Friday, November 16, 2012

Space Quest III For MS-DOS

Space Quest III is a remarkable game for a lot of reasons. The PC version was one of the first games to support a mouse and Sound Blaster card, for example. But what I find most remarkable about it is how unremarkable its story is. The other Space Quest games pit you, an everyman shlub, against impossible odds, and the fates of entire galaxies are decided by the actions you take; typical ho-hum adventure game plots. But in Space Quest III, the stakes are far lower and the adversities you face are far more mundane. In many ways, it's a game about nothing in particular, and SQ3 never lets plot get in the way of a good joke. It's Seinfeld in space.

Like the first two Space Quest games, SQ3 is an early graphical adventure game, and as such, it still sports a text parser. You guide the hero, Roger Wilco, using a mouse, joystick, or arrow keys, and you issue commands such as USE OBJECT, PRESS BUTTON or LOOK AROUND by typing them. SQ3's parser has a larger vocabulary than its predecessors, making issuing the right commands to Roger much less an exercise in frustration. As the last in the series to use a text parser and the first to use a mouse, SQ3 marks the beginning of a sea change to the simpler point-and-click style gameplay that now dominates the adventure genre.

Space Quest III picks up shortly after the events of the previous game. Roger is in cryogenic sleep inside an escape pod drifting in space. His pod is retrieved by a robotic garbage scow, which considers it just another piece of space flotsam. Roger wakes up inside the scow, and as the game proper begins, he looks for a means to escape. With a little exploration and puzzle-solving, Roger soon gains access to a new spaceship, the Aluminum Mallard. He hits the spaceways and swings by planet Phleebhut to asks for directions at an alien tourist trap. He runs afoul of an Arnoid model debt-collector robot, grabs a bite to eat at Monolith Burgers, plays a few rounds of Astro Chicken, and after revealing a call for help hidden in the game, finally stumbles into the game's plot. The Two Guys From Andromeda, a couple of game designers modeled after real-life Space Quest creators Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, have been kidnapped by space pirates and forced to make crappy videogames for shady game company, ScumSoft. For reasons never really explained, Roger takes it upon himself to liberate the Two Guys, and thwart the evil machinations of ScumSoft's prepubescent CEO, Elmo Pug.

A common complaint with SQ3 is that it's too short; that its plot really gets going just before the game ends. While that's true, the fun of SQ3 is in the ride, not its conclusion. The game has a very wry sense of humor, and pop culture references abound. The garbage scow is packed full of derelicts from classic sci-fi movies and TV shows, and LOOKing at every last one of them produces a winking reference or an offhand comment from the narrator. Astro Chicken, SQ3's game-within-a-game, is a deliberately lame sendup of cheap shovelware games. ScumSoft's evil lair is depicted as the kind of soul-crushing corporate cubicle farm Murphy and Crowe felt Sierra On-Line to be back in the 80s. There are some very devious puzzles lurking in SQ3, behind all the jokes and winks. They usually make more sense than the puzzles in the first two games, but make no mistake: this is an old-school adventure game. There's no hand-holding at all, and it's possible at several points to miss some object critical to completing the game. Save early, save often!

Of course, like all classic Sierra games, Space Quest III will kill you as frequently and creatively as it can. Wrong steps, careless commands, close encounters with nasties, or even loitering will violently launch Roger into an early grave. While a certain perverse pleasure can be derived from viewing all of the many unique ways Roger can die, the fact that it happens so easily and so frequently makes exploring the locations in SQ3 an exercise in frustration. Again, frequent saves are a must to avoid too much backtracking, especially for players unfamiliar with the various hazards in the game. This was common practice for most old adventure games, but the constant threat of death is antithetical to the spirit of exploration that good adventure games should engender. I'm glad the practice fell out of favor with the release of the decidedly non-fatal LucasArts adventure games.

For a 16-color EGA game,  Space Quest III looks remarkably good. As the first in the series to abandon support for older 8-bit computers, SQ3 supports a higher screen resolution, allowing Roger and the world he inhabits to look much less like a stack of Lego blocks. SQ3 employs a pseudo-3D look, as Roger can move behind objects in the foreground, and he scales appropriately while moving closer to or further away from the camera. Given the hardware limitations they had to work within, the artists squeezed a lot of detail into most of the game's graphics. The planets Roger visits look suitably alien and unique from each other. Cheesy slices of Americana, like fast food restaurants and roadside tourist traps are expertly transposed to the futuristic setting of Space Quest without losing their mundane, plasticy charm.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the game's incredibly catchy MIDI soundtrack. Featuring original music composed by ex-Supertramp drummer Bob Siebenberg, SQ3's soundtrack is a cohesive collection of related pieces; closer to a movie score than a typical video game's disjointed of collection background music. The classic Space Quest theme permeates the soundtrack, interpreted as a triumphant opening theme one moment, and as tinkly supermarket muzac the next. Like most games that utilize MIDI tracks, the quality of the music's reproduction varies wildly with the type of computer playing it, or in the PC's case, the sound hardware installed. Played through a lowly Sound Blaster card, SQ3 is certainly enjoyable, but gamers lucky enough to have owned a Roland MT-32 synthesizer or LAPC-I card in 1989 were treated to the most spectacular-sounding video game music available.

As a testament to its lasting appeal, the Space Quest series has remained available in one format or another for over 25 years. Today, has a bundle of the first three games available for purchase online. Even better, a collection of all six original games, as well as the VGA remakes of SQ1 & 2 was released on CD-ROM by Sierra in 2006. Though it's now out of print, copies are readily available on eBay, and all games in the collection play superbly inside DOSbox.

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