You’ve heard of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, now get ready for Ursa Barney. He’s boldly going where no large hibernating land mammal has gone before in Free Spirit Software’s 1990 Amiga space-learnin’-em-up Barney Bear Goes to Space!
Here is Barney, about to be run over by a space shuttle. Did NASA spend millions of taxpayers dollars developing a special bear-shaped space suit? Not according to the game itself, as we shall see, but he’s wearing one on the loading screen. Barney Bear has definitely gone to space, so at least the game’s title is accurate – but what’s it about, and is it even a game?
Well, the title screen calls BBGtS a “program,” which seems like an accurate assessment. It’s got a couple of game-like elements, but this is an educational title full of facts about space. Hopefully I’ll learning something. Something other than “all cartoon bears must have names that start with B,” because I already knew that. Anyway, you’ve got two options on the title screen: you can click the space shuttle to go straight to the activities, or you can click on the book to hear the game’s story before moving on. Obviously I’m going to hit the book icon. I need to know how Barney Bear went to space and what idiot sanctioned such a dangerous space mission.
The Kennedy Space Center. Mission control. NASA’s scientists and engineers prepare for another shuttle launch, a dangerous and complicated procedure that requires utmost concentration and the ability to withstand extreme mental pressure. Also there’s a bear with a massive head hanging around. I guess Barney Bear is a teddy bear rather than an actual wild bear, which is a shame. I’d love to have seen the artist attempt to capture the look of confusion you’d find on the face of a grizzle bear in zero gravity. So, Barney Bear is on a school trip (I think) and they’ve let the kids / living cuddly toys into the control facility on launch day. There’s definitely nothing that could go wrong here.
This is Bob. I know it’s Bob, because a synthesised computer voice just said “this is Bob.” The whole game is narrated by this synthesised voice, which is kind of impressive. There’s a lot of speech in this one, both explaining the space facts and telling the tale of a cartoon bear who (spoilers) accidentally ends up in space. If you’ve ever wondered what it’d be like if Stephen Hawking did the CBeebies Bedtime Story, play this game to find out.
As for Bob, he’s completely unperturbed by the group of living cuddly toys that he’s having to explain the space shuttle launch to. Bob was a fighter pilot in the war, he’s seen some shit. Talking soft toys aren’t going to faze him.
He couldn’t sleep last night because he was so excited about seeing the space shuttle, but tiredness has finally caught up with Barney Bear and he nods off on a conveyor belt. You might think it’s difficult to fall asleep on a moving conveyor belt, but don’t forget Barney is a bear. They’re real good at sleeping. I know I described them as “hibernating” earlier, but before I get comments from angry zoologists yes, I know bears don’t technically hibernate but rather enter a state known as “winter lethargy,” to which I say “don’t we all?” The game provides the space facts, I provide the bear facts, every day is a school day here at VGJunk.
There goes the space shuttle, soaring majestically towards the extremes of human endeavour, a symbol of mankind’s unquenchable need to understand the universe and a reminder of the greatness we can accomplish by working together as a species. It’s getting good altitude despite having left all its booster rockets and fuel on the landing pad, I must say.
As the shuttle soars toward the space station Freedom, the bears on the ground begin to wonder where Barney has disappeared to. Well, I’m sure you can guess where that conveyor belt was heading.
And there you have it: Barney Bear goes to space. By accident. The shuttle’s pilot looks at his new and unexpected crewmate with the glassy eyes and faint smile of someone who’s just gulped down the ship’s whole supply of Xanax. Barney, on the other hand, seems to be realising the gravity -pun one hundred percent intended – of his situation.
“Barney, what are you doing up there?” says the narrator. “You’ve got school in the morning!” I think that’s the least of Barney’s problems, pal. And if he somehow survives his trip to space without any astronaut training and no opposable thumbs, don’t you think going to space is going to be a more valuable educational experience than a couple of days of junior school?
At last, we’ve made it to the space station. The narrator tells us that there are lots of buttons and that maybe Barney should figure out what they all do by randomly pressing them. Now, I am well aware that this is an edutainment title about a cartoon bear designed for young children, but that didn’t stop me uttering an audible “oh god no!” when the omniscient voice suggested pissing about with the space station's controls.
This is where the actual “game” - the term being used as loosely as possible, of course – begins. Most of the buttons on the space station just make weird noises when you press them, one of them (unlabelled, I might add) buttons quits the game and the computer in the centre is where you can flip through the various activities and try them out.
First up is the solar system (not to scale). You can click on the planets to learn a little about them, like an interactive encyclopedia where the interactivity is set to “as low as possible.”
Being the immature simpleton that I am, I was curious about how the computer voice would pronounce it so I headed straight for Uranus. Then I chuckled about the sentence “I headed straight for Uranus.” As it turns out, the game pronounces it “you-rainus,” which is not quite as childishly entertaining as it could have been. I did learn that Uranus has five moons, though.
I couldn’t tell you how accurate all the facts are overall, mind. It does list Pluto as a planet, which it was back in 1990 and when I’m an old man people saying “the eight planets of the Solar System” will definitely be the thing that makes me say “back in my day...” Then it tells you that Mercury is the smallest planet, which is isn’t if you’re including Pluto. So, if any astronomers want to play this and let me know how accurate it is, then a) thank you and b) I’m sorry for wasting your time.
That’s it for this activity, really. You click on a planet, and get a close-up image and a few facts. With Mars, for instance, it tells you that its moons are named Phobos and Deimos, so I’ll be back to finish this article in a couple of hours once I’ve played some Doom.
Right, I’m back. What else? If you click on the Moon it tells you that the Moon is made of dirt, which makes it sound a bit like the narrator has a grudge against the Moon. Maybe he’s a robot werewolf.
As for the Earth, the voice asks “Barney Bear is from planet Earth. What planet are you from?” which, again, strikes me as a bit rude. I’m from a planet where people play ancient Amiga edutainment games and detect non-existent undercurrents of hostility in synthesised voices. It’s a cold, barren place that I call Planet Get A Life.
The closest that BBGtS gets to being a game is this section. It’s a recreation of the Simon memory game. The coloured panels flash in order, and you must remember the order and recreate it by clicking on the panels in turn. Well, there’s got to be something on this space station to keep the astronauts entertained. I really hope the grandeur of outer space is enough to keep them occupied, though, because this is incredibly dull.
Next up is another brief story segment, this time explaining the basics of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It’s okay, I guess, one small step and all that, but it’s unlikely to keep you coming back time and again. Well, unless you’re a dumbass moon landing denier and you want to shout at something without the worry of being presented with evidence or verifiable facts.
It’s fine for what it is. The artwork’s not bad. It could be a lot better, obviously – the Amiga was definitely capable of some incredible pixel work – but it’s acceptable in a cutesy, chunky, Fisher-Price kind of way. Being the nerd I was as a child, I would have enjoyed hearing the space facts and seeing the planets while making sure to never play the Simon game.
The more artistically-inclined amongst you can also fiddle around with Barney Bear’s Space Colouring Book. It gives you some basic graphics editing tools and a selection of black-and-white pictures for you to scrawl all over, including this image which rather undersells the complexity of rocket science. There’s a reason people don’t say “it’s not letting go of a balloon” when describing an easy task.
Unfortunately, the colouring book is pretty bad. If you stick to colouring it’s okay, even if a lot of the pictures included hard-to-click single-pixel areas, but all the other tools are a pain in the arse. You can draw simple shapes, but as far as I can tell you can only outline them in black and they seem to sit under the other layer, which makes colouring them in a pain. It’s slow, cumbersome and somehow not nearly as good as Mario Paint.
That said, if you’re wiling to put in the effort you can create some real masterpieces. In this instance, I’ve managed to scribble the USS Enterprise into the corner of this image to recreate a pivotal scene from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Disclaimer: I haven’t seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture in over twenty years so I may not be accurately remembering all the precise details.
Here’s one I call “Man Made From Sausage Meat Walks Across a Giant Cow While People Throw Golf Balls at Him in a Snowstorm.” I demand my Arts Council grant.
Finally, there’s… more space trivia. For instance, did you know that all astronauts are raging alcoholics and must submit to regular breathalyser tests before they’re allowed to take control of the space shuttle? It’s true!
No, it’s not true. This is actually showing you that astronauts drink out of tube because how are you gonna pour a glass of water in zero gravity, smart guy?
Mostly they’re thing like this. Did you know it takes eight minutes for sunlight to reach the Earth? Why yes, I did, but that’s because I’ve listened to a lot of Frank Black so I’m well informed that it takes photon power and eight minutes of an hour.
As Barney floats around in the weightlessness of space, presumably before he vomits everywhere due to having received no training to prepare him for the rigours of space travel, we’ve reached the end of what Barney Bear Goes to Space has to offer. There’s just not that much to it, folks. I’m sure there are even better colouring books on the Amiga.
Barney Bear returns to Earth safe and sound, where he is decorated with the Congressional Space Medal of Honour and a two-week detention for skipping school. He definitely isn’t carrying a deadly alien parasite inside his ever-more bulbous head, no siree. And that’s your lot! BBGtS is over, and it occurs to me that I keep wanting to use the word “okay” in this article because that’s what it is. It’s an okay space-facts entertainment thing, its main problem being that once you’ve learned all the space facts there’s no reason to ever touch it again. So long, Barney Bear – perhaps we’ll meet again some day in one of you other edutainment titles. Oh, that’s right, there are multiple Barney Bear releases. Will any of them ever top the excitement of being accidentally blasted into space? Given that two of them are Barney Bear Goes to School and Barney Bear Goes Camping, no, they will not.
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