Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter (Real Review)

Ah, when adventure games realized they could be funny.

It seems that far off in the depths of space, the life-giving star of the populous planet of Xenon is growing cold and weak. To prevent their extinction, a team of scientists aboard the research ship Arcada are tasked with finding a solution. And by god they do in the form of the awesome Star Generator that can restore a dying star to health or, in the clammy hands of evil, turn a planet into a charred crisp in an instant.

Which is exactly what the ruthless Sarien space warriors have in mind as their battleship bears down on the unsuspecting Arcada. Soon they’ve slaughtered the scientists, stolen the Star Generator and set the ship to self destruct. The only crew member they missed was you, Roger Wilco, sanitation engineer second class, and only because you were, as usual, slacking off on the job and napping in a broom closet when the Sariens were purging the crew. But if you don’t watch your ass they might just catch you during their final sweep while you try to find a way off the doomed ship.

To tell the truth, Space Quest was actually the first Sierra series I discovered. When I got around to King’s Quest I’ll admit there was a little disappointment that it was a series of mainly straight fantasy quests, and not what Space Quest was to its genre: a raucous parody that tended to have fun at your expense whenever you did something stupid, which usually resulted in a hideous death. If not, it just made it impossible for you to win the game.

The parodic nature of the game also answers what I thought was one of the weaknesses of the earlier examples of the King’s Quest series. Namely, why would the finest knight in the kingdom on a desperate quest to save it embark on his adventure completely unarmed and unequipped. Well, our so-called hero’s very nature explains that here. He’s not Strong Bod Space Captainface, he’s a janitor. And not even very good at that. So basically the great hero charged with keeping the evil aliens from unleashing galactic devastation is you, the everyday schmuck. And I was mostly okay with that. I relate more to Dave Lister than Jim Kirk anyway.

And frankly if you're the kind of person who runs away when you see the bad guys, you're probably the kind of person who ignored the magic sword in the Zork books too.
As annoying as the taunts I earned when I got killed could be, it just drove the point home even further that me, the guy sitting at the keyboard, literally had as much idea what he was doing as my character should’ve. When I started thinking about it like that I felt pulled into the game to a higher degree and the things I was expected to do seemed less arbitrary. And playing further involved common sense behaviors like not taking the first offer when someone wants to buy your air car, don’t leave the keys in the ignition, don’t follow a sketchy-looking guy into a dark alley. Not so much if I was up on my bedtime fairytales or not.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t some annoyances, and some big ones. One is present in the first part of the game, where you need to escape that Arcada and not just dodge the Sarien soldiers looking for survivors but do so before the ship explodes. There’s an all-important item necessary to get the most successful ending in the game you need to get while you’re there, but with a clock ticking down to your doom it’s a little counterintuitive to be in an exploratory state of mind and to think doubling back is a good idea.

The biggest annoyance is, of course, once you escape the Arcada and manage to make your way to some semblance of civilization, you need to scare up enough money to buy a spaceship. And since you’re a janitor who has no idea how to fly a spaceship, a robot to handle that for you. The only way to get money is a slot machine in the local bar. And if you get three skulls, you don’t just lose your money, you freaking die.

Fortunately this was one of a few mercies the game designers took when the game was revamped a few years later with Sierra’s new icon interface. While you’re on the Arcada you can find an item that lets you cheat the slot machine. You even get puzzle points for doing that, and only get to kill an afternoon saving and reloading if you do it the hard way. Thanks, Sierra!

They got sued for this later. But you knew that.

Another comes in the form of making the coupons for local businesses actual inventory items. You got actual physical pieces of paper that came in the box of the original game, and apparently quite a few players couldn’t figure out you could walk into the bar or robot store and “redeem coupon” to reap the rewards.

Despite throwing players those bones, though, a couple of things were made nastier. Like when you’re about to launch your escape pod in the first game, it politely reminds you to buckle up before you blast off. Forgetting to do so in the remake kills you automatically.

Mostly the updates to the original were good, though, like taking advantage of the extra space to cram in more silly sci-fi references. It’s a shame the remake didn’t do better, though, and we had to wait until after the turn of the century before fan developers were a thing and other old games in the Sierra library might start to see rerelease with a less clunky interface.

But all in all this is a fine start to a series willing to have a sense of humor about itself, even if it’s willing to have some fun at the player’s expense quite a few times too. I’ve always preferred a game that was willing to be weird over one that wasn’t anyway.

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