?Sierra Entertainment. The name alone is enough to conjure up titanic waves of nostalgia for any gamer with a sense of history. With that legendary crest logo and accompanying theme, they were, in there heyday, like the Hollywood of electronic entertainment, or at least the Disney. Now, it and fellow adventure legend LucasArts are both seen as icons of a bygone age though, perhaps “bygone” isn’t exactly the right word, seeing as adventure games seem to be having a comeback. But for much the ’80’s and ’90s, Sierra was an indisputable powerhouse and set the standard for the graphical exploration-based game; heck, they practically invented it.
As with a lot of older pieces of entertainment, it can be difficult to look at these titles without one’s judgment getting completely be-fogged by nostalgia. For many of us, these were our introduction not just to computer games, but to computers in general; I can’t say for sure that I’d know half of what I do about Windows if Ken and Roberta Williams didn’t force me to make sure I had sufficient “heap space” to run their software (and if you get THAT reference, you probably need a hug and a good cry). But with appreciation slowly returning for these classics, it seems a fitting time to re-examine the best works developed by this dream-factory. Shall we?
10) Police Quest II: The Vengeance
Of Sierra’s Quest Family, Police Quest is probably the most underappreciated series. The concept was ambitious, as Ken Williams and former police officer Jim Walls sought to create an interactive crime thriller not only set in the real world but beholden to actual regulations and procedure. In the first game, in which series hero Sonny Bonds was a California patrol officer in the fictional town of Lytton, it meant pulling people over and spending a lot of time gambling undercover. In this sequel, Bonds has been promoted to detective, and while protocol is still an issue, the activities you get to do are a little more varied and engaging than giving speeding tickets. You must track down your old foe, criminal mastermind Jessie Bains (supposedly based on a real person) before he kills you, your girlfriend and the others who testified against him. This necessarily leads to gunplay, SWAT team raids, bomb disposal and even a scuba diving mission. And as with the first game, one unlawful move could sink your entire career and net you a finger-wagging endgame message from the pixelated head of Jim Walls himself (the Game Over screen in the third Police Quest was even more hilarious). So not only can you not draw your gun willy-nilly, you have to make sure you’re in a situation when doing so is legally justified. You would think all of this would make the game too strict, but it actually makes it more fun, in a weird way, since there’s at least logic to the puzzles, even if it’s government-mandated logic. Don’t forget the funky synthesizer score, another element that makes this feel like an episode of some lost ’80s cop show. In a good way. The best, in fact.
9) Lighthouse: The Dark Being
Sierra’s later forays into the first-person genre were generally ill-fated, tedious orgies of pain, with a focus on self-contained, annoying sequences like sliding puzzles. The one good game to follow this model, Lighthouse, had its fair share of frustrating moments, but balanced that out with an intriguing concept and an involving expansion of the Myst formula. The story has you journey from an Oregon lighthouse into an alternate dimension to find and rescue an eccentric scientist and his newborn daughter from the titular Dark Being. This Dark Being’s evil plan is to bring bad technology to his otherwise idyllic dimension, and stopping him means you must also fight weird-looking monsters and clockwork bird-people. Essentially, Lighthouse is Myst, only with more of a plot, more characters, timed action sequences, an inventory, and a villain that appears onscreen. So in my book, it’s an improvement all ’round. Yes, there’s the underground track maze (mazes are the bane of my gamer existence) and the unlocking-the-safe bit took me forever to do right for some reason. Take those away, and you have a unique, overlooked little title.
8) The Colonel’s Bequest
I feel like there should have been one more Laura Bow game than we got. The Dagger of Amon Ra was punishing and badly written but the whole campy 1920s murder-mystery thing had potential. As such, we can take heart in the fact that the first Bow game, The Colonel’s Bequest, does a few things right that its later sequel missed. You are indeed Laura Bow, a young journalist and would-be sleuth visiting the plantation of a friend in order to hear her aged old uncle declare his will to his remaining offspring. Naturally nobody is satisfied with his arrangement and so there are secret conversations, lies, and murders as the night ticks away. The dialogue is silly and the characters stock, but the environment is rich, spooky and atmospheric, and it’s possible to complete the game without learning everything or even solving the case correctly, which can inspire multiple replays. There’s also the shameless, leery French-maid-undressing-behind-double-doors scene, which certainly must have inspired multiple plays back in the day, if you know what I mean.
7) Island of Dr. Brain
I’ve spoken of this one before, but it deserves another mention, as it is not only a great educational game but a neat hybrid adventure as well. Having discovered the lair of the titular mad scientist in a previous game, you are now tasked to go to his secret island to retrieve a battery for his latest top secret project. This game is so effortlessly educational, it teaches you basic geography skills during the copy protection puzzle! While exploring a castle is cool, if kind of creepy, exploring a tropical island is a lot cooler, especially one with its own volcano and everything. Rock and roll. There are puzzles about all sorts of topics from chemistry to art history (making this the only adventure game I know of to feature a bust of Dali As part of a puzzle), and the familiar icon interface makes it feel like part of the Sierra clan of classic adventures. There’s an inventory, adjustable difficulty level, hints, and (in the CD-rom version) even a fully voiced, creepy Dr. Brain to congratulate you. No doubt in the director’s cut he also buzzes in and asks you awkward questions about your bowel movements in front of all your best friends.
6) Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers
There are some games that I swear know that they’re impossible to beat, and the fourth entry in Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe’s legendary sci-fi/comedy saga seems to enjoy flummoxing the player at every turn. How can I tell? Because the narrator, Laugh-In vet Gary Owens, seems to take an inordinate amount of glee in informing you of the many ways you can “fade from the living organism club”, and in a game in which death doesn’t lurk so much as stomp around waving and shouting your name, it’s a refreshing touch of honesty (though it doesn’t make dying any easier). It’s for this that Time Rippers is so dear to my heart; well, that and the craziness of the “plot”, which starts as a kind of Terminator riff but soon spins off into its own deranged orbit of meta-silliness. Space janitor/loser Roger Wilco stumbles through various Space Quests both real and imagined to save his home planet and future son from voice-modulated villain Sludge Vohaul. This includes a jaunt to the AGI graphics of the very first Space Quest, where monochrome bikers harass you for being in better resolution than them. There are also the villainous Sequel Police, androids dedicated to tracking our hero down throughout his various adventures. But Owens steals the show, so much so that they brought him back for the sixth and final game in the series, sadly overdoing it there by having nearly every observation turn into a smartass conversation between him and Roger. Sometimes simplest is best. Owens’ performance here is so good and so rich with memorable lines it makes up for the hilariously bad Roger, who sounds kind of like a constantly surprised flamboyant surfer. Actually, the Roger performance is part of why I love this one so much.
5) Space Quest V: The Next Mutation
But much as I admire Mr. Owens, I have to admit that as a whole product the fifth Space Quest is the better game in the series. It’s not just that it’s a little longer than the others, or that it features an exotic range of different planets with silly names to explore. No, it’s because this is the only Space Quest that really succeeds in going beyond being a goofy parody (although it’s definitely that) and developing a real story with characters we care about, kind of. This time, the spoofed property in question is the original Star Trek (it is surely no coincidence that our oft-killed protagonist’s new outfit includes a red shirt), though other sci-fi staples like Alien, Terminator and The Fly get the same treatment. But this game simply has a tighter plot than the others, which is to say it has a plot at all: Roger is accidentally made captain of an interstellar garbage scow and must stop a band of pirates from contaminating the galaxy with toxic sludge. Along the way he must also thwart a killer android and befriend a tiny acid-dripping facehugger. The game’s art style is suitably colorful and comic-booky, and even though the final ship airvent maze is typically frustrating, this stands as a more textured excursion into the Questoverse. So while the fourth is my favorite, the fifth is more of an achievement. It’s not as funny, but it makes a little more sense, so there’s your trade-off.
4) Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood
You know, there aren’t enough really good Robin Hood video games. Or maybe it’s just that Conquests of the Longbow is so great we don’t really need anything else. If you have any doubts about this game, they should end around the time you corner a soldier of Prince John shortly after the beginning, and instead of talking him down or using some oddly appropriate inventory item you can just shoot him in the chest with an arrow. Pretty awesome. This certainly isn’t the bloodless child-friendly Robin Hood you might be led to believe but the more robust, swashbuckley one of yore, with flowing locks and a proper beard instead of that prissy little moustache and goatee. Plus, there’s a lot of variety in the gameplay and a long, developed story chock-full of Medieval flavor and atmosphere, indicated by the insanely high number of possible points you can obtain (over 7000!). An improvement over the earlier King Arthur-themed Conquests of Camelot (also developed by Jem creator Christy Marx), this is another mytho-historical romp complete with arcade sequences and all sorts of branching decisions and alternate endings. But despite the odd infuriating wall-climbing bit, it’s an adventure game at its core, and a damn fun one at that.
3) Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness
Or, The One That’s Narrated by John Rhys-Davies. Yes, you heard me. But even if the mighty Welsh elephant himself hadn’t lent his dulcet tones to the CD-rom version of this classic, this would still stand as the best entry in Sierra’s lone tongue-in-cheek RPG/adventure franchise. Why? Eerie setting, more detailed conversation trees, more involved plot. And need I mention the Rusalka? Ah, the Rusalka. Like every Quest for Glory, this one drops your hero character into a strange land heavily modeled after a certain culture or mythology. This one is primarily eastern-European/Russian, although it’s extrapolated to a more general “spooky” theme, borrowing from Universal horror movies and other stock sources of Halloween-esque monster mashery. There’s also the reappearance of other QFG villains, like sorcerer Ad Avis, who works with a misguided kinky vampire babe in a plot to summon the evil Lovecraftian superbeing known as Avoozl. The main counts against Shadows are usually the awkward combat system and the extensive amount of bugs in the original release, but there have since been patches made and the fighting sequences can be avoided via computer if you want to be a puss about it. Otherwise it’s a solid distillation of the things that made this series fun and memorable: a town, many squares of magical forest, puzzles, random encounters, castles, diverging quests, horrible puns. And though there is a maze, at least the main town isn’t made up of an impossible-to-navigate labyrinth, like SOME Quest for Glories I could mention.
2) King’s Quest 6: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow
Not only the best in the series, but the last great or even remotely good one. You take control of Prince Alexander (voiced by none other than Beauty and the Beast’s Robby Benson), he of the unfortunate scarf/jacket combination who travels to the Land of the Green Isles (not Ireland) to seek the hand of Princess Cassima and ends up embroiled in a plot to stop the evil Vizier (just once I’d like to meet a kindly, gentle vizier who offers you hot chocolate and a place to stay). Once again, there is a delightful non-linear feel, with optional quests and alternate endings, as well as a nice variety of fairy tale/fantasy locations, from a Lewis Carroll-inspired island to the Land of the Dead. The range of themes and mythologies drawn from gives this one an especially epic feel. No doubt the unusually layered plot, which expands mightily on the standard “go take out the bad guy and save someone” objective, has something to do with the involvement of star writer Jane Jensen, who worked on this shortly before launching her own projects. And speaking of which…
1) Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers
Nerds don’t seem to be able to agree about much, but if there’s one thing we can all break bread over it’s that the first Gabriel Knight game was pretty incredible. A critical smash in its day, it tells the story of the titular reckless novelist and New Orleans bookstore owner who investigates a series of local murders and soon must thwart an evil Voodoo conspiracy, all while accepting his destiny as the latest in a long line of anti-paranormal crusaders. What’s astonishing about this one is that while it’s still undoubtedly a Sierra title in style, it’s an oddity in that 1) most of the puzzles are intuitive, 2) most of the events of the first two-thirds of the game can be tackled in a non-linear fashion, and 3) you generally can’t fuck yourself over later on by forgetting to do something crucial in the beginning. This means that although it is possible to die, you are encouraged to explore and try everything on everything the way a pixelated adventurer should. But most importantly of all is the tone of this game: it’s not completely free of the cheesy writing or groan-inducing puns native to most Sierra productions, but it generally reaches for a higher level of maturity that their “adult” games never got anywhere near. Series creator Jane Jensen takes her characters and her world seriously, and the amount of care that went into the research and development of Gabriel Knight is evident from the very beginning.
It’s hard for me not to blather on and on about how great this game is, even by today’s standards. It’s not perfect (that interface certainly could have used a trimming) but it is engrossing, and remains priceless as evidence of Tim Curry’s adorable inability to do a Cajun accent, though he still manages to disappear into the role all the same (also Micheal Dorn is in it! And Mark Hamill!). Clearly most of the internet agrees with me on how awesome Gabriel Knight is, as there’s a whole movement devoted to campaigning for a fourth game. Heck, even the AV Club thinks it’s cool, which means you may be seeing bearded college kids in homemade Schattenjager t-shirts sooner than you’d think.