Thursday, September 04, 2008


I finally broke down and got a Playstation 3. The game that did me in, and the one I bought with my purchase, was Grand Theft Auto IV. I finally have a next-generation console capable of playing the latest and greatest games. So, of course, I'm spending my evening playing classic Sierra games from the 1980's and 1990's.

I'll do a full GTA IV review at some point; suffice to say for now that it is giving San Andreas a run for its money in the Best Series Entry championship (and, thus, a spot on my Top Five All-Time). As weird as it sounds, I feel like San Andreas is underrated - I read a lot of reviews when GTA IV came out that said something like, "Finally, a game with a protagonist who feels like a real character!", prompting me to wonder if I was alone in finding CJ to be a complex, interesting character. Be that as it may, Niko is compelling in his own right, and in my opinion the best advantages of this technological advance is not greater explosions, but the ability to realistically render his sad eyes.

So GTA IV is awesome, but you can just spend so much time battling gangsters from every ethnic mob imaginable (orthodox Jewish crooks? really?), so I was pleased to have a diversion in the form of the Quest for Glory II Remake. As previously noted, Hero's Quest / Quest for Glory is one of the most influential series that I've played, and QFG2 had some particularly intriguing elements. It makes some surprising departures from its predecessor, adding realistic timed events, a revamped combat system, and the concept of "honor". The setting is very exotic as well, set as it is in an Arabian fantasy.

QFG2 is the only game in the series that was never made available with VGA graphics. In one of their few good moves of the past 15 years, Sierra gave their blessing to ADG Interactive to remake the game and update the graphics. This took them, um, six years. Yeah. I first heard of this project ages ago, and never really tuned in, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they were finally releasing it.

I'm used to retro gaming only becoming available through open-source projects. This can happen in one of three forms. First, you have platform emulators like DOSBOX or WINE. These aren't targeted at a specific game, or even for games in general; instead, they try to trick a game into thinking that it is running on a particular operating system (like MS-DOS 5) and hardware (like a 286), and transform its behavior to play nicely with modern computers. Because they are the most widely useful, these tend to be the most advanced, and you have the advantage of experiencing the game in close to its original format, including the true graphics and sound.

The second category is an engine rewrite. My favorite example of this is Exult, a project that I've followed for nearly a decade that is dedicated to resurrecting Ultima VII. Unlike platform emulators, engine rewrites are focused on a particular game (like Ultima), or occasionally a set of games that share the same underlying engine (such as Sierra's SCI, or LucasArt's SCUMM). These games re-use the original game files, which generally include audio, images, and scripting, but rewrite the core engine that handles things like saving games, combat, and overall game logic. Because these projects aren't seeking to emulate an entire platform, they can often get started more quickly - it actually isn't that hard to, say, decode a Sierra image and draw it to the screen. Because they're focused on particular games, they can often get a dedicated team around them quickly, assuming that the game in question is popular. And depending on how the project is run, the end result may be easily portable to a wide variety of platforms like Windows, Mac, Linux, Amiga, OS/2, etc. etc. In my experience, though, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, these projects generally bog down. Writing a good engine is hard, especially when you don't have insight into how the original worked. (Projects tend to follow "clean-room" implementation rules, since there are legal issues with reverse-compiling and modifying the original code.) Often an engine will become 50% effective in the first few months, 90% effective by the end of the first year - and then never actually finish. There are always those last few annoying edge cases, which often have to do with historical peculiarities like the EMS memory model of the early 1990's or re-implementing artificial intelligence.

The final category is a full game rewrite or "tribute". This approach tosses all the original content - icons, sound clips, game logic and source code - and remakes it from scratch. Examples include FreeCiv, Tetris, Pac-Man and countless games that never made it past the alpha stage. The problem here is that, in general, someone who is an excellent coder is not also an excellent artist, musician, QA engineer, and promoter. Even decades ago, games required teams of a dozen or more people, who were being paid to work full-time on the game. It's no wonder that people don't try this with modern games. Even when they restrict themselves to games that used to fit on a single 360KB floppy, it's really hard to stick with these things - either they're shooting to be as good as the original, in which case, why bother? or they're trying to update it to take advantage of modern device capabilities, in which case it's really hard to program and make it look good.

With all that background: The QFG2 remake was NOT an open source project. I kept on wondering what this project would have looked like if it was. What ADG did was periodically release teaser screenshots or the periodic YouTube video showing the progress they were making. In an open source project, people could have downloaded code as it was being developed and experience the game in whatever its current state of maturity was. Personally, I probably would have tried it out as soon as an early alpha became available. I would have spent an hour building it, maybe submitted a couple of minor patches that would be justifiably ignored ("Hey, you know what would be awesome? If you took these patches that cleaned up your compiler warnings! All right!"), and then played it for ten minutes. I would think, "This is really cool! Ah, what memories it evokes." Then, "Well, it's clear that they have a lot of work left to do." Finally, "I see enough segfaults in real life. I don't need to deal with them in gaming, too." I would have then ignored it until it was officially released. The problem, though, is that open source projects don't have the same release cycle of commercial software. You typically get to that 90-95% threshhold relatively rapidly, most people adopt it, and then development chugs along for a bit longer while the final kinks are worked out, but most people never update because they're happy with what they have. So I might have grabbed a beta, been disappointed, and never returned; or I might have waited for years and years. Which is what I ended up doing, except I didn't have the choice, and all things considered maybe that's OK.

So, how is the game itself? Pretty good. It looks nice, although again, keep in mind that this is just a VGA remake, and even that makes it sound better than it is, since the actual output is apparently 320x240 pixels. So, while it's far better looking that the original, it is a far, far cry from anything like modern games.

Interestingly, even though this is a full rewrite, gameplay seems to be identical to the original: dialog is exactly the same, the settings screen is exactly the same ("Silly Clowns" and all), even the alley system works the same (although it looks much different). They did make a couple of user-selectable options that control how the input works and how tough the alleys are to navigate.

Oh, controls probably deserve a special mention. My one complaint so far is that they also switched the game to use the later icon-based method, largely replacing text input. This makes me sad. Granted, most people will find this system far more intuitive and friendly, but I actually find it quicker to just type "look chico" than to right-click four times, move my cursor to the left of the screen, and then click. I dunno. I think movement based on the cursor makes a lot of sense - walking using the arrow keys was always tedious - but for all other game interactions, I would prefer to be using the keyboard.

So I was happy and nostalgic, but also a little unsatisfied. I'm not even sure why, but for some reason I downloaded (does it count as "pirated" if a game is over 20 years old?) "Manhunter 2: San Francisco." I think I first learned that this game existed just a month or so ago, when I was doing some browsing related to the QFG2 remake. It slightly predates my main period of infatuation with Sierra, and is a definite peculiarity. Just the little material I found online piqued my interest, so I decided to try it for myself.

Hmm, where to begin.

Sierra isn't really a family-friendly company, "King's Quest" notwithstanding. Games like Police Quest and especially Leisure Suit Larry were pointed at adults, and took the sort of liberties you might expect. That being said, the Manhunter games predated those series, and their combination of weirdness, gore, and darkness are unlike any other Sierra game I've played.


Disclaimer: I haven't played the first Manhunter (set in New York), and am only partly into the second one.

The Manhunter games are set in a post-apocalyptic future, after the Earth has been invaded and Humanity enslaved. When reading the backstory for the game, I was suddenly reminded (for the first time in YEARS) of the "Tripods Trilogy", a Scholastic sci-fi series I read in elementary school that dealt with the aftermath of a similar enslavement. Here, though, the invaders are the Orbs, basically giant flying eyeballs. They tightly control every aspect of human life, but cannot directly affect anything. Instead they rely on their robot creations, or, when the robots are inadequate, Manhunters, humans who have been privileged to carry out the Orb's bidding.

I probably wouldn't have grabbed this game if San Francisco hadn't been in the title. It actually seems relatively faithful to the city, which is surprising and cool. The game was set far enough ago that much of the city has changed - there's no tower at Rincon Hill, no dot-coms in SOMA, and most startling, the freeway on-ramps to the Bay Bridge are still intact. You can visit the Embarcadero Fountain (today known as Justin Hermann Miller Plaza), various piers, Victorian apartments, and multiple spots in Chinatown (more on that later). The gameplay itself is also very different from most Sierra games, and I was extremely surprised to read that it evidently uses the same engine as "Mystery House" and other pre-King's Quest Sierra games. Most of the game is shown in the first person, with you clicking through a series of static frames. Many of these are simple, showing a landscape, but some are cinematic, dramatically portraying a gruesome corpse or charging dog. Occasionally the game shifts into third-person perspective and you can actually see your Manhunter, clad in his mandatory robe, as he shuffles through the city solving a murder case.

Other elements are vintage Sierra, especially hitting Tab to bring up your Inventory screen. But, there is no typing in this game. Much like games a decade later, you move a cursor around the screen (using the keyboard, ew!) and select things that look interesting. This seems both retro and ahead of its time, because it actually follows the one-cursor-for-every-action model, not the multiple action selection that Sierra would adopt first. This is actually less annoying than many of those games, because the cursor clearly changes shape when you're on an item you can interact with, so you aren't left to click on everything in the screen in the hopes of finding the magic pixel. (Although, in certain dire straits, you may feel compelled to sweep the cursor over the entire screen.)

Gameplay is a mish-mash of the mystery game, which requires you to investigate various locations and collect clues, and mini arcade games, which range from the tolerable to the infuriating, but at least are varied. You might need to stomp on face-eating rats, dodge between boxes to avoid homicidal robots, keep your balance on a slippery bridge over a pool of acid, or swim to a drainage pipe. The controls are different for every mini-game, and while none are particularly fun, they do break up the action nicely.

Despite the aliens, probably the most anachronistic aspect of the game is its use of racial stereotypes. While playing the game, I was really struck by just how recent the PC movement in our country has been. I don't think you could actually call the game racist, but it does have a confused and odd perspective on the Asian people who make up a large fraction of San Francisco's population. Chinamen are portrayed with bright yellow skin, slanty eyes, and long mustaches. You will be either surprised or annoyed to learn that there are apparently ninjas in Chinatown. Probably the most hilarious thing I've come across so far, though, is this evil-looking levitating Buddha statue.

One thing I really appreciate about the game: it's willing to make the player do the hard work of unraveling the mystery. You collect clues in the form of newspaper clippings, corpse sightings, identification cards, etc., and need to piece them together yourself. There is no real exposition or narration in the game to explain what has just happened. This contributes to the very raw feel of the game.

I have to admit that I've been relying on Gamefaqs as I make my way through this, specifically the oldest Gamefaq that I know of in existence. I try to avoid these kind of hints, especially for adventure games, but the controls and mini-games are annoying enough that I know I would drop this game if I had to go through it unassisted. So far, most of the puzzles have been reasonable, but there are a few I would never have gotten on my own... for example, figuring out that you need to take four pinches of powder from the urn with the "Heaven" symbol on it. I'm treating this as a historical artifact as much as an actual game, so I'm perfectly willing to compromise my pride to uncover more of the game.


It doesn't really surprise me that Manhunter proved a dead end in Sierra's quest to build franchises. However, the very idiosyncrasies that killed it are what make it interesting today. I can't say that it's a better game than King's Quest I, but I have no desire to play King's Quest I again. There's a certain sense of danger in Manhunter, both from the scenes of violence in the game and the unconventional style that drives it, and that sense keeps me off balance and intrigued.

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