Granny's Garden
By 4Mation Educational Resources Ltd
BBC B/B+/Master 128

Granny's Garden

Granny's Garden was a spectacularly successful educational game for the BBC Model B. Between 1984 and 1990, and particularly in primary schools, you'd be forgiven for thinking no other educational software even existed. Yes, this title was ubiquitous. And, I suspect, pirated by schools more often than it was actually purchased by them.

I'm definitely late to the party reviewing it here. At time of writing there are over ten reviews of it on YouTube alone, with the vast majority being pretty hilarious. PC Radar's Crapshoot even covered it in great detail, and with such energy that I was laughing from one paragraph in. So it's a tough job to separate out my own critiques from those of all my distinguished peers. However, considering most BBC games are completely ignored by most mainstream YouTubers, the fact there are so many reviews of Granny's Garden tells its own story. This game really touched a lot of children back in the Eighties and they seem to have been collectively living with associated nightmares ever since.

So who is granny and what's so memorable about her garden? Well, weirdly enough, granny is completely absent from the game proper. In fact, after a jingle-jangle assault on your ear-drums (which is unskippable, aargh, teachers must have loved that!) and a 'guess the magic tree' intro (which is annoying and pointless) the game actually proclaims 'welcome to the Kingdom of the Mountains'. Which is about as far from a patch of grass in my own granny's yard as it's possible to get.

Granny's Garden

Flying into this majestic mountain range comes a blue raven. Well, not really flying so much as the BBC's ceefax mode flickering a few cyan pixels but nevertheless this raven is the first of the game's many chatacters that will 'help' you, a primary school child, through a quest to rescue six children who have been abducted by a wicked witch. Well, I say help. Actually a typical interaction with Granny's Garden is the following:

Raven: Do you want me to help you?
Child: No.
Raven: I'm sorry. The King and Queen say I must help you.

You get the idea. This is one of those games that gives the illusion that it could branch depending on your answer, but actually won't. And it's all rubbish anyway. Because the raven disappears directly afterwards without actually lifting a, um, feather to help you.

Granny's Garden

And so into the game proper. And it really is difficult to know where to start with this mish-mash of puzzles, blocky illustrations, fairytale characters and jump scares. The first thing to point out, I suppose, is that Granny's Garden has zero qualms about killing you off. In an educational game for very young children this is actually fairly unique. Even Saw's John Kramer would roll his eyes at the binary live or die choices Granny's Garden presents you with, let alone the appearance of the witch's head complete with speech bubble proclaiming "Now I've got you. I will send you home at once!" should you dare to choose wrong.

What makes the appearance of this empress of evil all the more aggravating (or hilarious, depending on your point of view) is that she pops up when you're least expecting her. I mean, you might expect her to pop up and attack a dawdling child, or one that answered No to the prompt Do you want to enter the cave? more than three times. But no, when you're misbehaving she keeps well away. But when you're actually doing something semi-exciting, say choosing which location to visit on a map or investigating the kitchen of a woodcutter's house, every move you make threatens a quick Game Over from the evil old hag. You watch children playing this game even now and it's incredible just how terrifying they find that collection of pixels!

The good thing, if there is one, is that the witch is at least consistent. She doesn't appear at random. So if you are unfortunate enough to meet her, you can replay the game, choose not to make the same mistake and survive a little longer. The bad thing is that there is literally no way to know in advance what will trigger her banishment proclivities. For example in one location, you'll be asked whether you wish to pick an apple. If you do then you can throw this apple at a snake a few screens later. If you don't then the witch will get you, simply because you didn't pick it. You then get to play the whole game again. There's no BOM (Back One Move) or saving your position. No, just that bloody know-it-all raven telling you you're a tosser and you'll have to start over (or words to that effect).

Granny's Garden

One thing it's also worth pointing out here is that Granny's Garden isn't a short game. It has four main sections and the random nature of deaths it inflicts upon you means you tend to try and turn your brain inside-out before making a decision about what to do next. When you do get walloped by witchface, there's a lot to replay, especially when you reach 'Part two'...!

Granny's Garden is totally illogical. To the extent that I personally believe it is remembered so vividly by most British 80's school pupils not for its being good, but more for its frustration level. The 'Dragon Puzzle' (in the second chapter of the first part) is really the only genuine logic puzzle in the whole thing and, if you're an adult, the only bit of the game worth playing. The idea is that there are four baby dragons, all of different colours and all with a particular favourite food. However some dragons are also fond of other foods. To capture a dragon, he must be alone. So if you present buns and both the red dragon and the green dragon come to eat them (the red one because buns are his favourite and the green one because he is fond of buns) that's no good. As logic puzzles go, it can be worked out quite easily by an adult, although children under 9 are likely to struggle.

And this really illustrates the problem with Granny's Garden as a whole. It goes from the stupid (don't look in the boiling pot) to the deductible (twelve attemps to fathom the dragon puzzle) in one big leap... before returning to much more child-friendly, if rather unstructured, graphical adventuring for its conclusion.

Granny's Garden

And yet, for all of its faults, for all of the times it mercilessly kills you off for no good reason, for all its disjointed nature, well, there's no denying that children do like it. I remember reading an article by Crack It! Towers' author Mike Kent in which he discussed how, when it comes to programming educational software, it's variety that really helps children stay engaged. And Granny's Garden has that by the bucketload. When the raven isn't telling you you're an arse, there's a talking toadstool, a sneezing blob, a funny little man called Redhorn and, in chapter one of part two, an army of five forest creatures that pop up to help you 'solve problems'. The fact that there's no garden in sight somehow gets overlooked because of all of these distractions. The variety holds the child's interest. Only to an adult is it all pointless disconnected tripe.

I can also see another reason why this game is so remembered by schoolchildren. Notwithstanding that witch, the game does reward those children that work out exactly what to do to win. Considering how many times a clever child would need to play it through just to be over 90% confident of reaching the "final challenge", completing it really was a tall order. But, in every class, there are always a few children that strive to win. Granny's Garden is one of those games where, if you want to win, you have to lose first. And I guess that's a valuable lesson in itself.

Playing Granny's Garden is actually more difficult than you might expect, simply because its publishers, 4mation, have objected to its distribution on the Internet. You can still find it on a few of the American ROM download sites, but you run the risk of infecting your PC with a virus if you try. It is still available officially from http://www.4mation.co.uk/cat/granny.html which likely makes it the longest running available release for the BBC ever.

Is it worth playing? Well, if you have a young child between 4-9 the answer is yes, probably. As an adult it's a very silly game, too inconsistent to be called fun and not offering very much at all. I suppose the biggest question is why, many decades later, there's no equivalent Internet adventure game that sparks children's imagination to speak of. Although my niece would probably say "What about Sort The Court?"

Dave E

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