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Switching Over to the Antique Plates: Putt-Putt Turns 25

Earlier this month, on September 9, Putt-Putt the car and his game series turned 25. Although the friendly little purple car doesn’t actually wear a license plate, he would be able to apply for antique or vintage plates in most of the US.

While the Putt-Putt game series only ran from 1992-2003, the games are still pretty popular, thanks to their availability on Steam, iOS, and the Google Play Store. It’s just as easy—probably even easier than it was when the games first came out—for adults to find the highly-awarded series of games for their kids in the target age group for the games, three to eight-year-olds.

It’s also just as easy for adults who remember the games affectionately to enjoy their old favourites, and enjoy them they do. Putt-Putt has a fond fanbase well into its adulthood. I remembered the games fondly myself, and decided that for the car’s 25th birthday, I would take another look at the games I loved and see how Putt-Putt levelled up to my—and my age group’s—nostalgia.

I decided to purchase the three Putt-Putt games I owned growing up: Putt-Putt Joins the Parade, Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon, and Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo. In these games, Putt-Putt has to find a pet and balloon for the Car Town parade, Putt-Putt and his dog Pep accidentally blast off to the moon and must get back to Earth, and Putt-Putt and Pep have to get five zoo animals back into their proper habitats, respectively.

All of the games are point-and-click games with a 2D, cartoony art style, so they have aged pretty well in terms of looks. The resolution on Parade and Moon wasn’t that great on my computer; everything still looked pretty pixelated even when I tinkered with the resolution on my laptop as much as possible. Screenshots from the mobile versions of the games seem like they’ve been cleaned up a little for smaller screens. Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo adapted perfectly; it was a little pixelated without being distracting. I found it looked pretty good on a variety of screens, from my 11-inch laptop screen to a three-foot widescreen TV.

Originally the games were marketed as educational games, which surprised me—I didn’t really recall learning anything from Putt-Putt. As it turns out, the games focus on things like matching, very basic addition, problem-solving, colours, and sequencing—the kind of learning that doesn’t always happen overtly. A lot of it is recognisable to me now as educational ploys, but as a kid it was just more fun to be had.

For example, in Parade and Zoo, you can repaint Putt-Putt.  He says the name of the new colour before or after he gets repainted. It’s a way to reinforce colour knowledge, but a kid just has fun seeing Putt-Putt in different colours.

The games are also pretty accommodating to their age range. Three to eight is a huge group; that’s preschool to fourth grade! The kids playing could be anywhere from learning how to speak coherently to learning multiplication. Clicking on signs will make Putt-Putt read them, which is nice for the younger players, but the lettering on the signs is also clear, so an older child can just read them on their own. Many characters, including Putt-Putt himself, will share ideas for how to solve problems in the right situations, but an older child doesn’t have to go through the interactions they may not need.

Putt-Putt’s inventory is lain out on the bottom of the screen, so there are no commands to remember, other than S and L for saving and loading files. Plus, since the games are point-and-click, almost everything on screen can be interacted with. When you’re playing the regular desktop version, the mouse turns white when it passes over things that can be interacted with. With the app versions, you can just touch the screen. There’s a lot that can be discovered, even if a player is stuck, as long as they keep on clicking/touching the screen.

The game lengths also struck me as perfect for a kid attention span. Each game took me under an hour to complete, although I also had the advantage of remembering vaguely what I was supposed to do, and being in my mid-twenties.  Parade and Moon are fairly simple, straightforward stories and the tasks needed to get items to complete the games can be completed in almost any order. Zoo is a little more complicated because the player needs to save five animals and also needs to find certain items in certain locations all over the game map to do it.

There were a few downsides. The controls on the minigames were a little clunky and buggy at times. There was an airplane flying minigame in Moon which would work normally at the start of the first level, then the controls would randomly invert and then go back to regular controls during later levels.  The hockey game in Zoo would lag as the puck moved between player and opponent. These were the only times any of the games had problems running properly, however, and they may run perfectly fine in the app versions of the games. I found even the fully functioning minigames a little boring; they simply weren’t challenging. Again, though, I’m not a younger kid working on my matching skills or reaction times.  Either way, most of the minigames can be skipped without any effect on completing the larger game as a whole.

There was also one bit of humor for adults only that I didn’t care for. In Zoo Putt-Putt can go over rapids. The player can click on different paths to send Putt-Putt down waterfalls, whirlpools, and up a water wheel. Following a certain path, Putt-Putt ends up in a quiet, swampy pond, with nothing to interact with. And then the banjo music starts. The upside is that a younger player would probably just be confused by the area, instead of recalling the “squeal like a piggy” scene in Deliverance. I hope.

At the end of my little road trip down memory lane, I found myself satisfied, and relieved that the games that I played over and over as a kid were still enjoyable, even as an adult. There was, of course, the fun of nostalgia, but the simple problem-solving with no major consequences made it all a fun and even relaxing gaming experience. It was easy to see that the three games I played still fill their intended purpose as educational but fun games as well, and it became less and less surprising that the series could still find such success even 25 years later. I’d recommend them for those of you with young kids in your life, and who knows? You might have as good a time playing it with them.

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