Written by: Stoo

Date posted: November 20, 2018

This items marks the beginning of a new commitment to reviewing more Sierra adventures. I’d love to say by this time next year we’ll have covered all of them, but that’s kind of ridiculously optimistic by our standards. Still, I’d like to fill some of the gaps in our coverage.

It’s not that we love all things Sierra; we’ve written several quite ambivalent reviews over the years and a few outright negative ones. For example we found the Police Quest series to be moderately diverting, but lacking in decent storytelling, at times too dorky and focused on police procedure. We also have a long running disdain for Leisure Suit Larry, because either we’re dreary prudes or it’s just kind of embarrassing. Take yer pick.

It’s our view that Lucasarts were the more adept crafters of adventures. In bringing us Guybrush Threepwood’s Pirate adventures, or the time-traveling hijinks of Day of the Tentacle, they displayed greater wit and imagination than Sierra possessed. They also founded a more forgiving, friendly sort of game where you could neither die, nor put the game in an unwinnable state.

On far off, hazardous world you find… a grubby tourist trap.

Still, Sierra were a keystone of PC gaming back in the late 80s and early 90s, so I think any site claiming to be interested in PC gaming history should provide a decent amount of coverage. Also, there may be some enjoyable adventuring experiences in there. After all, for years I dismissed King’s Quest as twee, derivative fairytale stuff but when I sat down and played the sixth instalment, it was actually quite charming.

With the decision made to make a new foray into the Sierra archives, I drew up a list and used a random number generator to pick one for me. Thus I ended up with Space Quest 3. The sci-fi spoof adventures of Roger Wilco, space janitor, are actually the one Quest series of which I had no prior experience. So it was a good one to expand our review list, but I did have some trepidation. Rik did reviewed VGA remake of the first one a few years ago, and didn’t rate it particularly highly. In particular, it suffered from to frustrating puzzles and random death around every corner. So I went in hoping that this one would be a bit more forgiving.

SQ3 was created with an early version of the SCI interpreter so it’s actually more primitive than the SQ1 remake, although a step up from the very first Sierras (like the original SQ1). The graphics are basic EGA and Roger himself a bit of a blocky pixel man (doing a characteristic early-sierra arm pump as he walks). However, the artwork for the locations is not at all off-putting. The music is quite tinny but, this was the early days of adlib sound so I wasn’t expecting much.

You can use the pointer to move Roger around, but any interaction requires typing in commands. This could be a bit archaic to those more used to the pure mouse controls of later days, but I never really found I was struggling to find the verb the game wanted. “climb”, “drop down”, “push” etc, all fairly straightforward. Also, F3 repeats your last command, handy if you’re moving around the screen trying to find the right place to perform an action.

The game begins with Roger crashing into a garbage freighter, following the events of Space Quest 2. So your first objective is to find a ship and get out of there. The freighter is literally littered with recognisable ships – a TIE fighter lies amongst the scrap, along with the pod from 2001. These cheerful in-jokes for scifi fans add a bit of fun to what would otherwise be a fairly dry section of climbing around piles of scrap and automated machinery.

Once your ship is up and running, you can choose a few different locations around the galaxy to visit. I’m happy to report that piloting your ship is a lot less annoying than driving was in police quest. You have few basic commands (take off, raise shields, warp speed etc) and a map screen. There’s a combat interface too but that’s not used until the tail-end of the game.

Aboard your ship.

The worlds you visit are bright and colourful, making a decent effort with the 16-colour palettes. One planet is a place of vivid purple dunes and terrible hazards, like a cover from an old scifi novel, but also a giant tourist trap attraction operated by a sleazy alien. I suppose that sums up Space Quest’s style quite succinctly. There’s also an interstellar burger joint, with a knockoff USS Enterprise parked outside naturally. It’s populated by more Mos-Eisley style aliens, including one poor sap behind the counter in his minimum wage space-burger-slinging job.

I was surprised though by the general lack of dialogue and interaction with other people, throughout the game. The opening section, being on automated ship, is totally devoid of anyone to talk with. Even the characters I mentioned above are basically shopkeepers, so mostly you’re just browsing stuff to buy. Most of the rest are background characters. There is at least an entertaining terminator pastiche with a significant role but even then he doesn’t do a whole lot of talking.

This lack of conversation removes an opportunity for character development from our hero. Given his heroic good looks, but also the comedic tones of the game, I’d been expecting some sort of woefully inept pastiche of bold scifi heroes like Flash Gordon or James T Kirk. In fact he’s more of the blank slate type that we saw in some other adventures. Mind you, a hapless nitwit protagonist could be deeply irritating if written poorly, so I guess this is not the worst case scenario.

The one place where he’s really seen to be a goof is in the jokey “look at your mangled corpse” images. Which you’ll see a lot because this is a sierra game and, yes, there are lots of ways to die. Perhaps the most ridiculous example was falling less than two metres off the hull of Roger’s ship, the game treating this as somehow equivalent to falling from a third storey window.

To be fair the game did state “be careful, it’s slippery up here”, even if I wasn’t expecting such dire consequences for slipping. Other lethal dangers are fairly obvious, or at least you are given some sort of warning. Death is swift but usually not unfair. You just have to go in with a different mindset to the Lucasarts adventures – if you try something wrong, instead of merely failing to progress, you get a game over screen and it’s time to reload.

Okay, one sudden demise came about because I was actually being too thorough – you find some explosives but can only carry one at a time because they are a bit unstable. So after using it I came back for more, thinking aha, clever Stoo. Then two screens later I was blown to bits. That was actually the funniest moment in the entire game, though, so totally worth it. Just remember the mantra: save and save often.

As for puzzle solving, despite my fears (and a few YOU’RE DEAD screens), most of it wasn’t too mind bending. There were perhaps a couple of significant frustrations. I didn’t find myself racing against the clock, I’m pleased to say, since I hate timed puzzles in adventures. There was item hidden in the junkyard in a rather cheap manner, behind some scenery, and that took me a while to notice. Another that I’m not sure I was even able to examine and identify as important at first, until using a certain extra tool.

Beware the dizzying drop from the top of that ship.

Still, I’m pleased to say that I never found myself racing against the clock. I hate timed puzzles in adventure games; they wreck the sense of relaxation that I’m looking for. I also didn’t run into many unwinnable states, that dreaded situation where you realise you’ve done something earlier that means it is now possible to progress further.

I will have to admit I looked up one or two solutions without spending much time on them, so my estimates of challenge are a little hazy. I cheated out of fear of being stuck on this game for weeks, then having gotten on a couple of the hardest puzzle, blew through the game in a couple of Saturdays. I should have remembered these old adventures were actually pretty short, relying on keeping the player bamboozled to pad out the playing time. I also should have tried to use my grey cells harder rather than giving up so quickly.

Really though it’s a matter of paying very careful attention to every detail, and investigating everything you can. Which I suppose a seasoned adventurer should know to do already. There definitely are a few places where you have to simply repeat a previous action, or walk away, wait for a person blocking you to leave, then go back. These sort of actions aren’t always obvious to me, so I tend to blunder in circles for a bit before stumbling across them.

Roger’s primary goal in SQ3 is to rescue the Two Guys From Andromeda (a slightly self-indulgent cameo from the creators of Space quest) from an evil software company. However there are some odd gaps in the plot along the way. For a few hours I was mooching around the galaxy with no goals beyond exploration and surviving killer robots. Then suddenly I found myself launching into a rescue mission without any real warning or explanation as to why I was there.

The Two Guys abduction is mentioned in the manual, but that’s all you get to begin with. You don’t learn anything about their location, or indeed hear any mention of them in game for a good portion o the game, unless you solve an optional puzzle. I put this aside because it had fiddly action bits, then it was too late and I was into the endgame. Hence my confusion.

This Terminator knock-off seems very 80s comic book. I think it’s the wraparaound visor.

I kinda feel we could at least have heard about them in-game on Space Radio or at the burger place, or something, just to give the player a little more direction. Honestly, even if you do get that “hidden info”, I’d kinda like to know why Roger even cares enough to go rescue the Two Guys. Does he have a personal connection to them, an agenda against their captors, or is he just that damned heroic.

I could also mention that I actually had no real idea why Roger starts the game in an escape pod, or that the robot is chasing him, other than it tying to previous games. I suppose the Two Guys assumed (not totally unreasonably) that people were playing in order. Still, again, a brief cutscene or a  few more text boxes of explanation might have gone a long way.

Towards the end there are a couple more action sequences, this time mandatory to progress. One was easy enough, the other I failed over and over, then suddenly won without really understanding what I had done differently. The latter is a reminder of why I often disliked action in these old adventures, since they were often an unwelcome change of pace. Still, at least it didn’t hold me up for more than about 15 minutes.

We’re on course for another middling verdict here, largely because Space Quest 3 feels a bit thin and sparse throughout. The plot really could have had a bit more substance to it. Also, the game would have benefitted from more characters to interact with, and perhaps some more personality for our hero (without turning him into a total douchebag). We should remember that this is a relatively early adventure and make appropriate allowances but still: the classic Monkey Island was released just a year later.

However I enjoyed it more than Rik did the first one, and I didn’t end up irritated in the ways I had feared. The puzzles were less frustrating than I had expected, even if I cheat a bit (consider me duly shamed). Also, while I had concerns that the humour would be clunky; in general its light-hearted and cartoony tone was quite likeable.

I certainly had a sufficiently positive experience here to be willing to try another, later instalment. I’d be interested to see how the series evolved over the years. So, as far as my renewed commitment to Sierra goes, we’re off to reasonably promising start.