operations and ending support for the Health Buddy with it. Of course, by that point, the likes of Steve Brown and company had likely already long since moved on, seeking and starting new opportunities and business ventures. So, don’t feel too bad for them for not “making it big” as games publishers, I reckon.
Needless to say, we have ventured well outside of the scope of Captain Novolin and its directly-attached legacy. So, in an effort to rein things back in, let me pose the question: When exactly did the game begin to develop its reputation as a “historically bad” game? Luckily, we can actually trace a pretty definitive path here from the depths of obscurity back into public consciousness. As with so many games – twenty of them, to be exact – it featured on Seanbaby’s infamous list of “The 20 Worst Video Games of All Time,” as originally written for Electronic Gaming Monthly’s 150th issue (published January 2002). The following year, it would be the subject of a “ROM Pit” article / review on Something Awful, before eventually resurfacing once again in 2007 thanks to the site’s “Let’s Play” subforum — the subject of a commentated playthrough headed by none other than the historically-recognized founding fathers of the format itself: Diabetus and Slowbeef (plus guest commentator Scarboy).
From that point forward, the game’s spot in the conversation of “bad / ridiculous game concepts” was well-secured. CBSNews.com would dedicate a whole fluff article to the subject of the game, complete with pointless quotes from random YouTube commenters. Particularly insightful is a quote from one “Swervedriver007,” who recounts that “One of my friends is diabetic and was actually forced to play this game when he was a kid, repeatedly!!! he still has nightmares about it.” Truly a harrowing tale of childhood trauma, and definitely not a load of second-hand hyperbole. Also, I guess the Game Grumps released an episode where they played through the game at some point as well, further cementing its legacy. You know, I totally planned on actually watching said episode before writing this article, but I remembered that I had to… uhh, wash my hair?
And so, that’s how a game and publisher who should probably be most notable for pioneering studies in the educational value of video games ended up just becoming online laughing stocks. It was probably inevitable that a game with as “goofy” a premise as Captain Novolin would eventually become the subject of mockery, but what’s more surprising is how completely and thoroughly it’s historical context has been buried. In writing what I reckon is already a somewhat lengthy article, I still feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface on Raya Systems — that there’s so much more that remains to be discovered about their brief history in video games. Captain Novolin is obviously just the tip of the iceberg here, and it leaves me wondering just how deep the frozen mass extends into the ocean depths?
As far as whether or not the game is still effective in its intended purpose as an edutainment title: I guess it kind of is, isn’t it? Sure, the “entertainment” part of the equation is mostly derived from a sense of mockery and irony rather than the merits of the game itself, but the educational aspects are still present and relatively uncorrupted. Granted, the information contained within is of the most basic variety, but you’ve gotta reckon that’s what it was aiming for in the first place. It’s easy enough for us as discerning adults to pick the whole game apart piece by piece, but sometimes we can forget the intended audience and historical context in the process.
So, there’s actually one more quote from that Wired article that I wanna hone in on. In fact, I reckon it might be the most pertinent and important quote I’ve got for you in whole dang article:
“[Captain Novolin] helps me understand which foods to eat and what to avoid; otherwise my blood sugar goes up, and I can get sick. I can go more quickly with the game, while doctors just talk and talk and talk. […] It’s an easier way to bring the subject up with a friend who doesn’t have diabetes. You can say, ‘Hey, do you want to play a game where you can learn about my condition?'” ~ Sarah Michael
That’s a response to the game from a girl then-aged twelve, who most likely played the game as part of one of the clinical trials or the hospital loaner program. At a certain point, not much else of what I or anyone else has to say about Captain Novolin really matters, when you consider the fact that the game was apparently of some legitimate use to at least a few kids out there. Could it have possibly proven more useful to more children if it was developed and improved upon further? Undoubtedly. But as a game that seemed to largely be distributed under a “free-to-borrow” model for the benefit of children, it’s honestly really cool to see that it served a positive purpose. Howsabout we bring the article to a close on that happy note?