Low-Rez Recollections: Space Quest

So it seems that out of all the Satellite Show, Christmas Day is mine. Wow, between this and the coveted Saturday blogging slot, not to mention a series of topics that only appeal to nostalgic computer nerds, I should be assured that no one is reading. Thus, I therefore present all my passwords for banking, credit, and (perhaps most important of all) my World of Warcraft account…

Oh, wait, this’ll still be around when the holidays are over, won’t it? In that case, let’s just talk Space Quest. Or more specifically, Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter.

Space Quest was a 1986 offering from Sierra On-Line, which by this point had provided a gaming public not just with the original King’s Quest, but King’s Quest 2 (Romancing The Throne), King’s Quest 3 (To Heir Is Human… yes, Roberta loved her subtitle puns) and also an adaptation of the relatively obscure Disney animated flick The Black Cauldron.

Space Quest, however, represented something entirely new, since it was breaking out of the fantasy genre and bringing the realm of space opera science fiction into 3-D animated adventure gaming. Sort of…

See, Space Quest was in no way a serious take on the genre. It had serious elements, but for the most part was meant as a spoof, owing an unwritten debt to the famous Infocom game Planetfall that proceded it. There were some definite similarities, not the least of which was casting the player in the shoes of a decidedly non-heroic hero, a starship schlub whose only real saving grace was surviving where all the more competent people around him had died. In Planetfall, you were an Ensign Seventh Class who got to mop decks and clean out livestock cages. In Space Quest, you were Roger Wilco, janitor of the starship Arcada, which was in the midst of testing a device that can turn planets into new stars… a device that could of course be used for great good or great evil.

But before we get more into all that, let me cast my vague memories back to 1986, where a young lad named Clint had the privilege of romping about a computer fair to see all the latest and greatest things in development. Do I remember the name of this fair? No. Where it was held? No.

Do I remember the Sierra booth where Space Quest was being promoted? Oh hell yeah.

Bear in mind, though, this was no E3. I think business software was at least as represented as gaming software, although I had little care for the former. There were no booth babes, no swag, just modestly adorned 10×10 display areas, perhaps with a television set up to display some looping product pitch (back then, making a multimedia pitch on a computer was still rather unheard of). This was where I first ran across the trailer for Space Quest, and instantly kindled a WANT… nay, a NEED, to own the game. The only other aspect of that convention I seem to remember was a booth from Trillium software still pimping the Amazon game they’d developed with Michael Crichton. Amazon, a game so obscure that no one cared that it was basically just Congo with Paco the Parrot instead of Amy the Gorilla, and the jungle in South America instead of Africa. In fact, I think the Amazon game may have been my first foray into software piracy. Allegedly.

Space Quest, though, was a definite buy for me, and not just because you had to enter a code from the game manual. It just looked far too pimp to pass up, although I might have had to negotiate it as an early Christmas gift (how’s that for a tie-in?). And you know what? It might not look like much now, but what King’s Quest was to what had come before it, Space Quest was to King’s Quest. It’s the first game I can think of that tried to make itself a cinematic experience for the player, right from the opening titles where it flashed a light effect across the titles and started rocking the PC Speaker for all it was worth.

Now I won’t blame you if you didn’t watch/listen to all of that, since to modern ears it’s pretty shrill (and the video’s actually playing the “enhanced” version available to some later gen computers), but for 1986 ears it might as well have been full orchestral Beethoven pumping forth. Here we had people who grew up on Star Wars, finally getting a game with an introduction that, like Star Wars, was making its play to get us jazzed and ready for action before we ever started playing. Witness in this the nascent birth of what we know and expect today as the opening cutscene, and compare that to the video I linked in my King’s Quest blog where there was nothing but a short ‘Greensleeves’ melody and a printing of credits before you got dumped into the game.

At the very end of the video you may briefly notice the ‘Score’ readout (0 of 202 points). I really should have talked about this before. Nowadays we have our achievements… back in the 1980s, in most games whether text or graphical, you had a score, and much like achievements it was possible to complete a game without doing everything that would net you a perfect completion. Some of it was as random as whether or not you bowed to the King when he addressed you. Some of it was based on how you solved a certain challenge, since another feature of old school adventure games was that multiple solutions might exist for a given problem. The King’s Quest series, for example, always rewarded less violent, indirect solutions over more straightforward ones… such as hiding and waiting for a giant to fall asleep rather than hurling a sling stone at his head. Both were perfectly legitimate ways to get hold of the chest he was carrying, but the first gave you more points. Go the sling route and you could still finish the game, but you wouldn’t have that coveted perfect score.

In Space Quest, for example, you end up pursued by a kamikaze spider droid that will self-destruct when it comes in contact with a living organism. One way to get rid of it is, with some luck and timing, to push a rock onto it from above. Also, there’s a nasty beast later on that you can defeat through use of a “Jaws” like method… but a third option, should you have the skill and the cojones to pull it off, is to dodge the droid, get the beast to follow you out of its cave, and then let the two of them engage in an explosive hug.

It’s features like that, plus a pervasive Mel Brooks style sense of humor on the part of the designers, that made Space Quest memorable– even though it’s only just now as I started watching gameplay videos again that I finally “got it” with regards to a town being named Ulence Flats.

There were a lot of flaws, especially looking back after over twenty years of game design since then. Death could be disturbingly random, and worse yet, there were mandatory mini-games that had to be completed for the main game to continue. Perhaps worst of all was a sin that several games of the era shared, the “limbo effect” where you could do something that didn’t kill you, but made the game impossible to finish, and you might not even know that until you’d spent several more hours playing and perhaps saved over any games prior to your mistake (hey, back in those days sometimes you only got to save one game at a time!). In that sense, if you ever find yourself playing Space Quest let me just say this: don’t sell your speeder on the first offer.

But for all its faults, Space Quest represented a great leap forwards in graphical adventure gaming, a noble attempt to mesh in the cinematic elements that got our juices going in the movie theaters, only now we the players got to be part of the action. And for what it’s worth, I remember it succeeding quite well, and leaving myself and quite a few others waiting eagerly for the sequel. Sierra had done it again, thanks to Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy, who I best remember from that trailer video so long ago where they first introduced themselves as “Two Guys From Andromeda”…

Game programmers had a lot more fun in the 80s....

And that’s about it for this edition of Low-Rez Recollections. My family is having a late combined Xmas & New Years celebration this coming week, so I’ll be skipping the blog for next Saturday. Until the Saturday after that, I will leave you with a video of the first ten minutes of play of Space Quest, should you feel like a trip down memory lane, or just seeing what us old coots actually thought was cool back in the day. Happy Holidays!

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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1 Response to Low-Rez Recollections: Space Quest

  1. Pingback: Low-Rez Recollections: Ultima IV | The Satellite Show

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