Developer: Newbyte Educational Software
Publisher: Newbyte Educational Software
Edutainment is a noble concept, and simple enough. You’re more likely to retain knowledge of something if it’s fun, right? In the case of video games it appears to have worked somewhat – many children of the late 80s and early 90s have fond memories of Math Blaster, The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, to name a few. The latter of those is of particular interest here, as it appears to have inspired Michael and John O’brien of Australian-based Newbyte Educational Software to create Wanted: Ned Kelly.
Historically, Ned Kelly was an Australian outlaw not awfully dissimilar to America’s Jesse James. In the mid 1800s, Australia was somewhat of an enticing prospect for immigration. The governments operating what were then the colonies of New South Wales and Victoria (now long since formal states) in a sense rented acres of Royally owned land to families on the understanding that they would be using them for agricultural purposes along the lines of wheat-farming and improving the land, in a process known as Selection. However, there was an issue of squatters – those who were quite often ex-convicts occupying large swathes of Crown land to use for their own livestock (often sheep) despite having no legal right to the land, though they would later claim the land as their own when challenged by claiming they were the ones that settled that land, not the Crown itself.
The Kelly family selected 88 acres of land at Eleven Mile Creek in Victoria several years after the death of the family’s father John, and found themselves having issue with both squatters and the police. John had served six months of hard labour in prison before his death and his treatment from the Victorian police had a profound impact on Ned’s views.
Ned turned to a life of crime, joining up with a Bushranger (originally escaped convicts who managed to survive in the wilderness of Australia) and eventually started his own gang along with his brother Dan and two others – Joe Byrne and Steve Hart.
Like Jesse James, though they were ultimately criminals, the Kelly Gang were seen by some of the downtrodden as standing up to the police and government. Ned Kelly’s homemade bulletproof armour that he wore to his final altercation with the police force is arguably more famous than his actual face.
As a specially assigned police investigator, players are tasked with finding and arresting Ned Kelly and his gang. There are three scenarios, based on the most famous cases of the Kelly Gang – the Stringybark Creek Murders, the Euroa Bank Hold-up and the Jerilderie Hold-up. Each one starts in Benalla with the investigator meeting up with Superintendent John Sadleir. After a brief discussion, the investigator is given more or less free travel of Victoria (and a small part of New South Wales).
The basic gameplay loop consists of asking people for information on the location of the Kellys, following their directions and trying to get on their trail. The trails get warmer as the player narrows in on the Kelly Gang, and points (your reward for their capture, in pounds) are given when evidence is found, such as police guns and horses that they have stolen and carelessly left behind.
Visiting locations gives you hints if the gang has passed through the area, usually striking a good middle point between being too obvious or too vague, though as you close in on the gang the directions tend to become much clearer. The player also needs to take into account how the people of Victoria feel about the gang – some are sympathetic and will either refuse to give any information or possibly even lead the investigator astray, sending them to camps that haven’t been touched in weeks. It’s usually fairly obvious when this happens, but with the limited number of days, it bears consideration. Conversations tend to use a lot of older colonial-Australia terms, such as “bail up”, “lagged” or “waylay” but helpfully a glossary of these words is one of the main buttons on the left.
Travel takes up most of your investigative time. The officer moves at a decent pace in all honesty, but you still have to watch the clock, especially as night gets closer – once the time hits 7PM the investigator sets up camp until morning. You can freely travel to any location via horse or walking, with another alternative being to go to one of the railway stations, if your destination is along or near the railway line. Horseback is of course, much faster than walking, but you if you happen to find the Kelly Gang, they’ll hear you coming and hold you up, costing you time and letting them get ahead again. Thankfully you can click the mouse while travelling to switch between walking and riding, making it easy to hop off the horse as you close in on a map marker.
The Kellys tend to move around a lot on the first couple of days of the investigation, as the crimes are still fresh, but as the days go on they slow down more and more. Finding them early is fairly unlikely, but the sooner they are caught, the higher the reward. Alongside the aforementioned evidence bonuses, extra reward is also given for getting solid information from townsfolk. Conversely, Superintendent Sadleir can be re-visited in Benalla, who will provide you with more intel as the case goes on but doing this will share your reward with him somewhat. The game tracks high scores and tends to encourage going for a large reward with smart detective work – though sometimes it comes down to luck in where the Kellys decide to go. Using the map in the back of the manual is a definite must unless you happen to know late 1880s Victoria like the back of your hand – there is a map in-game but only major areas are labelled, making it difficult to navigate by that alone when your hint is “North of Gold Digger’s Camp”.
Wanted: Ned Kelly doesn’t quite have the visual charm that other educational titles of its era like the DOS version of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, going instead for a more realistic look with portraits that end up being similar to those in Koei’s strategic simulation games, especially Liberty or Death. Each map destination has its own background graphic but it only uses a sixteen colour VGA mode, and being limited in such a way tends to make things a little messy. The game was designed to run on very low spec systems, even performing mostly fine on a 286 which was probably a good decision considering many Australian public schools were still mostly only equipped with Apple IIe (1983) systems until around 2000.
Likewise, there are only a few sound effects and a couple of short music tracks but considering the main market was classrooms and computer labs, most installations would have left sound off by default.
Newbyte released two versions of the game – one for schools and one for home use. The only difference between the two, other than price and license agreements, was that the school version had all three cases available from the start, whereas the home version had to unlock them one by one.
Newbyte no longer sell the game, but thanks to preservation efforts it is playable in modern web browsers on Archive.org, along with a scan of the manual. It’s not a game without its faults – it tends to veer hard between being either hard to find the gang’s trail to start with or pinpointing them early on, but there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in narrowing down where they are. Being playable in a browser means that anyone with even faint interest can give the game a try, and maybe gain some insight into Australia’s iconic criminal.