Sunday, June 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Personal Technology: Goodbye, Pajama Sam

Special to The Seattle Times

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In the many years I've been writing reviews, most of my attention has landed on popular video or consumer games. But my taste for driving simulations and fighting games always had to be placed on hold the moment Humongous Entertainment released a new Pajama Sam or Spy Fox game.

It is this long-standing respect for characters such as Pajama Sam that makes this one of the saddest pieces I've done. As of June 15, Pajama Sam, Spy Fox and Freddi Fish have pretty much joined the ranks of Starsky, Hutch, Hawkeye Pierce and Marcus Welby, M.D. In a sweeping and unfortunate cutback, Humongous Entertainment laid off 40 percent of its staff and all products except its Backyard Sports titles have been shelved.

Humongous is a unique company. Founded by Shelley Day and Ron Gilbert, it was one of the first that tried to entertain kids instead of lecture them. Humongous games did not feature cleverly camouflaged addition and subtraction; they featured bedtime stories filled with interaction and humor. For readers with a classical gaming education, Humongous Entertainment was the LucasArts of kids software.

Humongous first burst onto the interactive scene in the early '90s, when "edutainment" looked like a gold mine and new companies released games almost every week. Humongous, based in Woodinville at the time (and since moved to Bothell), did not have the clout to market its own games back then, so it partnered with game giant Electronic Arts for distribution.

Spy Fox and Pajama Sam did not exist at this point. Humongous' franchises at that time were a stuffed animal with a Toy Story-style secret life called Fatty Bear and a talking car named Putt-Putt. Cute as he was, Fatty Bear was eventually deemed physiologically insensitive. Putt-Putt, however, lasted for years.

Thanks to the innovative humor and sheer quality of its games, Humongous thrived while the competition dived. One-time world-shakers like Sanctuary Woods and Taraglyph were swallowed up or dissolved. But Humongous continued to expand its line. Next came Freddi Fish, an adventure game about a female fish with a guppy of a sidekick that featured hand-painted backgrounds. Frankly, it was awe-inspiring for its time.

Then came Pajama Sam - possibly the high point in children's software. This was a game about a young boy who faces his fears by playing out adventures in his own imagination. In the first Pajama Sam, Sam confronted his fear of darkness. He would stand up to his fear of lightning and even learn about healthy foods in later games.

Many companies have coasted for years on the coattails of an excellent franchise. Take Lara Croft away from Eidos, for instance, and the company would have nothing. Humongous, however, was not satisfied with coasting.

Humongous' last great discovery was Spy Fox, a vulpine agent who sounded like Don Adams from the old "Get Smart" TV series. Like any Humongous adventure, Spy Fox games combined humor and puzzles. They were great.

But greatness may not be enough in a turbulent industry. On June 14, the company unceremoniously released 82 of its 199 employees.

All that remains of that formerly great company are the Backyard Sports games, a wonderful, informal line of sports simulations that certainly deserve strong praise.

Even so, Pajama Sam and Spy Fox were special creations that hold a hallowed place in the history of computer games. With the rapid evolution of interactive entertainment, Pajama Sam will certainly look primitive to anyone who goes back to visit him 10 years from now.

But he is a classic to the growing medium of interactive entertainment as surely as Steamboat Willy, Mickey Mouse's first appearance, is a seminal classic in cinema.

Steven L. Kent is a free-lance writer who specializes in coverage of video and computer games. His reviews of Humongous software in The Seattle Times date back to 1994.


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