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AudioSoldier Blog

A look back in time - Part 1 - Police Quest Series - Police Quest 1

Police Quest 1: In Pursuit of the death angel
Released: 1987
Developer: Sierra

The original Police Quest game featured 16 bit AGI graphics and utilized the text commands that would appear in the sequel, Police Quest 2. This was one of the first games I ever played and despite it’s rudimentary visuals and old-fashioned control scheme, I loved every minute of it, a testament to its quality. I estimate that I first played the game in 1999 and preferred it to more “hip” titles such as Quake because of its engaging police cop story. It certainly couldn’t be called a police “sim” but it’s real-world story was more than convincing, and the puzzles were taxing enough to provide many hours of enjoyment. Perhaps one of the highlights of the game was the fact that you could drive around Lytton’s locales in your squad car, and was presented in a delightful top-down view. Near the game’s denoument, you went undercover and the excitement this presented me was nearly palpable. Perhaps I enjoyed the game so much because I wanted to be a detective at the time, but it I’m sure adventure gamers in general looking for a Sierra classic to play won’t be disappointed with Police Quest 1.

The Plot

You assumed the role of Sonny Bonds, veteran police cop of Lytton, California. The game centered around drug trafficking and how it was becoming an ever increasing problem in the area. Sonny would soon be in pursuit of the death angel, AKA, Jesse Bains, who assumed various aliases in the game.

13th Adventure game of all time -

#13: Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers (CD-ROM version)

"Casually glancing at the status line, you happen to notice you're in Space Quest XII."

Developer: Sierra On-Line
Release date: 1992

What do we want adventure games to make us do? Perhaps we want them to scare us. We want them to keep us riveted to our seat. We want them to take us to exotic foreign lands. We want them to introduce us to fascinating new characters.

But sometimes I just want an adventure game to make me laugh, and with the possible exception of Monkey Island no gaming series has consistently produced laughter like Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy's Space Quest franchise. The series was six games strong, but died too young—or did it? Rumors of an official Space Quest 7 persist, proving some gaming heroes just don't know when their time is supposed to be up. A series as enduring as this undoubtedly deserves a place in the Top 20 list. Selecting which game was the tough part. Although many of the SQ games could make a case for being here, the reason that the CD-ROM version of Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers gets the nod can easily be stated in two words: Gary Owens.

When it was first released in 1990, Space Quest IV was a complete graphical revolution, the first Sierra game to feature VGA graphics. The introductory visuals of Roger in the Prometheus space bar were absolutely gorgeous. Two years later, the CD version of Space Quest IV came at a time when CD-ROM "talkie" versions of games were very new, and designers were still discovering what the format allowed them to do. One of the first things included in CD games, naturally, was full vocal narration and real voices for the characters. Sierra brilliantly tapped Laugh-In's Gary Owens for the job.

Ten years later, I stand here and say with a clear conscience that there has never been a better or more well-cast narrator in a computer game. Gary's sarcastic, mocking, over-the-top tone was just brilliant. Gary made even stock responses sound condescendingly funny. I found myself clicking every icon in every possible place just to hear everything he could possibly say. Gary Owens simply was a genius, and his genius brought added life to the game.

The game itself was pretty darn good too, featuring the most original plot of any of the six Space Quest games (I'm a sucker for time travel), and an ending that actually choked me up a little bit. The puzzles found a better balance of difficulty than any other game in the series (although a cruel mid-game Sequel Police escape necessitated a lot of Sierra hint-line calls). SQ4 also introduced the hilarious Smell and Taste icons, which served no useful function in the game other than provide Owens with many more hilarious things to say.

Many of the Space Quest games seem a bit anticlimactic; most of the time this is by design, these are sci-fi parodies after all. SQ4 maintained a healthy sense of intrigue and drama throughout, building up to the climax and an appropriately emotional payoff without losing the focus of humor. It's the most heartwarming Space Quest game at the same time as it is the funniest.

In the interest of full disclosure, this is the only game from the Top 20 that I was not able to play through before the rankings. The reason is that, even on the slowest computer I had access to, even with every conceivable slowdown program running at max, the game could not run slow enough to allow me to get past the first 10% of the game. My ranking of this game is based solely on memory and nostalgia, and while I don't think that invalidates the selection, I wanted to be sure and state that clearly for the record.

Memories (at least ones not related to my ex-girlfriend) don't lie, though: Space Quest IV is the most brilliant game in one of the most storied adventure series ever, and that combined with the immortal narration of Gary Owens makes it the #13 adventure game of all-time.

Number 12 adventure game of all time -

#12: The Last Express

"Excuse me, can you tell me which compartment is Tyler Whitney's?"

Developer: Smoking Car Productions
Release date: 1997

I have nothing but respect for a designer who, in this era of twitch-reflex gaming and short attention-span consumers, labors so intensely over a game design to create a setting that can truly enchant the player. Jordan Mechner, creator of the Prince of Persia games, went against every conventional thought of design theory, in an almost kamikaze attempt to do something that had just not been done before. The setting of The Last Express, the resulting product that both began and ended Mechner's Smoking Car Productions studio, is nothing short of sheer brilliance. The idea of riding a train through Europe in the midst of a heap of political drama is exciting enough in itself. This isn't just any train though; it's the famed Orient Express, running from Paris to Constantinople. And the time isn't just any era; it's late July of 1914—the week that World War I began.

The Last Express, though imperfect to be sure, is a masterpiece in many respects. You play Robert Cath, summoned to Europe by an old friend named Tyler Whitney who requests your assistance on the train. Once you get there, Tyler's been brutally murdered, and that's just the beginning of the mystery. As you assume Tyler's identity, you will soon be plunged into a mass of political intrigue. There is a member of African royalty with his own private car, who is prepared for some sort of exchange. A German man named August Schmidt seems prepared to sell you some contraband, not to mention an Austrian spy and a group of Serbian nationalists who will give their life (and take yours) for their cause.

This game is unbelievably successful in drawing the gamer into the environment of the train, and almost demands that it be played with the lights dimmed and no extraneous noises so as to appreciate the claustrophobic sounds of the train. It's a small environment indeed; two sleeping cars with eight compartments each, the prince's private car, a dining room, a smoking room, and the baggage car. All the action takes place in these areas. Unlike games such as Beneath a Steel Sky which are scenery-driven in many respects, this game is as completely character-driven as an adventure could be. The characters are distinct and vividly realistic. The main character has a personality, a rarity in most first-person games.

The puzzles are also implemented quite well in this game. There are no frustrating Myst-like puzzles, because Mechner has no desire to hamper your progress in the game. But this isn't a cakewalk; there are quite a few necessary dilemmas that may take the gamer some time to unravel. Most of these are issues of timing, and the skillful balance generally prevents them from becoming exercises in frustration. In the event of death, the player has the freedom to rewind the game's clock to any point in the game and start over from there.

There are two things that I really love about Last Express. One is the technical aspect: TLE features some staggeringly gorgeous graphics and animation. The jerky frame-skipping style of animation takes some getting used to, but in the end it adds to the old-movie feel. When there is full animation, such as cut-scenes when the train pulls into a major station, it is a breathtaking sight. The hand-drawn scenes of Europe are gorgeous. The sound is also noteworthy; an understated classical soundtrack frames the monotonous clatter of train tracks. The voice-acting on this game is absolutely second to none. Obviously there are many different languages being spoken and apparently no expense was spared in hiring the best in voice talent. German, Russian, French, Serbian...each is here, spoken to perfection.

But the feature that I really love is the way time passes whether or not you're doing anything. I always wished that games would incorporate this more. Willy Beamish was one notable game that I appreciated this about. In this game, there are fifteen other passengers aboard, and they work under their own schedule. Herr Schmidt will go have dinner with Miss Wolff at 7:40 whether or not you intercept him in the hall, or sit next to them and eavesdrop, or simply sit in your compartment and examine your inventory. This feature makes it impossible to experience everything in the game the first time through, providing for immense replay value. I hope that more games will utilize this feature in years to come; I'd love to think how it could be utilized in a detective mystery game.

The Last Express is not very useful as a Pepper's Adventures in Time-ish history education device. The European political situation in mid-1914 is complicated, and not easily explained by a computer game. You will find that you enjoy the game much more if you have a fairly decent understanding of what was happening; otherwise the characters' motivations will remain cloudy. Perhaps this can be seen as a weakness, but the game would have lost a tragic amount of its dramatic edge otherwise, and if anything here's a reason for you to bone up on your pre-WW1 history. Sadly, Broderbund was led to believe there was no audience for this game as a result of the high level of storytelling, and the marketing was minimal at best. Suffice it to say the game was a financial failure, and without a doubt the saddest non-success story on this countdown.

The Last Express is not without flaws; it's too short and in true Hollywood fashion, the romantic subplot feels contrived and unnecessary. But five years later, the story is still brilliant, the intrigue and intensity is authentic and believable, and the graphics and voice acting are marvelous. The game still feels brand new. The Last Express is without a doubt worth the price of the ticket, and the #12 adventure game of all-time.