June 04, 2015

In RETROspect: The Magic School Bus Space Exploration Game

I feel like, every now and then, gaming journalists, reviewers and the like have to talk about something different; completely outta left field. The Magic School Bus Space Exploration Game is certainly not something you'd expect - let alone request - someone to talk about, but I'm gonna! In spite of the fact that it's a children's educational game, this is one of the most fun and diverse games I can name, and totally boss for anyone even mildly amused by the cosmos. As an amateur astronomer and general space enthusiast, this game is one of the most special cartridges in my genesis collection. I played the shit out of this game when I first acquired it in 1995, and still enjoy it to this day. This game is often my excuse to expose nieces, nephews and assorted friend's kids to my true love: space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starshi- wait. Wait. Wrong show…
The Magic School Bus Space Exploration Game is the lone Genesis-adapted game based on the popular educational books and television show, The Magic School Bus. The game is exactly what you'd expect: you follow Ms. Frizzle's class as they make their way from planet to planet, solving problems and puzzles which in turn help the player learn more about each planet in our solar system.

You're gonna wish you stayed home today…
Upon popping the cartridge in, you're met with a simple game menu:
Continue> If you're just visiting the screen for a sec, this will take you back to the classroom
Options> Mostly sound options
Password> In lieu of a saved game, MSBSEG uses the tried and true password system. Since it's a long game, you'll acquire passwords to get back to your most recently visited planet
Bonus Games> get in some practice for the mini games that are thrown at you! The games are based on arcade classics:
Orbiter - This is a strange game. Apparently, you're supposed to successfully introduce all the planets into orbit around the sun, without allowing them to get swallowed up by it, or float away into oblivion… You pull the spring down (or up) with the D-pad, and press any button to release.
Reflector - This is that game where you have to destroy all the bubbles, balloons, bricks, or in this case space rocks, with only three balls (initially) to do it. Different colored rocks will often provide a boost to your score, perhaps a life, sometimes some of those random beach ball orbs show up to help you take down rocks, and eventually, all the planets come to help, too (so you're juggling 9 planets, x amount of orbs, and your original ball at once!) You only need to move left and right, but holding a button causes you to do so faster.
Astro Blaster - Probably doesn't need to be described, it's exactly what you think it is. You spin around in circles blowing up asteroids. The game is over when one hits you. You can teleport with A; move with B; shot with C.
and then of course…
New Game> which takes you to the classroom where your teachers await you with a chalkboard illustration of the solar system. You begin with Earth (or rather, the moon, in its place since we're starting from Earth…) and slowly unlock each of the other planets upon completion.

There are five types of levels in MSBSEG, but no bosses.

Flying to…
Of course the first step in visiting any planet is getting there, so the first level consists of flying the bus to your planet of choice. Your progress is tracked by a bar at the top of the screen; your score is in the bottom-left, and your speed and fuel gauge are on the bottom-right.
Along the way, you're proposed two challenges. Every now and then, your lizard T.A. - apparently called Liz - will pop up on the dash and point to an object of interest. During this time you're to take a single picture. You'll gain more points for a better photo. You'll cross the Luna 3 Space Probe, the Viking 2, a hamburger, a cheese wheel… y'know, normal space stuff. Afterward you can view your photos and a little info blurb ("unidentified space banana") in your photo album, by pressing start. Otherwise, A will slow you down, B will speed you up, and C is shoot. But you won't only be shooting pictures. The other half of this level consists of dodging and blowing up asteroids that will otherwise destroy the bus! You'll also be pelted by another projectile on your journey, these weird, striped, blue and white orbs. I have no idea what they're supposed to be, but they gather points for you, so go ahead and fly on through them. They do tend to hide asteroids though, so be careful!

Landing on…
Level two is basically a maze. You guide the bus with small, medium and large thrusts (A, B, and C, respectively) through the pathways searching for fuel to finish the journey. You'll also see the mystery orbs again for points, and they will sometimes appear a red/orange color, indicating an even bigger score! Your goal is to find the landing pad, gathering as many points as you can along the way, but you have to be careful about landing anywhere else. Most landings will destroy the bus, and some planets will emit environmental challenges making it even harder to traverse (don't touch the sides!). Pressing start will show you a map, and there's also a compass in the bottom-left corner to remind you where the landing pad is. Watch your fuel usage on the bottom-right, you can refuel by finding the fuel boxes (marked with an X) throughout the level. You'll occasionally be bombarded with comments on your driving, depending on how smoothly your trip goes. I have to assume better driving equals a higher score.

Walkin' on… (sunshine, woaahh!)
In this level, you get to walk on the surface of most planets (it's technically the clouds of Jupiter; the rings of Saturn). You'll take control of the pudgy, ginger kid who can (double) jump with A or B, or jet pack around by holding C. Pudgy needs both fuel and oxygen to survive the exploration, though, so you'll have to keep an eye on the meters in the bottom-right corner. Once again, you're tasked with seeking out the freaky orbs, but there are stars in this level, too. Collecting enough stars rewards you with a bonus level game. Start will show you the map. Beyond that, you'll have to dodge tornados and projectiles, navigate the obstacles and reach your teacher at the end of the level. Sometimes you'll get to fly a lander or drive a cart to make things more interesting. But mostly, you just have to find the delicate balance of walking and flying, so as not to exhaust all your fuel. Gravity isn't always your friend.
The space-man in the top-left is your life count.
With these three stages, you can make this game as involving as you want. Blast through, or take your time and go for the highest possible score, which will include mini games!

Shuffle for…
For this level, you're given a 12-tile puzzle, which then gets shuffled and you have to reform it by moving two pieces at a time. You can move Liz around with the D-pad, select your tile with C, and then choose where to put it by once again navigating Liz and pressing C again. Pressing A shows you the original photo. Liz will clap in accordance with your success, twice for 1 correct tile, and 4 times for both. You must complete the puzzle before the timer runs out on the left side of the screen.

Matching Pairs for…
The last level is a classic game of "memory" with 8 cards. You navigate Liz and press C to flip over each card, and then choose another in an attempt to match the first card with its picture or description (every pair will consist of one picture and one description). Obviously, when the cards are flipped, you can't see which is which, so you'll have to remember where you saw your card's match! Once again, you're racing against the timer on the bottom-right of the screen, but you can consult your photo album from the 'Flying to…' level by pressing A, if you need a refresher course on what's what. That is the point of this game, after all.

If you acquire a certain amount of points during any of these levels, you may be treated to one of the game's bonus games, seen on the front screen menu. These are a good way to boost your score!
Once you've finished "Matching Pairs…" you'll be given a password for the level and unlock a new planet! Lather, rinse, repeat! So as you can see the gameplay is extremely varied - perfect for keeping kids interested - but extremely informative, too!

I still feel about this game as I did the first time I played it. The gameplay is extremely easy to pick up - the manual is not a necessity here. The game offers a controller map before every level (if you need it), and the objective of each becomes clear immediately. And the controls are exceedingly simple, anyway. It's the genesis, people! You're meant to pay attention to what's on the screen so the business in your hands is restricted to navigating with your D-pad, and executing actions with the A/B/C buttons. Easy peasy.
It's fun, exceeding simple, and maybe a bit long, but they've implemented the password system for restless souls. The game is jam-packed with child-friendly information about the moon and each of the planets (including Pluto! Hooray for 1995!)

Beyond learning about space, your goal in the game is to get the highest score. Like the good ol' days in the arcade, you're asked to input a 3-letter name after you've completed the solar system on any given difficulty. Basically everything you do in the game gains you points; collecting orbs and stars, good driving, speed, and playing as many levels of mini games as possible. For the record, I can't remember how many levels of Orbiter, Astro Blaster and Reflector there are (at least 10) but I do seem to recall conquering at least one of them in the past. Or maybe I just fell into a black hole...

The only other thing I feel the need to note is the soundtrack. Beware the music in this game! It can and will get stuck in your head for months on end. And so it should! The music is surprisingly prominent, catchy and fitting for both a children's game and the MSB motif, and makes capital use of the Genny's brassy timbre. The sound effects on the other hand, are obnoxious and sometimes painful. I'm not kidding when I say you'll hear nails chainsaws on a chalkboard. All the sound effects attempt to be tech-y and future-y but they end up hurting your ears. Luckily, you can turn them off in options.

The game offers easy, normal and hard modes, and I'll be honest, none of these are difficult for an experienced gamer. The game's puzzle motif means there's little motor challenge to begin with, usually just a timer, so regardless of the difficulty you should be fine. For a child, however, processing things takes time. I've found that most of the kids I've played this with need to play in small bouts, so they have time to comprehend and ask questions in between levels. Also the environment and lack of boosts in the Landing On… levels make things a bit frustrating on higher difficulties. By far my least favorite level. And I find frustrated kids give up easy these days... just something to keep in mind.
I'm sure you've already predicted: higher levels mean shorter times and less boosts, including the amount of lives you begin with. That said, the higher the difficulty, the higher the reward. For completing the Flying To… level with perfect shots, you're rewarded with 4 or 5 lives!
While there is no clock in the game, I reckon it could take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours to complete, depending on your play style, but if you're doing so with a child in tow, you can expect this to take many days.

As I've already stated, space is one of my dearest hobbies and interests, so I look for every excuse to bring this game into people's lives, but I understand that this isn't the kind of game most people want to play. I just thought I'd bring it to your attention, in case you should come across it for a great price someday... I really feel it's worth picking up. Even if you only play it "every # years…" it's just fun and exciting to hear those tunes and see all the glorious 16-bit interpretations of all the man-made crap we've launched into space. And of course, if you've got a kid in your life with a budding interest in the cosmos, this isn't a bad place to start. I wish I'd had this game when we began learning about the solar system in school, because I'm sure I would have conned my teacher into letting me share it with my class instead of just reading a boring textbook (and I was already way ahead on my studies of the solar system! ;))
So take it or leave it, but it's one of my faves, so I thought I'd share it with you all. Keep lookin' up, folks!

  • To my knowledge, there are no true cheats for MSBSEG, there are only passwords, which you earn along the way. There is one additional out-of-mission game, however, called Asteroid Insanity. I've only ever been able to play it by punching in the following password: A-S-T-I-N-S.


  1. Great read, Lo. I remember the show but never knew there was a game. I too have games that I love that aren't popular or appreciated by others. It's cool that you wrote about a game like this.

    1. Thanks, Duke! I think it's important to share these gems with people. I feel like everyone should know me well enough by now to understand that I wouldn't bother if the game wasn't something special. I was so happy to discover this bad boy. I think there are many other MSB games, but they're only on PC. I love the show, though. I SAY I'm watching it for the kids, but let's face it, I'm watching it for me! ;)