Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter (VGA, 1991)

Now that we've played through most of the King's Quest canon, I feel like it's time to tackle another popular Sierra 3-D Adventure series.  So this week, we're looking at Space Quest I - The Sarien Encounter, designed by the famous "Two Guys from Andromeda," Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy.

We'll be playing the 1991 VGA remake, included with the most recent Space Quest Collection published hastily thrown together by Universal Vivendi.  One notable shortcoming of this package is that the on-disc PDF manual is taken from an earlier 5-game release which did NOT include the VGA remake of Space Quest I.  But it does contain the essential copy-protection material we will need at certain junctures, so I won't complain too much.

The VGA edition opens with a colorful credits sequence, far beyond what the original AGI 160x200, 16-color, PC speaker edition could manage, and an expanded title, Space Quest - Chapter One, a naming convention which never quite caught on:

The setting may have been inspired by another sci-fi comedy adventure, Steve Meretzsky's classic Planetfall.  The player is cast as Roger Wilco, a lowly spacefaring janitor aboard the good ship Arcada.  Space Quest was originally created as a text parser-based animated adventure using Sierra's AGI system, but the industry was changing, and new computer users were not quite as keyboard-literate as the early adopters; the flexible nature of parser-based games gave way to a simple set of action icons, easier to use but also more conducive to trial-and-error puzzle-solving.  This remake is a point-and-click game, which means some of the puzzles are approached differently and more simply than they were originally, while others become more complicated.  But this is still a Space Quest game, and in my opinion the upgraded audiovisuals are worth a little bit of dumbing-down.

As always, I advise interested readers to set this post aside and play Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter (or the original AGI Space Quest)  if you have not previously done so; some of what I am about to discuss will give away the game's truest pleasures, best discovered for oneself.  In other words, go savor the experience on your own if you wish, because beyond this point, sensors detect...


Our hero's ship -- well, the ship where he does his mopping up -- is under alien attack as the game begins, with a destruct timer set to fifteen minutes and counting, as the decidely mantis-like Deltaur ship wraps its claws around the plucked-and-roasted-chicken-shaped Arcada:

Our janitor hero has little insight into what's going on and remarkably little instinct for self-preservation without our guidance.  This opening act relies on lots of exploration and careful maneuvering -- the ship's layout is pretty straightforward, but we have to visit most of the available areas to round up the necessary equipment to access the escape shuttle bay, leave the ship, and solve several puzzles that lie ahead.  The decks are littered with corpses, replete with organs hanging out; it's a fairly dark beginning for a sci-fi comedy, and this version is more graphic than the original edition.

Navigating the ship requires a fair degree of stealth -- random deaths occur, as Roger gets shot by alien patrols, so he needs to hide in closets and rooms, duck out of sight of the guards by walking behind the scenery, and use elevators to move to another floor whenever he hears approaching footsteps.  There are lots of useful objects to hunt down, sometimes indicated only by those telltale Sierra sparkles in each location.  We can retrieve a magnetic unit attached to the now-destroyed Star Generator, here:

We can also obtain a keycard from a dead former janitorial colleague, and speak with a dying scientist who, in my playthrough, uttered "Van Allen Belts!" just before passing away; this seems like an odd choice for last words, but apparently this is part of the copy protection scheme.  We need to select the topic mentioned from a robot-staffed data cartridge retrieval system, and I assume the chosen phrase is randomized in an attempt to ensure the player has legitimate documentation on hand.

The fifteen-minute time limit isn't too tight, at least once we've figured out the basic map, solved the puzzles and made it to the Arcada's shuttle bay.  Sierra's games usually feature unpredictable deaths, but at least Roger Wilco meets his fate in amusing ways.  For instance, we need to open the bay doors before starting up the escape shuttle, a consideration I failed to take into account on my first try here:

The bay door controls are onboard the shuttle, set back behind the pilot's seat.  We should also grab an odd gadget from a drawer in the outer shuttle bay before boarding, as in old-school adventure tradition, we will need it later and cannot come back for it.

After crash-landing on a nearby planet, we need to salvage the shuttle's survival kit and a highly reflective piece of broken cockpit glass from the wreckage.  A huge skeleton nearby covers several screens, with a sign at its tail end that we can't read from the ground.  Roger doesn't have a lot of time for sightseeing, though, as a Sarien spider droid also arrives, in hot pursuit, and explodes whenever it gets close to Roger, so we're clearly going to have to deal with that situation somehow.  It moves pretty quickly and presents one of the more frustrating physical challenges in the Sierra library.

We can explore for just a bit, if we can stay out of the droid's detonation range; underground-dwelling alien serpent creatures called Grell devour Roger if he wanders too far into the desert, but this is just a means of keeping the player corraled inside the map while providing the illusion of wide open alien spaces.

We clearly can't outrun the spider droid, but if we get moving right after crash-landing, we can (with a little random luck) climb up onto the skeleton's backbone and push a loose vertebra onto it; the deadly robot won't follow us up there but will try to approach Roger from below, making it easy to target.

With this immediate threat dispensed with, Roger must deal with the fact he is still in an alien desert; thirst strikes shortly, and will turn Roger into desiccated powder before long.  But the dehydrated water from the shuttle's survival kit can be used to keep him alive.

A creature called the Orat lives within the massive skeleton's skull, but he's none too friendly.  He turns Roger into something like a basketball if approached directly, which is not good, and he doesn't smell too appealing either, according to this little meta-joke:

Another hole beneath the skeleton is intriguing, but Roger just gets eaten if he goes in there, so there's no reason to explore that area.  The sign at the skeleton's tail is a sign of civilization, and if Roger takes the indicated shaft down, he finds himself in a series of underground caves with puzzles and challenges that must be navigated.

Fortunately, they're all pretty straightforward use-item-with-object puzzles.  A bit of sticky plant allows Roger to tangle up (not with) a threatening, many-tentacled grate monster.  He can also use the tip of a stalagmite to plug a small steam geyser and open a door.  The reflective bit of cockpit glass reflects dangerous laser beams and disables them.  As long as we've picked up everything takeable along the way, there are few serious issues here.  Most of the deaths in this area are, therefore, strictly for comic effect and can easily be avoided, but part of the fun of the Space Quest games is seeing Roger purchase the agricultural establishment in various ways, so it's worth experimenting just for fun.

Sierra's early graphic adventures often included physical puzzles requiring tricky maneuvering, just because in the new, animated context these sorts of movement puzzles became workable.  In this game, Roger has to walk carefully to avoid acid dripping from the ceiling, and I found it easier to do with the arrow keys than with mouse clicks.  We have to actually avoid some drops as they drip, but once we're past the first, most dangerous steps it's not too difficult to get through the rest.

Once we've satisfied all of these arbitrary challenges, a large holographic head appears and speaks:

If Roger cannot understand its attempt to communicate, it pitches him unceremoniously back up to the surface.  To produce a more satisfactory result, we have to use the hand icon on the translation gadget from the shuttle bay to turn it on before entering.  Once we can understand the creature, we learn that it wants us to dispose of the Orat.  And sends us back to the surface again with no real new information about how to do that.

So it's off to face the hideous creature we go.  Roger can hide behind a rock in the Orat's cave, which buys us a little time in point-and-click mode to try various objects out on him.  Most of the available props prove useless, but throwing the dehydrated water causes the monster to swallow it and explode, and Roger can collect an unidentifiable Orat part after the dust settles.  This artifact convinces the disembodied head we have done its bidding, and now we can proceed to meet the Keronians, a wise and progressive species of four-armed aliens.

These beings possess a computer, into which we can plug in the data cartridge from the Arcada to learn about Dr. Slash Vohaul, a scientist with the Star Generator project.  He feared the Sariens might invade and stored the plans in this cartridge; the recording provides the all-important Star Generator self-destruct code, which is critical to note; when I played, the secret number given was 4793, but I would guess this is randomized.

The Keronians also provide Roger with transportation to Ulence Flats, and fortunately in the VGA remake we are given the option to Play or Skip the arcade sequence covering Roger's arduous journey across the desert.  (As it took me a few tries here, I was also able to discover that as Roger heads out, sometimes he accidentally backs up and causes a little local property damage, instead of taking off smoothly.)  The arcade sequence isn't complicated -- we just need to steer Roger's transport with the mouse or arrow keys to avoid the oncoming rocks and keep the craft's damage gauge healthy -- but it's not easy either, and it gets more difficult as Roger nears his objective.  I saw this sort of screen quite a bit:

But I persevered, memorizing the early part of the trip during my repeated failures, and finally made it through the whole journey without completely destroying the transport.  We now find ourselves in the tiny desert settlement of Ulence Flats, near the Rocket Bar, a Mos Eisley sort of joint with a used-ship dealership nearby.  There are a number of interesting spaceships on display, and classic sci-fi fans will appreciate a visual and text reference to Wally Wood's 1950s EC comics artwork -- This ship is a real classic - a WalWood WarpBlaster ZX.  (There's another, more explicit Wood reference later, aboard the Sarien ship.)

The nattily-dressed purple gentleman near the bar's door offers to buy Roger's vehicle for 25 buckazoids; if we turn him down, he returns and improves his offer to 30, plus a jetpack.  He also provides some coupons for area businesses, as he represents the local Chamber of Commerce.  This second offer is a deal worth taking; the coupons are good for a discount from the nearby droid dealer, as well as 5 buckazoids and a free Keronian Ale in the Rocket Bar, and if we turn him down this time, he doesn't appear to return.

Inside the bar, Roger needs to buy and consume three beers to overhear someone talking about high-tailing it out of deep space, after witnessing the Deltaur destroying a small planet in sector HA (again, during my playthrough; this is another bit of randomly-selected copy protection, so make note of the sector mentioned.)  An alien Blues Brothers act entertains onstage in the screenshot below, alternating with a Madonna-like singer and a rock band, each with its own music, so it's worth making a few stops just to see and hear the bar's entertainment.

The Slots o' Death machine to the right is exactly what it claims to be -- Roger might win, but will most likely be vaporized by an unlucky spin.  But, unlike the Leisure Suit Larry games where we must keep gambling and saving every time we make a small gain, here we are allowed to cheat -- we can attach the magnetic widget we brought from the Arcada to disrupt the one-armed assassin's workings and come up with three non-death icons every time.  How much money do we need to raise?  Well, the machine renders itself out of order after Roger wins 300 buckazoids or thereabouts, so that will probably have to do.

Of course, Roger gets held up outside the bar if he's not careful.  But if we get him safely away from the seedier part of town, he can negotiate with the automated system (with a Robby the Robot-style pick-up attendant) at Droids B Us.  Some droids cannot be bought for various reasons, or are present strictly for referential humor's sake, like the Max robot that calls Disney's 1970s science-fiction bomb The Black Hole to mind.  So we will probably need to save and restore as we try to determine which one will be the most useful.  This turns out to be easier than one might expect -- we can only buy a few of the available robots, and the SUX explodes, while the Def-Tech military droid requires assembly skills far beyond Roger's abilities.  So we eventually end up with the NAV-201 navigation droid, not a bad choice if we know our Star Wars.

The used spacecraft salesman has a couple of worthy vehicles on the lot, or appears to; again, there's actually only one, the Drallion Cruiser, that is both affordable and suited to Roger's needs.  We run into the copy protection again as we take off from Ulence Flats, headed for... Xenon, I believe?  No, we have a mission: to intercept the Sarien cruiser in the sector mentioned in the bar.  We must consult the manual to translate the alphabetic sector name into the keypad's symbology, and give instructions to our faithful droid:

This third act of the story is relatively brief, but we will need a few so-far-unused items acquired during Roger's travels to survive here.  When we arrive in the target sector, the robot wants to leave, but Roger refuses, donning the jetpack to approach the alien ship's entry door.  Once aboard, we confirm that this is the Sarien ship Deltaur, and Roger gets zapped or trapped if we don't take advantage of an early opportunity to escape the aggressively efficient Sarien decontamination chamber.  Some stealth is required until we can use Roger's swiss army knife to enter the ship's vent system, and eventually get laundry-tumbled into a Sarien guard uniform, at which point most of Roger's inventory gets lost and he's down to a single buckazoid.

An extra-big, super-tough Sarien guard keeps watch over the Star Generator, but we can see that he has a gadget of some kind on his belt.  Roger's disguise keeps him fairly safe, but he still can't attack the guards directly.  Fortunately, there's a shipboard Weapons Dispensary, staffed by a put-upon droid probably inspired by Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  But he won't serve Roger without proper ID, which I had initially failed to pick up in the laundry room; once our papers are in order, we can steal a single gas grenade from behind the counter while the droid is fetching the standard-issue pistol belonging to Roger's assumed identity.

We can shoot random Sarien guards with the pistol, but Roger's a bit klutzy, and tends to accidentally lose his helmet in action, after which point we can't retrieve the other gas grenade from the Weapons Dispensary.  So we need to use the first grenade, replace it, and then shoot to vaporize as we work our way back to the Star Generator chamber.

At last, Roger can gas the guard, grab the remote control on his belt, enter the code learned earlier from the data cartridge, and vamoose.  But it's not very easy to locate the all-important control panel in this point-and-click version of Space Quest -- I clicked all over the place before finally bringing up the closeup view allowing entry of the code.  If we try to look at it first, using the eye icon, Roger sees it, but in the process he moves to stand directly in front of it so we can't actually click on it.  It definitely makes one yearn for the simplicity of a text-based parser. 

If we give up on this unnecessarily irritating challenge and forget to set the destruct sequence, Xenon gets vaporized just as Roger approaches, so it's an ending but not really a happy one:

If we managed to fight our way past the interface and eliminate the Sarien threat, a grand celebration ensues.  Roger is given a golden mop, and we are informed that there are more adventures to come (though, as it turned out, only this single VGA remake was produced.)  Xenon's ruler, incidentally, looks a bit like later incarnations of King Graham from the King's Quest series -- the ending is slightly lukewarm here, but I don't think I actually missed anything this time; Roger is just a fair-to-middling hero:

I never played the AGI version of Space Quest I -- I joined the series in progress with the first SCI entry, Space Quest III, back in the day -- but I played this VGA version when it was new and enjoyed revisiting it.  Sometime soon we'll take a look at Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge, which places us squarely back in AGI territory -- it's also a bit of a misnomer, as we've never really faced down anyone by that name in this game; the scientist Slash Vohaul seems to be a good guy from what we know of the family name here.  But sci-fi sequels always seem to thrive on the classic revenge motif, and I'm not about to second-guess Two Guys from Andromeda.


  1. This game is close to my heart as it was the first point and click adventure which I played ages ago when this set first came out. I have to say I rather the original 16-colour version over the VGA version though, but I guess I'm just a bit of purist like that.

  2. You got that message at the end because you forgot to take the data cart back after you viewed it on Kerona...

  3. Ah, that makes sense -- I should have kept it in inventory instead of just being aware that such a blueprint existed. I miss the onscreen score display from the SCI games!