1991. 15 years ago. The members of the rock band Nirvana are starting their mainstream career and people are still gaming on Amigas. Sierra On-Line is probably the most powerful game publisher for the PC, and the graphic adventure genre reins supreme. First-person shooters and RTS games haven’t even been imagined. A 256-color VGA card is considered cutting-edge. Playing a game in any resolution over 320x200 is preposterous. Sierra releases Space Quest IV. Fast forward to 2006, where I, a lowly gnome, get to review said game. But what’s the point, I hear you ask?
No particular point to be honest. I simply wanted to look back at one of the first adventures I ever played. See if it retains its charm. Provide you with the sweet and fuzzy nostalgia feeling every retro review tends to evoke. Perhaps even teach our younger readers a small history lesson. The fact, of course, that Space Quest IV was the last Space Quest game to be designed by the ‘Two Guys from Andromeda’ (Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy), the first Space Quest to feature VGA graphics and the first Sierra adventure with scrolling screens in it, did help me a bit in selecting it.
Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers (hence SQ4), as its title subtly suggests, is all about time travel. Roger Wilco the space janitor, occasional world-saving hero, and Space Quest frontman, travels from the lush 256 color VGA landscapes of Space Quest IV, to the 16 color EGA Space Quest I, while having fun at a few more eras (Space Quests X and XII). In a pretty cute twist of gaming design logic, you don’t get to actually play in Space Quest IV, but simply experience it through amazing (for the time) hand-drawn cut-scenes. The plot is simple: fight an old enemy, save your son, avoid one of the dozens of possible and fully animated deaths and save the galaxy. It’s as simple – and almost clichéd – as that.
Well, maybe not so clichéd after all. You do have to accomplish standard superhero goals, but there is a twist. You see, Roger Wilco right after saving the two game designers known as the ‘Two Guys from Andromeda’ (in Space Quest III), and while vacationing through the Galaxy’s space bars, gets attacked by the aptly named Sequel Police, who are apparently operating under the commands of arch-enemy Sludge Vohaul. Roger’s yet unborn son comes to the rescue, transports him to Space Quest XII, where Roger promptly hands control over to the player, who must now save the Galaxy. Not a groundbreaking story, but nice nonetheless.
This, of course, is no serious game. From the moment you look at the cover of the game’s box (which in typical 90s fashion includes lots of diskettes, a manual, a Sierra catalog, and the amazingly funny Space Piston Magazine) you’ll get the silly attitude that prevails throughout SQ4. The game pokes fun at Sierra, Space Quest games, adventure games in general, Star Wars, sci-fi movies, contemporary society, life, universe, fish (not) and apparently the player. Most of the jokes and one-liners actually work, thus crowning SQ4 the funniest (non-text) adventure of the early nineties, if for whatever criminal reason we choose to ignore Monkey Island. Or Day of the Tentacle. Ok, to be frank, SQ4 isn’t the funniest game ever. Big deal! Its humor is much better than Larry Laffer, Broken Sword, or Quake-Doom humor.
SQ4 is polished too. The production values of Space Quest IV are, even by today’s standards, impressive. There are buckets of animation, lots of detailed screens, full and rather funny descriptions for everything you could wish to click on, a great soundtrack, an optional shoot-em-up styled mini-game (Ms. Astro Chicken), an irritating hamburger making sequence, lush animated sequences, easter eggs, cameo appearances and enough Star Wars jokes to bore you to death. All this in the shortest Space Quest game in the series, as you shouldn’t need more than a few hours to reach the (almost touching) finale, but only using a walkthrough. Or some sort of invincibility cheat.
Try to finish SQ4 without any external help and you will loose your precious time, your precious temper or even both, for this is a bloody difficult game. Unfairly and excruciatingly so. Hint book sales were after-all a major income source for Sierra during the long forgotten era of the early nineties, when the Web was just a Swiss scientist’s thought and walkthroughs hard to find. Timed sequences, arcade bits, a variety of frequent and unexpected deaths, mazes, dead ends, obscure riddles and every twisted anti-player trick the designers could conjure is there, to make your life miserable, and your adventuring quest a descent to paranoia. On the plus side this is an adventure game with a point system, meaning that even if you manage to reach the end, you should probably replay it in order to achieve full-points glory. Talk about value for money. Hah. Those were the days.
Today, where walkthroughs and porn are readily available on the web, SQ4 is still good fun. Graphics and music have aged well, the interface is one of the first point-and-click ones (just don’t hope for hotspots), the story is still great, and the puzzles tough as always. Download DOSbox and VDMSound and experience this classic in Windows XP. It will be worth it. And as Sierra put it: ‘It’s not just an adventure, it’s a convoluted mass of obstacles only the designers could ever hope to unravel. This 10 pound box of fun is sure to confound even the most dedicated computer game masochist’.