Written by: Stoo

Date posted: December 15, 2020

The opening section is a bit bleak.

Space Quest, released in 1986, was the first installment in what would become began one of Sierra’s several long-running adventure series. A scifi-comedy written by the Two Guys from Andromeda, it stars Roger Wilco, the intrepid but hapless space janitor. Rik wrote about it way back in 2008 – or rather, the VGA remake – and wasn’t all that impressed. As could be typical for Sierra, particularly in their early games, it’s tough and unforgiving, with sudden deaths and timed puzzles.

Worst of all is when the game enters an “unwinnable state”, where you can keep playing but are unable to progress because you missed some item or action that is now inaccessible. You may not even realise this for some time, doomed to blunder around helplessly until either giving up or reading a faq. It’s a demoralising situation to find yourself in.

That was enough Space Quest for Rik; he never returned to the series. I don’t blame him, but later thought I’d try my luck wit the third game. I went in with fairly low expectations, but actually found it reasonably entertaining. It has colourful worlds, a few wacky aliens, and lots of sci-fi-references to please geeks like myself. The puzzles were a bit tough but at least the game didn’t do anything ridiculously unfair.

So I felt sufficiently inspired to try another. I’d intended to follow up more reviews in quick succession but oh, look, two years have now passed. I could put it down to becoming a father but honestly I should still be able to find some gaming time; our daughter is in bed by 7pm every night and a miraculously good sleeper. So instead let me just admit to being disorganised and easily distracted.

Now, if I was to be properly complete I’d go back and play SQII, but that’s not happening any time soon. It’s another of those really early keyboard-driven AGI games, and you may have noticed we’ve not actually reviewed any of those so far (we always look at the remakes of the first games in a series). So consider my True Retro Gamer card revoked. Again.

Instead we’re onto the fourth game, and the first to use the SCI1 engine. This brings a couple of key modernisations, the first being the glorious 256 on-screen colours of VGA. Also the interface is entirely mouse-driven, after the hybrid approach of SQIII, making it a proper “point and click” adventure. You have the same walk, use, talk etc options as other Sierra games of that period, along with taste and smell which mostly seem to be thrown in as a joke.

In this adventure our intrepid hero is chased through time by Sludge Vohaul, the villain of the second game. So, er, maybe I should play that one sometime after all. Anyway the time travel aspect is presented by Roger supposedly bouncing between several games – in particular the fictional future Space Quests X and XII. There’s also a trip back to the first game. In fact you barely spend any time in Space Quest IV itself (eg, Roger’s present day).

The game begins with Roger being attacked without warning by Vohaul’s black-suited troopers, then thrown into a portal by a mysterious ally. He finds himself in the capital city on his homeworld of Xenon several years into the future (and this is Space Quest XII). The once gleaming and advanced world has been conquered by Vohaul and now lies in ruins, the population having either fled, or been killed or worse. Robots prowl the streets, along with some kind of awful shrieking cybernetic zombies. An ominous citadel in the distance is home to Vohaul himself.

Everything about the time pods is annoying.

There’s a real sense of foreboding, as you survey the devastation around you and keep an eye out for danger. The soundtrack is unsettling, a dull rumble, accompanied by shrill discordant notes. There’s not much in the way of comedy yet – the energiser bunny you see roaming around isn’t amusing so much as incredibly incongruous. This kind of situation is not at all what I was expecting; SQIII had locations that were inhospitable, but not so grim as this. Still, it certainly makes an impression.

The game isn’t at all reticent about killing you here, even though you’ve only just begun to play it. If any of those wandering threats catch you, it’s an instant game over. Fortunately they’re mostly easy to avoid, unless you happen to hit one immediately upon entering a screen.

A short while later you’re at some kind of Space Mall, which is more in keeping with what I had (mistakenly?) assumed was the tone of Space Quest. It’s all a bit tacky, alien kids play at an arcade and a snappy robot offers advice at a clothing shop. Unfortunately it was here that he game started to get frustrating in several different ways.

I could talk about the conveyer belt that runs a circuit of the mall and makes navigation unnecessarily difficult. Or the tedious burger-flipping minigame. Ultimately these are minor details, and the minigame can be skipped entirely. Really my problem was getting out of the place.

I wasn’t even sure what I was meant to do until I stumbled into exactly the right spot to make a time-travel pod appear, these being the means of getting between the different sections of the game. It’s a spot that makes sense in retrospect but I could easily have wondered for hours without standing there. Then followed a tricky section of avoiding the Vohaul goons that emerge from the pod – linger anywhere for a few seconds too many and zap, you’re dead. To make matters worse, the second half of the chase involves flailing around floating in zero-g. Any sort of action sequence this intense and stressful is generally not what I’m looking for in an adventure.

After the chase I managed to jump into the pod ready to steal it for myself, but then had no idea how to make it depart. Pod travel involves entering a code – the first time you use one (before the mall) you just punch in random combinations until it works, but on subsequent travels you need a code. This change in requirements isn’t made clear and I was stuck for a while until I gave up and went to UHS.

Turns out part of the code I needed was written in an item from a shop that had now shut. That’s right – I had thrown the game into an unwinnable state. At this point I realised I had forgotten a key rule of Sierra adventures, and it’s not just “save often”. More than that, the rule is to keep multiple, separate saves. This allows you to return point before you missed whatever you need to progress. As it happens I had one but it was further back than ideal, and I had to redo the entire god damn mall.

There were later points where I thought I had hit another unwinnable state, then realised I was still able to backtrack to get the missing item. Quite a lot of backtracking mind you, involving going back in those damn time pods. There’s a certain paranoia that can creep in, when stuck in an adventure like this: is it even worth continuing to play, or should I stop wasting time and just go back to an old save?

Avoiding these sorts of situations was half the reason I went forwards instead of backwards from SQIII, having thought maybe the Two Guys mellowed a bit in their approach to designing puzzles and dangers in later games. I don’t mind a few game over screens, or bursts of clicking to avoid a bad guy – every Sierra adventure had them to some extent. This one however stacks together too many annoyances for me to find it truly relaxing downtime activity.

It’s an illustration as to why in general we prefer Lucasarts adventures here. Whatever you do in those games, or fail to do, you don’t suffer negative consequences. Whatever position you’re currently in, it’s always possible to read the end from there. That doesn’t mean the puzzles are all easy, rather than you can focus on solving them and actually enjoying yourself without some piftall forcing a reload.-The games ultimately feels like they wants you to succeed.

You may now be bored of me griping about old Sierra adventures being tough [getting there – FFG reader] so I can try and find something else to say. One thing I found a bit odd, carried over from SQIII, was a general lack of dialogue. In the entire first section, there’s no-one to interact with (just run away from). Later on you finally run into characters and get a chance to click “talk”, but it only amounts to a few brief lines in most cases.

I’m sure our hapless space janitor would be better developed as a character if we saw how he talks to people, or reacts to situations. As it is, he doesn’t have much in the way of a personality. Is he a square-jawed would-be hero whose capabilities don’t quite match his inflated self-image? An everyman with an unlucky habit of attracting trouble? I really can’t answer.

Shopping at the Galaxy Galleria

Also though, the lack of conversation definitely makes the whole game feel a bit more empty. In Monkey Island we all remember the voodoo lady, or Stan, or that guy in the hardware store, right? They enriched and enlivened Guybrush’s world. Even other Sierra games with silent avatar characters, like, Quest for Glory, were populated by folks with plenty to say.

Here though, the few characters tend to show up, do their bit to advance the plot then disappear or at least have no further function. There’s no-one with a really significant presence on a par with the Monkey cast, not even the aforementioned Latex Babes of Estros, who really should hang around long enough to be funny or sexist depending on your point of view.

Actually, the bit with the Babes is all a bit disjointed. You’re wondering around a hostile wilderness, they capture you, take you to their lair. You save them from a sudden threat that you had no warning would even exist. Then they celebrate by going to that Space Mall. (Chicks love shopping, right? Slightly sexist then, but it was 1991). All in the space of about three minutes, and maybe two actions on your part. Well, I suppose jumping through time is meant to be a bit disorienting, but at least you could have run into the Babes again later.

I’ll throw in one positive note – the section based on Space Quest I is not only a trip back in time for Roger, it’s a step (further) back in history for the player. It’s rendered in the original blocky EGA, illustrating just how far the graphics had advanced in five years. I’m reminded of the faster rate of change in those days – no way I’d be able to tell the difference between a game from 2015 and one from today. (slightly more realistic shading effects on your character’s shoes, advanced sloshing effects on their cup of coffee?)

Ultimately I find myself feeling oddly cranky towards Space Quest IV. I think because I want to like it more than this. I’m of the generation that grew up with these old adventure games. VGA artwork and midi music is my natural home, my happy place. I still feel a wave of anticipation when I hear the Sierra fanfare, that promise of exploring colourful worlds, meeting the people there, and solving problems through using my brain. Even if I’ve always been more a Lucasarts fan, I’ve enjoyed several games from the Sierra stable: Quest for Glory, King’s Quest VI, Conquests of Camelot.

Roger revisits 1986

So when presented with Sierra’s take on comedy sci-fi, I see glimpses of something I could actually devote a few happy evenings towards. My mind constructs an image of what that game would be like – one with the cornball humour and a bunch of TV movie references, but with a few actual conversations added. Most importantly, it would give my puzzle-solving braincells a workout without letting me run into multiple dead ends. Instead I’m stuck with the game that actually exists, one where I’m dodging lasers guys, and laser robots, and hunting for stupid codes for the stupid time pod.

The process of reviewing games involves a high degree of subjectivity – and I know this game, along with the series as a whole, has its fans. They may have first played back in childhood days of endless free time. Or they may be a bit smarter and more patient than I am. They probably at least remember to keep a lot of save games. I’m never going to argue that someone is wrong to enjoy a game (unless it’s “Nazi Atrocity Simulator”), this site is just a place where I voice my own opinion. Which in this case is: I’d rather be playing Monkey Island.

My initial plan was to play through the whole series from SQ3 onwards. This instalment has sapped my enthusiasm a little, and It’s not our policy here to force ourselves through games we’re not going to enjoy. However, since I got on okay with SQ3, I feel it’s worth pressing on to the next game, which hopefully also will be a bit more forgiving. Furthermore, I’m going to put it near the top of the (overloaded) gaming priority list, so I assure you I won’t take another two years to get around to playing it.