Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon (1989)

Time to pick up where we last left off playing through one of Sierra's influential 3-D Animated Adventure series, with Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon, created once again by the original Two Guys From Andromeda, Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy and published by Sierra in 1989.  I played this one back in the day on the Atari ST, which was as far as I can see identical to the IBM PC version I'm playing here; Sierra's format was standardized so the same graphic and audio data and gameplay scripting could be used on all machines, with custom interpreters for each platform.

This was the first Space Quest game to use Sierra's new SCI interpreter, which doubled the graphic resolution of the earlier AGI games to 320 x 200, though it remained limited to 16 colors at this time and still featured a text parser interface (later, controversially, replaced with a strictly point-and-click approach.)  The biggest advance was really in the audio department, with support for MIDI and specifically the Roland MT-32 sound module.  Most of Sierra's first-round SCI games featured impressive MT-32 scores created by established composers, and this one's no exception -- the soundtrack is by Bob Siebenberg of the 1970s rock group Supertramp, and kicks the action off with a nice rock mix of the Space Quest theme.

When we last left our janitorial hero, Roger Wilco, he had settled in for a long sleep after escaping Sludge Vohaul in Space Quest II: Vohaul's Revenge.  As The Pirates of Pestulon opens,
Roger's ship is scanned by a robot-piloted junk trawler and drawn in as scrap; his suspended animation interrupted, Roger awakes in the hold.

I always encourage interested readers to play these games before proceeding here, and even though it's now more than two decades old, Space Quest III is still readily and inexpensively available for Windows PCs as part of the 2006 Space Quest Collection, in retail box form or via Steam.  As usual, I will be playing through the game and documenting its quirks, plotline and puzzles for history's sake, so there are certain to be...


This is still a parser-based game, though the text line is hidden until the player starts typing.  LOOK and EXAMINE JUNK don't reveal anything interesting, so we might as well explore the ship.  A rocket stage, fairly intact, lies to the east.

There's a nice simulated-3D shadow effect here (cast on the wall) as Roger explores the tube.  The description doesn't really tell us much at a room level, but we can GET WIRE if we take the only decent piece of wire available toward the left side of the screen.  At the other end of the tunnel we find a large metal Battlebot head, reminiscent of a Transformer.  It has a broken window eye, and as this seems a good time to check inventory, we note that Roger is still carrying a Glowing Gem left over from Space Quest II.

And, of course, we can fall off a barely visible boundary toward the bottom edge of the screen, dying in the usual colorful Sierra manner.

We have to be careful with our keyboard or joystick-driven maneuvering to walk Roger close enough to CLIMB WINDOW and enter the Battlebot's head.  Once we're inside, we can't come back out -- the window somehow closes permanently, even though it's broken.  I have a sneaking suspicion that we're going to need to restore the game to an earlier point, but we'll explore while we're here anyway.  Inside the Battlebot's head we find a small ship and a large ship.  The small one is a pod, with "For a good time, don't call HAL!" written on it, a 2001 joke.  The large one is called the ALUMINUM MALLARD (a Star Wars joke) and has a small hatch on top.

Climbing into the Mallard presents a challenge.  It has a non-stick coating, apparently.  And trying to CLIMB SHIP in any place I tried yielded only You're not in a good location for climbing that or You are unable to scale anything here.  So climbing isn't likely to work.  The small pod has a tiny meteoroid hole, but it's too small to fit into, and we can't insert the wire or the gem into the hole or otherwise make use of it.

Restoring back to the first room, LOOK OBJECT reveals that the prominent object on the floor is a warp motivator, with a modular plug.  It's too heavy to pick up and carry, it seems.  But we can travel south from the starting location as well, to find a junked TIE Fighter, an Acme rocket a la Wile E. Coyote, and the Jupiter 2 (from Lost In Space.)  To the east is a junk conveyor tower -- Roger can walk onto the moving platforms and ride the conveyor to another belt moving horizontally.  We have to get him to STAND and JUMP to safety on a nearby railing before he's shredded by the system.  These kinds of animation-based timing puzzles were really not possible in the move-based text adventure days; while they are often annoying, especially when a plot point requires us to hide and wait for an extended period while some scripted event happens, they do up the drama level a bit and are used to good effect in the Space Quest games.  And it's usually entertaining to see what happens to poor Roger when we fail, as long as we have a recent saved game to restore.

Safe for the moment, Roger can walk west into a computer room with a claw-bearing machine moving along the rail and a monitoring droid whose attention we need to avoid attracting.  We can RIDE MACHINE to take control of the grabber, and PUSH CLAW in various locations to grab interesting items from below.  We should be able to get the heavy warp motivator with this -- yes!  It takes a little time-consuming trial and error to pick it up and place it in the Aluminum Mallard. 

Getting off the machine is dangerous -- the monitoring droid tends to zap Roger with a laser if we dilly-dally for very long.  We can LEAVE MACHINE and jump down a chute that has a handy disembarcation platform, to reach another dumping room with alien rats -- they initially resemble wolves -- on watch.  There are some nice lighting effects here, as Roger's color palette shifts in certain shadowed areas.  We can't GET LAMP, even though there are lamps mentioned in the description, so there's another adventure game tradition gone out the window with these newfangled 3-D games that aren't even actually 3-D.

Climbing the ladder on the right gets us back to the main area, and its upright stance makes it stick out like a sore thumb, suggesting correctly that the ladder can be taken by Roger.  Apparently there's a small reactor powering the lights, which we can find by noticing a wire running to a hole to the left, and examining the hole (or, as I did, by referencing a walkthrough after getting stuck.)  We can GET REACTOR, and after we CLIMB LADDER to escape, we can GET LADDER and take it along.  As we head back to the Battlebot to check in on the Mallard, though, a rat beats Roger up and takes the generator and wire.  And if we've already taken the ladder, we have to use the conveyor to go the long way around again.  After we reclaim the reactor and wire, the rats leave us alone without further negotiation or puzzle-solving -- so this little incident seems to be nothing more than time-wasting padding.

Now we can finally go back to the Aluminum Mallard, set the ladder at the side of the ship, and climb onto its roof, which is still dangerously slick.  With a few careful steps we can OPEN HATCH and enter the ship to find a red button, a diagnostic computer, a cockpit and a couple of passenger seats.  We can USE COMPUTER in the grand old text adventure tradition to learn that, of course, power is critically low, the reactor is not online, and there's insufficient power to even do a systems check.  We can INSERT REACTOR INTO COMPARTMENT and USE WIRE to compensate for a missing short cable.  Now USE COMPUTER establishes that everything's at NOMINAL level -- the reactor, the landing gear, and the warp motivator -- probably not ideal, but we may be able to get this bird off the ground. (Unless we entered the Battlebot without the reactor or the wire, and now have to restore and track those down before we get inside.)

We can ENTER COCKPIT to prepare for takeoff, if we can figure out how to work the cockpit computer -- the interface is fairly self-explanatory, but this may also take some trial and error.  Simply taking off causes an explosion as we hit the roof of the freighter, but our death throes provide a hint about using the ship's radar.  With radar engaged, the ship hesitates before hitting the ceiling, and we can fire the ship's weapon system to blow a hole in the junk trawler's hold. Unfortunately, as everything else gets sucked out into the vacuum of space, the Aluminum Mallard gets crushed as well.  We have to enable the ship's rear shields before shooting, and then we get spit out like a watermelon seed, and we're on our way!

But where are we going?  The ship's navigation system can be used to scan and find the planet Ortega.  As Roger warps into light speed, a certain Schwarzenegger-esque robot's ship materializes -- Roger is wanted for vending machine retail fraud, with orders to TERMINATE.  Justice is severe in the future.

The planet Ortega is VERY hot, we are warned.  If we insist on disembarking, Roger gets melted after taking a few steps, so we probably should not start here.  More scanning of the neighborhood reveals the existence of Planet Phleebhut, and the fast-food station Monolith Burger, a parody entity making its debut in the Space Quest series here.

Planet Phleebhut is windy -- and the Terminator-esque ship has also touched down.  The robot has a localized cloaking device, and only its footprints in the planetary dust give its movements away (another nice, animated touch that wouldn't have worked in a text-based game.)  To the south, travel is cut off by the territory of a giant snake that eats Roger whole.  To the west are some pulsating, roof-clinging pods that do very much the same, but in a more controlled fashion that will come in handy. To the east, a venomous scorpazoid menaces Roger but can be avoided with skillful keyboard maneuvering.  The planet map is fairly small -- we wrap back to the Mallard after four screens, and there isn't really that much to see and do here.

Most of the real activity on Phleebhut centers around a giant statue/robot to the north called Mog -- we could view the planet from its head, according to the sign, except it is closed for repairs at present.  We can still enter the elevator concealed in Mog's right foot and PUSH UP to ride up.  There is heavy machinery in Mog's internals; Roger can, of course, wander into the gears to be chewed up if we are careless or bored.

Further to the north, electrical storms zap Roger, providing another impenetrable navigation barrier.  But there's a World o' Wonders gift shop tucked between Mog's feet, and we can observe a happy alien family exiting this obvious tourist trap.  The glass case out front contains a cute, cuddly Antarean slime devil; it's not a good idea to OPEN CASE.  The gift shop's proprietor, Fester Blatz, is a good-ol'-alien, and he's actually one of the best-developed minor characters in the Space Quest series.  The gift shop's  goods include Thermoweave underwear, useful for Ortega we might guess; an Orat-on-a-stick, which works like a reach extender; and an Astro Chicken flight hat based on the popular arcade game (in the Space Quest universe, anyway.)  He also offers entertaining postcards from Arrakis (Dune reference), Black Hole Bertha, Ortega (hinting about the underwear), a starless void, Achoron (a misspelled version of Acheron from the original Alien film) and RobertaLand -- perhaps poking fun at the EGA remake of Roberta Williams' King's Quest, then in the works: "Come join the fun at the funpark of the future! See characters from your favorite stories come to life again and again."  But Roger doesn't have any money at the moment, so we'll have to come back here.

Exiting the store, Roger runs into the Terminator robot.  But he's in a good mood, so he gives Roger a head start -- time enough to run to the cave to the west and get the robot disposed of by the ravenous pods.  We have to position Roger appropriately so that the robot walks through the cave, which means we should enter from the upper edge of the screen and hope that the robot enters from the right and makes a beeline for Roger through the danger zone.  After the robot is digested by the pods, his invisibility belt remains -- it's directly under the pods, though, so we will probably need the Orat-on-a-stick to get hold of it safely.  We need to get some buckazoids.

The Orium (glowing gem) Roger has been carrying since Space Quest II turns out to be rather valuable on Phleebhut.  Fester is definitely interested in acquiring it:

It's not a bad idea to SAVE GAME before agreeing on a price here.  We can negotiate him up to 425, but if we try to go higher he'll offer no more than 100 after that.  If we play our cards right, we can buy all three of the interesting gift shop items and still have 350 buckazoids left over.

Using the Orat toy to retrieve the belt takes some work, mostly because the animation only functions correctly in a very specific location -- I got a lot of Try approaching from a slightly different angle messages, or got Roger chewed up by the ceiling-dwelling pod creatures.  It works most reliably if we do it from the same position we took to trap the Terminator robot.

Is there anything left to do here?  Mog's workings seem only to be for getting Roger killed, although there's an alternate solution to the Terminator puzzle involving the upper level's gears.  And it seems we've solved all the available puzzles, so it's time to go to Ortega.  With the ThermoWeave underwear, Roger can explore the surface and discover a couple of ScumSoft employees surveying the planet.  They have a small scout ship and are heavily armed, but they seem to be wrapping up and will leave shortly if we are patient.  The invisibility belt doesn't seem to help here; its charge is low.

We can see a broadcasting satellite antenna on a nearby planet, viewing it through the ScumSoft team's telescope. We can also take a thermal detonator from a crate, but walking over the unstable lava surface with it tends to be fatal.  And we can't seem to drop the detonator at all.  So we may be stuck.

So, let's restore and visit Monolith Burger first.  The place features a diverse lot of alien customers, including a Hutt-like creature and other assorted life forms.  One clerk (employee of the week) is available to help us.  READ MENU gives us a selection of items to choose from, though we have no choice (Yes/Yes) about buying Space Fries and Blattfruit Pie.


No matter what we buy, we end up with a generic Bag of Fast Food in inventory.  We can also play the restaurant's Astro Chicken coin-op; it's a Lunar Lander-type game, but faster paced, and if we land the chicken safely (more than five times, I think) the machine displays a coded message.  We have to EAT FOOD (Roger somehow survives this) to get a decoder ring we can use to read the message.  (It's amazing how easy it is to read the code once one gets rolling.)  The message indicates that the Two Guys From Andromeda are now Two Guys In Trouble, held captive by the ScumSoft Pirates on a small moon of the planet Pestulon.  The planet is surrounded by a force field, of unknown origin to the Guys (but we have been to Ortega so we know what's going on here) and ScumSoft security is armed with jello pistols.  They're counting on us, as high-scorers a la The Last Starfighter, whoever we are.

Knowing the ScumSoft team is only using jello guns, we can just charge in and... get Roger suffocated in an impenetrable block of non-Jell-O(TM) brand gelatin.  So perhaps we should use the invisibility belt?  If so, we need to charge it somehow.  I tried to take advantage of the lightning on Phleebhut, to no avail, but did note on this return visit that we can see Mog in action from a distance.  I happened to come in from the side earlier and never saw his head looming over the horizon from the south.

I was getting stumped a bit, so it was once again time to check my progress with a walkthrough.  I discovered that there's no way to charge the belt, on Phleebhut or anywhere else -- this was a self-imposed red herring, we just need to wait for the ScumSoft team to leave.  So it's back to Ortega, then -- we can take the detonator, and the pole holding the anemometer to vault across the chasm and avoid the unstable rocks.  (I did note that if Roger knows what he's looking at because we've seen the Astro Chicken note from the Two Guys, we now get different, better-informed text when looking at the satellite beam through the telescope.)  We can only VAULT CHASM in the one spot -- but when I tried, the parser kept yielding Why not just walk across?  Ah -- per the walkthrough, we need to modify the chasm first, by blowing up the force field generator.

We can enter the domed complex and climb a ladder (seeing a small-scale Roger in a more panoramic view of the complex) to get to the rim.  Here, finally, we can DROP DETONATOR.  Climbing back down is tricky -- it seems nearly impossible to keep Roger on the ladder.  As it turns out, we have to CLIMB DOWN, not CLIMB LADDER; even in the animated adventure era, parsers can be temperamental.  Now we can VAULT CHASM, navigate back to the Aluminum Mallard and go on to Pestulon, as the exciting conclusion approaches.

The entrance to ScumSoft is protected by two guards, and there are not many places we can go here -- we can only stay, return to the ship, or try to enter ScumSoft.  So this seems to be where the invisibility belt comes into play.  We can use it just long enough to sneak past the guards and get inside.

There's some nicely-handled pseudo-3D animation used here, as Roger walks the circular halls of ScumSoft, though it can be tricky to get Roger to stop walking at just the right point to access any of the doors -- it's an unintentional arcade action challenge much of the time.  Entering the accounting department is fatal, as Roger is spotted as an intruder and ends up once again encased in jello.  Another interesting door requires a keycard and a facial scan.  Roger can find a janitor's closet by typing LOOK after going into one of the indistinguishable doorways; we can then SEARCH CLOSET to find some coveralls, and a Mr. Garbage vaporizer.  And we leave all of our old inventory behind in the process, so the endgame must be near.

Entering accounting again, we are still spotted as "an intruder in accounting disguised as a janitor" -- dang it!  We have to maneuver quickly before we are noticed, and USE VAPORIZER on any wastebaskets we happen to pass; verisimilitude is the key here.  There's a color copy machine in the office area, which we can use to make a copy of the life-size picture of ScumSoft president Elmo Pug posted on the nearby cubicle wall before replacing it.  Now we just need Pug's keycard.

Roger can walk past Pug's office to look out into the vehicle bay, where he sees his ship surrounded by ScumSoft fighters; this will have to wait, however.  Elmo Pug has left his office now, so Roger can snag his ID.  (I also note that one of the guards cracking the whip on the hapless ScumSoft employees appears to be Ken Williams.)

Behind the keycard-protected door, we find the jello-encased Two Guys from Andromeda, on a central platform accessible only by retractable bridges.  I failed to USE KEYPAD or EXTEND BRIDGE, but PUSH BUTTON works.  Of course, after we free them from their gelatinous prison using the vaporizer, the bridges retract and none of us can get out of here.  We can't JUMP to safety as the guards arrive, and then Elmo Pug himself shows up, with an army of ScumSoft lackeys backing him up.

Roger is escorted to an arena, while the Two Guys are separated from their would-be rescuer.  So we are not quite done yet.  Nukem Dukem Robots is the name of the game (based on the classic Rock'em Sock'em Robots toy, as Duke Nukem was still years away), and is a fighting game with clunky keyboard controls.  It's not hard to beat Pug's mech -- we just have to punch a lot, blocking is almost optional.  Well, at least it didn't seem hard the first time I tried -- after an initial success and a failure to save game later, I had a tough time doing it when I had to restore and replay this section!  Timing and positioning seem to have a lot to do with it -- it burns energy to punch, so we have to be diligent about blocking and finding the right opportunities to strike; but it does generally seem to work better if we are more aggressive.  With Pug down, Roger and the Guys escape in the Mallard, but we are still short 110 points (in my playthrough).  We have to use the ship's weapon system to fire on the chase ships and make good our escape.

After eluding the ScumSoft ships, the grateful Two Guys from Andromeda (I think their appearance here counts as more than a cameo) offer to fix the ship's disabled light-speed system, and we're off to Monolith Burger.  Except we didn't get the course laid in first, so we are sucked into a black hole.  There's no way to avoid this, it's part of the plot, and we find the Mallard parking at a distinctive office building in the Coarsegold, CA area.

On the other side of the black hole, the Guys meet Ken Williams (Sierra did a lot of self-referential humor) and get hired as game designers; Sierra doesn't need a janitor, but Roger is satisfied with his mission accomplished.  There's no explicit sequel setup at the end of this one, which is unusual for the series, but there would be several more games to come after Roger takes off for parts unspecified.

There's a nice medley of Siebenberg's musical themes that runs during the end credits, most of which are real, some of which are just an opportunity to squeeze in a few more gags.

At the end of my run through Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon, I was still short 10 points -- I had 728 of 738 possible -- so what did I miss?  Research indicates that we can search the Aluminum Mallard's pilot seat for a few extra buckazoids; I did not do that, but earned enough trading in the orium so that it was not an issue.  I thank the detailed documentation at the excellent Roger Wilco's Virtual Broomcloset site for solving this mystery!

The Space Quest games are always fun -- the games' sense of humor and plentiful pop sci-fi references keep the action light and lively, and they have a better sense of pacing than some of Sierra's contemporary efforts.  I'll be tackling Space Quest IV in due course.


  1. There was one other small difference between the PC and ST/Amiga versions of SQ III. We get to hear Roger Wilco talk in the beginning of the game when he wakes up. I think he says, "Where am I." or something like that. The PC version did not have the digitized speech. Otherwise like you said, the versions are exactly the same.

  2. Awesome post! I love the blog. Never stop playing!

  3. I'm pretty sure the PC version did indeed have the speech...maybe you didn't have a sound card?

  4. I played it originally on the Atari ST with MIDI-only output, so definitely wouldn't have heard it there. For this playthrough I used the PC version with General MIDI -- I don't think this generation of SCI allowed combination of Soundblaster with MIDI, so it's possible it's in there and I simply wasn't equipped to hear it.

  5. On ScummVM, you can have both speech (though it's only a line or two in the entire game) and General MIDI or MT-32 music at the same time. The original DOS version didn't support it.