Revisiting the 1986 computer classic Number Munchers!

Belgin gets hooked on a classic maths game…in 16 bits! Here’s her review…


©MECC 1990, reproduced for the purpose of review.

Ready to play Number Munchers. Image: ©MECC 1990, reproduced for the purpose of review.

If you were a child in the eighties or nineties, you might have seen the educational game Number Munchers on your school PC. It was originally released by MECC in 1986, and was re-released several times (for MS-DOS, Apple, and more). Nearly three decades later, Number Munchers received a Readers’ Choice Award in 2005 from Tech and Learning.

Believe it or not, I didn’t play it as a kid—rather I just watched a classmate play the 1990s version on a Macintosh. It wasn’t until two decades later (read: last winter) when I had a go at playing it. I couldn’t find the Macintosh version of the game, but I did come across the older MS-DOS version, so I played that.

Yum, yum!

The controls are quite straightforward—just use the arrow keys to move your green muncher around, and the space bar when it’s time to eat a number. Granted, most games I have played are for the PC, so I find keyboard controls easy to use.

Your green guy is sitting in a 5 by 6 grid, and each square on the grid contains a number. You get points by eating numbers that satisfy the rule given on the top of the screen. Meanwhile, if you eat a wrong number, you lose one life. The game ends when you run out of lives. Example rules include:

  • Multiples of 5: eat 5, 10, 15, etc
  • Factors of 14: only eat 1, 2, 7 and 14
  • Prime numbers: eat primes
  • Equals 6: you get expressions such as $6\times 1$, $3 + 0$, and need to pick the ones that equal 6
  • Less than 12: eat only the numbers 1–11

There’s even a challenge mode that lets you mix and match the rules! Moreover, there are lots of difficulty levels to pick from. There are 11 levels in total; they start at ‘third grade easy’ (that’s year 4 for Brits like me), and go all the way up to ‘seventh grade easy/advanced’, and finally eighth grade and above.

Number Munchers features five fearsome foes to fight or flee. Image: ©MECC 1990, reproduced for the purpose of review.

You will also want to avoid the Troggles—they are the monsters who want to eat your little muncher! It’s another surefire way to lose a life. When I first saw the game as a child, I didn’t notice that there were five types of Troggles, each coming in different colours and walking in specific patterns. I also forgot that when a Troggle walks over a square, it leaves a new number behind. If that’s not challenging enough, things start to get more frantic in later levels. More Troggles will turn up on the same board, and they’ll move faster, so you’d better be quick on your feet or have picked an easy maths mode! You’re also more likely to see what happens when Troggles meet: one eats the other, then the surviving Troggle continues walking as if nothing happened.

The Troggles at it again in this cutscene. Image: ©MECC 1990, reproduced for the purpose of review.

When you’ve eaten all the numbers on the board that fit the rule, you get to move on to the next level! Also, every three or four levels you get treated to a funny cutscene featuring the muncher and the Troggles! In most of the cutscenes, the Troggles try to capture the muncher, only for the plan to backfire, so the muncher gets the last laugh! You can even hear the muncher a little jingle, as if they were singing “Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!” Apparently there are at least five more fun cutscenes out there. No, not all of them feature Troggles. Sorry Troggle fans!

My favourite mode

As a schoolgirl I watched my classmate play the level where you only eat prime numbers, and the moment he lost a life. No—he did not get eaten! The disaster was what he ate…the number 1. The game then said that 1 is not prime, but didn’t explain why.

Late breaking news from Number Munchers: 1 is not prime! Image: ©MECC 1990, reproduced for the purpose of review.

Then the teacher’s assistant was watching too. When the muncher lost a life, she turned to me and asked, “Why do you think the number 1 is not prime?”. How was I supposed to know? I was only just starting to learn what a prime number is! I was aware that a prime is divisible only by 1 and itself, but didn’t realise that these two divisors should be distinct. It only dawned on me years later, but I’d already moved into secondary school by then!

This is why the prime numbers round became my favourite level in the game. It showed me a something I didn’t realise until then, and made me go “ooh”. And now I’m older, I’m having no difficulties with the prime level…as long as there are no three-digit numbers!


Number Munchers is definitely one of those maths games that can be enjoyed by people of (almost) all ages. Just make sure you didn’t pick the hardest difficulty setting! I did that, and I instantly regretted it—I found myself struggling to figure out which of the three-digit numbers I got were multiples of 19! It didn’t help that I initially misread the question, and thought I was supposed to avoid said multiples! An easy way to throw a life away. And as if I didn’t have enough to do already, I had to keep dodging the Troggles to make sure I didn’t eaten! Unsurprisingly I gave up, and switched to an easier setting.

We do not recommend starting with this mode. Image: ©MECC 1990, reproduced for the purpose of review.

If you’re after graphics, I recommend the 90s Apple version—the creatures are prettier in there (especially your little green muncher). The graphics on the DOS version are not as great, but the gameplay’s the same and the Troggles still look quite nice in that version. If you want to try the game yourself, the original version is available to the public on the Internet Archive, all for free. Better still, no emulator is required. What’s not to like?

Believe it or not, this is not the only maths-themed game in the Munchers series—there’s another game called Fraction Munchers! It features fractions instead of whole numbers, but I’ve never seen it! If you’ve been lucky enough to have played that game, why not send your review of Fraction Munchers to Chalkdust? It might just become an online article in here, too!

Belgin is mathematician-turned-software engineer, having got her PhD in population genetics. When not working, you can usually find Belgin either playing the piano or playing Math Blaster. She is pictured here standing next to her copy of Zeeman’s catastrophe machine.

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