Thursday, February 14, 2013

Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter (Sierra, 1986)

Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a magical era known as the early 1980s, there were essentially two types of video games you could play at home:
  1. There were the simple early arcade style games of the day, usually played on a single screen with characters that looked like they were made out of a handful of legos. These games were generally reflex based with little to no story presented throughout the game, and very little sense of adventure or exploration.
  2. There were the text adventures available on most home computer platforms with cryptic input, and as the name implies, no graphics. These games relied entirely on the user's imagination both in trying to visualize what the world was supposed to look like, and in trying to figure out how to phrase your request in a way that the game would recognize.
Then, as home computers became more powerful, a new kind of gaming experience emerged...

Most gamers today are familiar with the Point and Click Adventure genre, but not many remember its humble origins. Before the mouse was standard issue, computers were controlled almost entirely with keyboards. Some systems (like the Commodore 64) had joystick inputs, but most (such as the IBM computers which would eventually evolve into the modern Windows PC market) stuck to the good old keyboard.

Once home computers were capable of displaying decent graphics, the next logical step was simply to provide illustrations to the text adventures that were already being produced. Inspired by the joystick controls of console systems, the cursor keys were used for character control, but text input was still utilized for just about everything else. This lead to the birth of the Graphic Adventure genre.

For the most part, Sierra was the undisputed champ of 80s graphic adventures. Their King's Quest series dominated the genre, and spawned several more franchises using the familiar formula in different settings. I played several of them growing up, but there were just so many to keep up with. During's most recent holiday sale, they had an amazing deal where you got every King's Quest, Police Quest, Space Quest, and Quest for Glory game for just $20. I had to jump on the deal! The only thing that would have made the deal better would have been the inclusion of the Leisure Suit Larry series which they didn't carry at the time, but have since added.

So, with all of these amazing classic games, I just had to decide where to start. I've been a sci-fi nut since the first Star Wars film, so I decided to dive into Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter.

Space Quest is a sci-fi comedy series of games. While there are lots of games that have a sense of humor, there are very few that can actually be considered funny. Luckily, this is one of those rarities. Considering how long ago it came out, many of the pop culture references will be lost on modern audiences, but some of the subjects lampooned have stood the test of time. References to Star Trek, Star Wars, and even The Blues Brothers pop up throughout the game.

In this game, you play as a crew member of an interplanetary starship. You're not the captain, you're not the weapons officer, you're not the elite space marine commando. You're the ship's janitor, and considering you start the game by waking up from a nap in the janitor's closet, you're probably not a very good one. It should  be noted that this game came out several years before the BBC series Red Dwarf which follows a similar premise. And like in Red Dwarf, an unexpected turn of events leaves you as the only remaining crew member alive. As would be imagined, this leads to an unintentional sequence of adventures.

You experience these adventures by leading your character (in this game you name him yourself, but in later installments he is rebranded Roger Wilco) using the cursor keys on your keyboard. Again, this came out in 1986, WASD didn't become the popular control scheme until many years later, and wouldn't have worked here anyway because all of your alphabet and number keys are used for typing. Yes, this game has a lot of typing. Want to pick up a grenade? You walk up to it with your cursor keys and type "pick up grenade". Wonder what that control panel on the wall is for? Walk over to it with the cursor keys and type "look at control panel".

I'm mentioning the cursor keys a lot because if you're too far away to perform the command you type in, your character will complain to you that he's too far away. Then you'll have to walk over to it and type in the command again. Many of you are probably cringing right now at the tediousness of the interface, but as archaic as they may seem to modern gamers, there is a reason these games were so popular. Typing in your commands gives you a freedom you just can't get from a point and click interface, and certainly not from a gamepad. You can literally type in anything, and while not every command is recognized, you will be amazed at how many are. Most commands that can't be followed will at least be answered with a humorous response. At times you'll be arguing back and forth with your character and forget that your not in a heated IM discussion.

Then, there are the deaths. You will die in this game. You will die a lot. But, unlike most games, you will love it! This game is loaded with clever death sequences. Walk through a laser fence? Watch as your body drops to the floor like a loaf of sliced bread. Get a bad pull on a slot machine? Watch as you're zapped into a pile of dust that is quickly swept up by a cute little cleaning robot. There are times where you will go out of your way to see how many interesting ways you can find to die. Just make sure you save your game often.

Speaking of saving your game, make sure you use multiple slots too. In modern game it's common to use a single save file to play through an entire game. This would be a bad idea in Space Quest, or really any of the classic Sierra games, because they were big fans of dead ends. There are multiple instances throughout the game where you can find yourself in a situation where you can't progress forward in the game because you missed doing something important earlier, yet you can't go back to do it now because the game has locked you where you are. You are now at a dead end, and the only hope of continuing in the game is to load up an earlier save file and try to find what you missed.

In modern games, this is known as a blocker, and companies spend a lot of time and money testing to make sure these don't exist. Back then, this was all just part of the fun. In fact, back then it was uncommon to complete one of these games on your first play through. You would generally get to a point where you were completely stuck, and then start over again from the beginning. Luckily the games were structured in such a way that while they take some time the first time through as you solve the puzzles and unlock the mysteries, they take considerably less time once you know what to do in each situation. This allows you to painlessly zip through sections that might have taken you hours to figure out the first time through, all the while keeping a look out for anything you might not have noticed before.

And don't expect to notice everything with your eyes. The blocky graphics do an adequate job of letting you know what your environment generally looks like, but to really study your surroundings you'll need to ask the game what you really see. You'll spend a lot of time typing commands starting with "look at" or "search through" and then reading the descriptions.

The graphics were actually at a much lower resolution than they needed to be at the time, but there's a reason for that. Back in 1986, there were basically two common types of video cards in PCs. There was the older CGA (Color Graphics Adapter) card that could display text in up to 16 colors, but could only display graphics in 4 colors at a time (and with very limited pallet choices), and then there were the top of the line EGA (Extended Graphic Adapter) card that could display graphics in all 16 colors! Yes, once upon a time that was a big deal.

Anyway, the CGA cards usually came with not only the standard RGB monitor output, but also a composite video output, the same yellow video plug you still find on DVD players and cable boxes. This could let the computer plug directly into a standard TV. Where sierra got clever is they discovered that if you put certain combinations of colored pixels next to each other, the TV would get confused and display the wrong color. By doing this they were able to let CGA cards produce all 16 colors on your TV.

The sound is another story. PC sound cards didn't become popular until the early 90s, so all your computer could do was beep. Despite this, Space Quest still manages to play a rousing melody on the title screen that with a little imagination can sort of imply to you that it might sound awesome if it were played by a full orchestra in the style of epic space movies. But still, it's one beep at a time, so don't get your hopes up too much. The rest of the game is pretty silent. Every so often it will attempt to make a sound effect, but don't expect anything recognizable, or even up to 8-bit console standards. In face, sometimes the sound is just plain annoying, but I'd still recommend leaving it on as it can sometimes provide important clues as to what's going on.

I know this review might have sounded fairly negative, but I have to stress how much I enjoyed this game! All the antiquated technological shortcomings may be a huge turn off for some, but as somebody who grew up on these types of games it all filled me with a sense of nostalgia. It had a great story, tons of funny gags, and an overall charm that makes it worth playing at least once by anybody who can look past the retro 80s presentation and enjoy it for what it is.

And since I have the whole collection, expect to see more Space Quest reviews on this site in the near future!

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