Low-Rez Recollections: Mean Streets

A few weeks back I did a report on the Civilization series of video games, and what I felt was on ongoing decline and fall in their game quality even as the graphics got prettier and prettier. Was it the ramblings of an old gamer dude hopelessly plugged up with nostalgia for an age where the idea of 16 bit color was still a dream of madmen? Perhaps. Perhaps. But it occurs to me: there’s a shitload of guys (and gals) out there who reminisce fondly about their NES and Sega days… but what about the PC offerings of that early era? Who is singing the praises of Sierra On-Line? Or Infocom?  Who remembers when seeing the LucasArts label on a game was a guarantee of quality and fun, and music designers were coaxing as much variation as they possibly could out of the beeps of a monophonic PC speaker?

Well I do. Vaguely. Fuzzily. But it’s a warm sort of fuzziness. Don’t get me wrong, there are many elements of that time that would make me have to seriously consider between going back to them and having a root canal done by way of my colon, but I’ve decided to launch a new occasional series based on my rosier memories of computer gaming experiences gone by.

So load up that 5 & ¼ DOS boot diskette, type in that copy protection code from the third paragraph of page 19 of the manual, and enjoy the first installment of my Low-Rez Recollections. As that great philosopher Han Solo once said: “[they] may not look like much, but [they’ve] got it where it counts”.

 

COVER NOT INSPIRED BY ANY SORT OF RIDLEY SCOTT FILM. HONEST.

Released in 1989, Mean Streets is a game I think I can safely say hardly anyone remembers, despite it having done well enough to spawn two sequels, the last of which (Under a Killing Moon) was big enough to fill up four whole CDs and got folks like James Earl Jones on board to do voice work. The first installment was much more humble in a star power sense, considering the game’s designer cast himself in the lead role of Tex Murphy, hardboiled PI of a dystopian future California. Narcissism, or necessity?

But hey, the fact that the game even had a cast recognizable as people was pretty revolutionary for the time. I was impressed, impressionable 16 year old that I was. I was even more impressed that the game lived up to the promise of “Real Sound” touted on its cover, since I was far too poor to be spending hundreds of dollars on one of them newfangled sound cards. And yeah, that 256 color VGA? Not for me, buddy. My IBM came with glorious 4 bit CGA color and that was good enough!

Okay, no it wasn’t… but again, not a lot of cash on hand at the time, especially for gaming upgrades. Hell, my family didn’t even have a cassette deck in the house until 1986, I grew up on a very limited diet of LPs and 8-tracks. Probably why I have embarrassing moments to this day where I say things like, “Oh, Queen made that song?” and get looks of pity and scorn from my more musically experienced brethren and sistren. Entertainment wasn’t forbidden in my household, it just wasn’t highly prioritized.

 

Cutting edge quality such as this was a thing of my dreams.

Let’s get back to Mr. Murphy. Even in CGA, this game was damn cool to me. It could speak! Distortedly, and with a hefty dose of static, but I never got tired of my perky secretary responding to my requests for documents with “Look for my fax!” (Mean Streets was a vision of things to come that, much like Back to the Future II, relied heavily on fax technology). She was kind of a hottie, which helps. I mean, we take this sort of thing for granted now, but in 1989 game designers were still hard at work (ha ha) at making digital images decent enough to pop boners to. I’m not saying it came to that, mind you. On the one hand, I was 16 and the World Wide Web wasn’t around yet. On the other, 4-bit color and a max resolution of around 200 pixels still leaves a lot to the imagination. Mean Streets was just the first game I remember playing featuring “photorealistic” people that you didn’t quite have to get to the level of the Face on Mars or the Virgin Mary in the Peanut Butter in terms of imagining their features.

 

How YOU doin'?

Mean Streets was also awesome (at least in my mind at that time) in that not only were you playing a tough guy detective solving a murder mystery by interrogating suspects and searching for evidence, but you had (drumroll) A FLYING CAR!

And Mean Streets had a flight simulator component in addition to the adventure game portion. You actually had to guide your flying car around future San Francisco (and beyond) to get to places you needed to go. These days that might be seen as tedious, and they got rid of it in the sequels. Me? I was doing aerial donuts around a blocky CGA rendition of the Pyramid Building. Flying car. With a videophone and a wireless FAX in the dashboard. Fuck yeah.

 

In future San Francisco, "Carfax" means something much more awesome.

Then if I had to fly to future Santa Barbara or something I’d just set a reasonably high altitude, point in the direction and go make a sandwich. I was willing to do this. Of course, there was that one weird time I came back and had somehow ended up in low Earth orbit (at least according to the altimeter), but fortunately  all that meant was I took a long time getting back down. Who knew flying cars were so spaceworthy?

 

Check out that detail!

All right, so, how was the rest of the game itself? Good enough, from what I can recall (and remember this is all about my cloudy recollections). Interesting backstory and murder mystery, with acting and writing I would call “serviceable”, especially for a time years before the multimedia craze started shoving FMV Hollywood B-listers in our faces (and ears). Heck, it was even educational in its way, since it marked the first time I ever ran across the noun “Shamus”–although actually I just got confused since there was no Wikipedia to tab out to and my set of Worldbook Encyclopedias strangely omitted the term. Ha, encyclopedia sets. Remember those?

At least they didn't use the Irish spelling.

I do recall playing at least portions of this game with my pal Bryn sitting next to me to offer advice and help. This might sound annoying, but far from it… in my years of playing adventure games, the absolute BEST thing you can do is tag-team them with at least one other person, because inevitably one of you will miss the obvious (or less than obvious) that the other picks up on. It was sort of a ghetto form of multiplayer gaming, I suppose, and it was also a great way to share certain moments. To this day I’m fairly certain I could shout “GIDEON!” at Bryn and he’d instantly feign being shot in the head. No, I’m not explaining that, it would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it?

Actually, fuck spoilers. The thing I will remember to my dying day about Mean Streets was the perfect, once-in-a-lifetime way Bryn and I managed to finish it. At the end you’re presented with a computer console connected to a satellite, and have about 30 seconds to type in eight randomly chosen sequences of passwords based on keycards you’ve been collecting. Do it in time and the satellite explodes while the security lasers powering up to fry your ass shut down. Fail, and you’re crispy.

We’re talking real-time here, too. You better be a nerd or a secretary or Tex Murphy and the world are doomed. I admit, I failed out the first time since we weren’t quite prepared… the game manual actually warned you you might want to write certain things down. We also realized that the game was going to randomize the keycard order, meaning we’d have to get the right combo of card colors to passwords ASAP.

In the end, we cheated slightly: the game would flash up a color name, I would shout it out, Bryn shouted back the password, and I typed it as fast as I could, i.e.

“White!”

“Rook!” (typetypetypeenter)

“Green!”

“Pawn!”

Now here we were, two teenaged nerds in my parent’s den playing a computer game, but looking back on it, this was fucking CINEMATIC. Like if someone was filming us it would have kept cutting between the timer, and my typing, and us shouting back and forth… maybe even a moment where I wipe sweat from my brow.

We got in the zone. Actually I don’t know about Bryn, but in that half minute or so everything disappeared for me except getting those passwords entered before IT WAS TOO LATE(tm).

At this final point, two things happened:

– The sequence ended with the last passcard being the very first one I found, from the scientist whose “suicide” started off the whole mystery. I knew from my previous attempt the game doesn’t always do this, so it was a completely random and completely perfect bit of closure.

– As I typed in his passcode and hit enter, I looked up to see that the countdown timer (which I hadn’t even been watching) had just hit 00:01.

How fucking movie is that for you?

And that’s why I will always remember Mean Streets.

P.S. The game was apparently available for free for awhile on gog.com, but now appears to be bundled with its first sequel for a $5.99 download. I won’t be grabbing that, myself. This is all about the memories that were, whether or not I’d be disappointed playing it again. Hope you enjoyed this first iteration of my Low-Rez Recollections!

P.P.S. When I first wrote this, it didn’t even occur to me that someone out there might have uploaded actual videos of the game! Let me correct this oversight, for the curious. And yes, that IS nothing more than a bog standard IBM PC speaker pumping out the funky tunes.

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense. http://cwolf.zxq.net/
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12 Responses to Low-Rez Recollections: Mean Streets

  1. koyaanisqatsiii says:

    Great point on faxes… I’ve always had a chuckle out of the “YOU’RE FIRED” fax. People still use fax machines, btw, as if they are legitimate devices.

    Your description of your experience with this game makes me wish I’d played Mean Streets, Clint, but you nailed it when describing those aspects about such games that made them so memorable. Solving silly problems with friends, making it to the end with the what felt like a best choose-your-own-adventure ending, reveling in the progress from text games (four bit color? how ’bout 1 bit color?). Thanks, too, for reminding me of the old turn-to-page-38-for-the-key… Ah, memories.

    I have a fondness for those old text games, as well. Zork as my first exposure to that type of interation, H2G2’s awesometacular response to i-[enter] (I have since shared my adoration for Arthur’s inventory contents with my youngest), and that Mayan pyramid game we could play on the TRS-80 in Ms. Glassford’s class when we weren’t playing Lemonade Stand on it. The giant anaconda nommed my bones more than once on that game.

    Again, thanks for the walk. Looking forward to more of them.

    • Clint says:

      People do still use faxes for things like documents requiring a legal signature (at my day job, for instance), but it’s hardly the dominant technology the 80s were convinced it would become. I wish they’d been right about the flying cars, though then again I can’t imagine how many more accidents L.A. would have after you added a third dimension to peoples’ driving options.

      I do have some text-only games on the docket, since hey, that’s as low-rez as it gets, right? Heck, HG2TG was the first computer game my family ever bought. I think HG2TG will be getting an article, and especially Trinity, which I still consider the best computer game ever made.

      • koyaanisqatsiii says:

        I am confused at the continued use of faxes even for signatures; a scan by fax can’t be considered more reliable or less tamper-with-able than a color scan, can it? This is an honest question–what’s your opinion of why your office uses faxes instead of other transmissions?

        My initial hypothesis, just to show that I’m willing to think before axing questions, is that faxes are cheaper and faster; junk faxes cost more if you’re printing on quality paper with a color printer and opening emails to print docs take longer.

        thankum.

      • Clint says:

        We don’t have what you’re thinking of, probably. Our incoming faxes are routed through email and printed, and our outgoing faxes are scanned into our multifunction copier. We don’t have an actual old-school fax machine anymore, just things to simulate the fax function because we need a legal signature for our records.

      • koyaanisqatsiii says:

        I just discovered that I failed to read your last paragraph there (re: H2G2). I’ll post my minor response under your latest offering.

    • Andrew says:

      Ms. Glassford’s class? Who are you?

      • koyaanisqatsiii says:

        I’m Robert Mendez, Andrew–I’m still figuring out this WordPress thing. I do realize how technoslobby that sounds, but I haven’t needed involvement in this world until the Satellite Show.

  2. Clint says:

    You know, I thought this game was so old and obscure no one would have videos of it, but Tim’s article today inspired me to look. I clearly underestimated the power of youtube…

    In fact, I think I’ll embed what I found in the main article. Ah, memories…

  3. Andrew says:

    Our recollections of your house are so different. You had a VCR AND game consoles AND a “fancy” computer, not to mention a microwave for food. Your house was a veritable amusement park! And then there was the demonic refrigerator.

    • Clint says:

      I guess if you count an aging Atari 2600 as “game consoles”? I’m not saying my house was like a Dickens Orphanage, far from it… but we were never especially up-to-date, as I would know when I’d visit friends in the early 80s who had big screen TVs and Colecovisions and such. I was making do with a half-assed Pac Man port where Pac Man couldn’t even turn around.

      Besides, you were the one with the USS Flagg. I guess it was that or a game console for you ;-)

  4. Andrew says:

    I thought it might be you, Robert.

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