There tend to be two angles taken on a retro piece. Either someone goes back to a game they love and explains why they love it, or they go back to a well-known game and point out how it was actually quite flawed. I intend to take a slightly different approach to this reflection on Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers. This is a piece about how it was actually quite flawed, and why I love it.
Adventure games are enjoying a moment of renewed interest of late - the timing is perfect. Handheld gaming devices find mass popularity at the same time as a vast "casual" gaming market is exposed. The gentle nature of the adventure is the ideal next step for those who've discovered they enjoy playing games via their iPhone or lunchtime forays into the lands of PopCap. And adventures are appropriately technically undemanding for the non-hardcore platforms, the DS, the Apple gadgets, and even the Wii. As LucasArts apparently goes through some sort of exorcism and discovers the sweet, good-natured child within, its adventures are appearing on Steam. Charles Cecil has remade the original Broken Sword for DS and Wii, and has just announced an updated Beneath A Steel Sky for the iPhone. And just recently Activision-Blizzard has added a few of the Sierra adventure collections onto Steam, et al.
The Space Quest games were one of Sierra's many ongoing adventure series, alongside King's Quest, Police Quest, Quest For Glory (sort of adventures), Leisure Suit Larry, and Gabriel Knight. Directly competing with LucasArts in a thriving genre, each publisher had taken a distinct approach, leapfrogging over each other with each generation. But as history looks back, LucasArts are undoubtedly declared the winners, with the Sierra games rarely given the same accolades and respect. It's tough to find anyone in the gaming industry who wasn't influenced or delighted by Day Of The Tentacle or Grim Fandango. It's much more tough to find someone who'd tell you it was Police Quest III that made them want to be a developer. (And they bloody well should, Police Quest III was fantastic.)
However, I think a lot of the reputation earned by rival developers comes from people miscrediting Sierra's themes. Because if someone can point me to the early nineties LucasArts adventure that contained the dozens of jokes in every scene they're constantly applauded for, I'll be very interested. That was Sierra, and it was most especially Space Quest IV.
The story behind the development of Space Quest IV is certainly more interesting than the story in the game. The tale of Roger Wilco, hapless space janitor, travelling through time to prevent something something, and rescue maybe his son or something, is clumsy at best. In fact, in a throbbingly bad bit of storytelling, you only find out any of the motivating reasons for doing anything you do in the closing cut-scene. However, SQ4 is about gags, lots and lots of gags, everywhere.
Things weren't so funny for those making it, if the bitter rantings of co-creator Scott Murphy accurately reflect the time. He and artist/musician Mark Crowe had created the series three episodes previously, known collectively as Two Guys From Andromeda, but by this point apparently weren't so fond of each other. But this was nothing compared to the animosity for their bosses at Sierra (expressed by Murphy, at least).
SQ4 was originally intended to use the parser interface that all Sierra games had until this point. This was a text box that appeared on screen, into which you typed instructions. So you might walk Leisure Suit Larry toward the bar with the mouse cursor, but you would type, "Ask man for drink" into the box. It was a vestige of their progenitor, the text adventure, that allowed the player to be infinitely inventive in their input, to discover the boundaries of the finite inventiveness of the creators. Or perhaps it let you type in, "s*** in the flower pot" to see if the developers had written a funny response for that. But this vestige was to become vestigial. LucasArts had the SCUMM engine, which let you build the sentences from pre-defined verbs and inventory icons, and Sierra was making the leap to cursor-only, with a number of different icons chosen by right-clicking (or using the menu at the top). A leap the Andromeda Guys weren't ready to make, but had imposed upon them.
This explains a great deal about the resulting game. Space Quest III: The Pirates Of Pestulon had been about as self-indulgent as a game could be, the creators writing themselves into the story, with series antihero Roger Wilco rescuing them and eventually getting them jobs at Sierra. The fourth episode took the meta in another direction, with a literalisation of its being a series, Wilco able to time travel between the editions. Beginning in Space Quest IV, sat in a bar regaling aliens with exaggerated versions of his previous adventures (preceded by the cutest animation of a little creature dissolving in a puddle of his own vomit), he's attacked by the Sequel Police, rescued by a mysterious stranger, and sent through a rip in time into Space Quest XII: Vohaul's Revenge.
It's an awesome concept, clearly. Soon you're into Space Quest X: Latex Babes Of Estros (a spoof of the Leather Goddesses of Phobos game), and later into Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter. (And there's access to Space Quest III if you want to find another more interesting way to die). This works in a large part thanks to one of Sierra's recurring themes - the title appearing throughout the game at the top of the screen, sometimes accompanied by your score (another element long lost to the adventure). So when you arrive in XII, that's the name at the top, which in its day was quite peculiarly subverting.
The best and worst of the game becomes immediately apparent. As you wander the ruins of Xenon, exploring the opening scenes, there's a wealth of ridiculous jokes. If you can stay alive long enough to find them.
LucasArts used to take a dig at Sierra in every one of its game manuals. There would always be a line about how they don't want to spoil their customers' fun by killing them every two minutes. Which is exactly what Space Quest did. And not fairly, either. If you walk off a ledge and fall to your death, fair enough. Most adventures wouldn't let you walk there, but Sierra's did. But when you're killed because you change locations and some screaming zombie thing points at you, the controls stop working, and a robot puts a hole in your back with a laser - that's not okay. And such things happen constantly, throughout the game. Roger Wilco is always two seconds' notice from dying.
However, avoid death and the writing is just splendid, made doubly brilliant by the extraordinary narration from one of the most experienced in the business, Gary Owens. (Seriously, look through his IMDB page for "announcer" and "narrator"). His mellifluous and archly ironic delivery makes this game, describing everything you look at, touch, talk to, pick up, lick or smell. Indeed, lick or smell - two icons that have absolutely no valid purpose at any point in the game, and yet offer by far the funniest responses throughout. Opening scene, smell the nearby ruined structures, and there's this oddly poetic response: "The snappy scent of freshly chopped buildings fills the air." Lick it and he'll tell you, "The wreckage left by the destruction of the entire Xenon civilisation tastes a little like some ancient ruins you once sampled."
And so it goes for the first third, as you dodge random deaths and seek out random jokes. I can't resist repeating another smell/taste combo, from an early part of Space Quest X before you reach the game's best scenes at the mall. You're in a pterodactyl nest, and a sequel cop has just fallen and been impaled on a branch. Clearly this calls for shoving your face into him.
Smell: "Right now the sequel policeman has no distinct smell, but give him a few days and he'll be quite aromatic, not to mention plumped up like a ballpark frank."
Taste: "Take if from someone who knows sick: Licking corpses is going way beyond simple dementia. Get a grip, pal."
Where Space Quest IV shines is in the Galaxy Galleria. It's a mall, with lots of shops to visit, and the accompanying millions of jokes to find. But most of all, until the excruciatingly awful final scene of the section, it doesn't try to kill you at any point. Instead, and at last, you're safe to wander around solving the extremely silly puzzles and laughing at all the gags. You should be interested to know that it's against the third law of mall security to be caught licking mall components.
So you get to dress Roger up as a woman, make burgers, float in zero-g, and most of all look through the bargain bin in the videogame store. There are some stunning jokes in that bin. Some aimed at other Sierra games (including the first dig the game takes at the size of King's Quest games, which rather cutely suggests the improbable size for King's Quest XXXXVIII: Quest For Space at "over 12 Gigabytes in length!"), and surprisingly, one incredibly harsh spoof of LucasArt's Loom. My favourite is a super-spiteful elbow of Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set, Checkerboard Construction Set. "Fill in an 8x8 grid with squares of your choice... red or black, in any arrangement as long as it's alternating." Also in this bin is the vital Space Quest IV Hint Book, which you'll need to complete the game. Which, since it's set in the future, makes perfect sense. I laughed loudly at every page of that book.
Then at the end of this section the Sequel Police show up again, and an almost impossible escape section requires you lose your mind trying to get through it. Gah.
The final section that follows contains some good jokes (especially on the Mac computer screen that sets up the finale), and then an ending that is wildly out of place in its seriousness. It's a deeply odd way to finish such a daft game.
It's such a strange experience. My generous memory had wiped all the idiotic death sequences in the 18 years since it was released, but had in no way exaggerated the volume of genuinely funny jokes. However, there's aching missed opportunities in there. An especially brilliant idea - heading back to Space Quest I as a VGA character in an EGA world - is completely thrown away by your confronting monochrome characters from yet another time period, rather than the obviously better idea of interacting with blocky pixel people, frightened or awed by your fidelity. The one blocky character you can speak to, in fact, recognises you from the first game and doesn't even comment on the changes.
It's impossible to herald Space Quest IV as a great game. The kerbillion death sequences are infuriating, and many of the puzzles aren't flagged or set up at all. However, I'd still recommend that anyone play it, because it's so damned funny.
Sadly the collection Activision has put on Steam is the same half-arsed job Sierra threw together three years ago. Vital documents are missing in the PDF manual, the original Space Quest I isn't included alongside the VGA remake, and it's all running through DOSBox rather than updated to work on modern PCs. It was a lazy effort when it was first released - dumping it unchanged onto Steam is an enormous shame. I raise this only to point out that if you want to check out SQ4, you're going to have to get it in this form, and you're going to have to pay £10 to get it.
Let's not end on that negative, however. Let's end by pointing out that all the events that take place in Space Quest IV only come about because someone installs Leisure Suit Larry on an all-powerful super-computer, so it naturally loses its mind and wipes out the entire civilisation of a planet. Who would dare suggest the creators were slightly unhappy at Sierra?