Retro Gaming: Sierra Adventure Games

Space Quest, Kings Quests, the Black Cauldron,  Ah, Sierra.  The name brings back good memories, the way that thinking about the family holiday makes you feel all warm and cozy wrapped up in your favorite blanket with the smell of Mom’s fresh apple pie drifting through the air on a chilly morning while drinking hot cocoa.  Sierra also elicits a tinge of excitement.  In the early 90′s, the anticipation to play a brand new Sierra game was HUGE.  I think given the choice of opening a pile of Christmas presents as a kid or delving into a new episode of Space Quest, I would have chosen the latter.  For my friend Khidr and I we first stumbled upon the Sierra company by chance.  In the 80′s, Khidr’s dad had a black and white mac computer that we thought nothing of until Khidr pointed out an exciting looking color software box on the table.  I picked it up and peered at it intently.

I couldn’t wait to get playing!  We popped in the first disk and loaded the game.  The black and white computer graphical representation of the internal corridors of a spaceship appeared before our widened eyes.  An alarm sounded and as the janitorial closet door automatically slid open we were graced with our first glimpse of our would be hero for the rest of the Space Quest Saga, Roger Wilco.  A janitor by trade Roger Wilco would end up accidentally saving the galaxy (and dying many gruesome deaths) time and time again over the next 10 years, guided by our grubby little hands.  What made the game especially appealing was the intriguing picture on the back of the game box depicting the game programmers, “Two Guys from Andromeda”.  Apparently being space-fairing pig nosed punk rockers with mohawks, they were able to set aside enough time after being saved from working at ScumSoft by Roger to come to Earth and work for Ken Williams recreating Roger Wilco’s wondrous yet infamous exploits.

In case you have never played a Space Quest game or an adventure game for that matter, please let me explain the appeal.  In a classic old school Adventure Game you get to assume the role of a character and explore the world around you.  Not only are you sucked into a wonderfully crafted story, but you also have the chance to change things around you.  The first thing to do is to pick up anything you can find that isn’t strapped down.  If you’re playing King’s Quest perhaps you take the sword and shield, then walk outside and pick some berries off a bush.  Believe it or not the berries might come in more handy than the sword and shield, and if you use the sword and shield it will most likely be in a creative solution to a puzzle and not in a combat scenario.  All things in adventure games are solved in this manner, and perhaps the reason they appealed so greatly to us at a young age.  Being more of a cerebral game, they have of course become extinct for the most part.  Granted, a few games are released from time to time that bare some resemblance to the classic adventure games of yesteryear, but they will never be the same as the Sierra greats.  If you are into gaming at all and have never tried an old adventure game I highly recommend starting with something simple like “The Black Cauldron” or “Space Quest 1 – the VGA Remake Version”.  These games are a bit simpler and easier to grasp.  The Black Cauldron because it was geared towards a younger audience, and the Space Quest 1 Remake because it was changed to a point and click interface as opposed to a text based interface.  No the old games were not text based, but the interface was.  For example if you could walk over to a berry bush with your character, you could type “Look at berry”.  The computer would then give you a description of the berry.  You could then type “Take Berry” and follow that by “Eat Berry”.  Most often this would be followed by a funny joke or the scary death of your character.  You have to play Sierra games to understand the Sierra humor, trust me!

Let us now, (without tact or a logical or plausible segue) revisit the first few scenes of SPACE QUEST 1: the Sarien Encounter.

You begin the game playing the role of a character, in this case Roger Wilco.  Roger is a janitor, and not a very good one seeing that he was taking a nap in the broom closet of the galaxy class star ship upon which he serves- er… cleans.  When he is awoken by an alarm he stumbles out of the janitor’s closet and looks around.  Something is wrong, the ship has been boarded by intruders!  Stumbling around the ship, Wilco runs into a dying scientist who gives him some information on a data cartridge Roger must retrieve.  After fiddling around trying to work the computer in the ships library Wilco gets the data cartridge and goes on his way narrowly avoiding many run ins with the red suited Sariens.  Finding bodies in the hallway Roger searches one and finds a keycard which will come in handy later.  The alarm sounds again notifying any remaining crew that the ship has been set to self destruct and time is quite limited.  Roger figures he better make his way to an escape pod if he’s ever going to have the chance to get laid again.  He makes his way into the bowels of the ship and locates a space suit and the last available shuttle pod with which to escape.  After pressing different buttons and hoping he doesn’t pop the airlock before he has figured out the controls on his space suit, Roger boards the space craft.  Launching it into space just in the nick of time Roger has escaped the Sariens.  Now he needs to find a nice planet to have a drink and celebrate (or someplace to simply survive since he forgot his survival kit in the broom closet).  Luckily there is a planet nearby that bears a strange resemblance to Tattoine in Star Wars, but it must just be a total coincidence, so Roger books a flight and goes to warp.  Roger, being quite skilled at cleaning toilets but not knowing the first thing about piloting a shuttle, crash lands on the surface of the planet and now must wander aimlessly in the desert looking for water and avoiding being eaten alive by all manner of silly space beasts.

That is just the beginning!  Space Quest gets much more involved and even more hilarious.  In Rogers future cross-dressing, angry ex-wives, and time travelling mishaps await!  For those fans of the old adventure games I would like to take a special look at the past of the programmers and the company that made these games possible, Sierra Online (later Sierra Entertainment).

It all starts with Ken Williams.

Ken Williams (right) and Jim Henson, circa 1982
“There were two people that had a heavy influence on Sierra: Bill Gates and Walt Disney. These two companies were our role models. I read every book written on both companies. I did everything to try to understand how they thought, and how they did business.”
Ken Williams was one of the programmers and co-founder along with his wife Roberta Williams of On-Line Systems, which later became Sierra On-Line. Roberta and Ken became leaders in the Adventure Gaming world and took Sierra Online from a tiny home owned company to a large company owning 5 main complexes in the US.

As of 2006, Ken is enjoying retirement with his wife Roberta. He is no longer active in the computer-gaming industry; his current projects are limited to writing and managing a website construction tool called TalkSpot, primarily as a hobby. He has published a book titled Crossing an Ocean under Power that chronicled his journey with Roberta across the Atlantic on his 62-foot trawler during his retirement years.  Here is a LINK to Ken’s personal blog and other things Sierra!

In a 2006 interview with Adventure Classic Gaming, (LINK!) Ken admitted to the names of two individuals who had most influenced his career as a game developer and in how he envisioned Sierra On-Line to be, “No doubt about it: There were two people that had a heavy influence on Sierra: Bill Gates and Walt Disney. These two companies were our role models. I read every book written on both companies. I did everything to try to understand how they thought, and how they did business.”

Ken’s wife Roberta Williams was the creator of King’s Quest!  I had to end that sentence with an exclamation point because Kings Quest was THAT good.  Great games in a fantasy setting with unique characters.  Did you know Kings Quest IV was the first video game to feature a female as the main character?  That was a big deal and took hard work and dedication on Roberta’s part to make the Kings Quest line so successful.  Each game was better than the last up until the format changes from Adventure to action at which point the game series lost steam for me and I lost interest.  Alas, all good things must come to an end.

Finally, the Two Guys from Andromeda who are responsible for the wondrous disgrace that was Roger Wilco and the Space Quest series of janitorial space exploration games are none other than Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy!

Guys from Andromeda Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy

Scott Murphy was first hired in “dealer returns” and eventually ended up running Sierra’s entire support department. During the mid-80s, Scott spent some time working QA, and was able to get in touch with the people that made Sierra’s games. When he saw the programmers working on The Black Cauldron he knew immediately that he wanted to be a programmer. After some pleading, Ken Williams added Scott to the Black Cauldron team.

Since his departure from Sierra On-Line, Scott had been reclusive and rarely (if at all) spoke to the media or press about his past with Sierra. Little is known about his current status, though it is known he no longer works in the game industry. He had virtually been silent in the past 10 years. His last known interview was in 2006, in which he spoke quite candidly about his volatile relationship with Sierra and at-times difficult partnership with Mark in creating Space Quest. (LINK!)

Mark Crowe was hired in 1983 and first used his illustration skills creating packaging and game documentation before moving onto early Sierra releases like Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood and King’s Quest II. He also directed Earthsiege 2.

Finally lets take one last look at the Sierra company and where it is today.

Behold, the history of Sierra Online:

1979 – Company is founded under the name “On-line Systems”  (A bit ahead of their time eh?)

1980′s – Game releases include: Mystery House, Kings Quest, Space Quest, & Leisure Suit Larry

1990′s – Kings Quest V released and widely accepted as a great advance in computer gaming.  (KQV would be the first Sierra On-Line game ever to sell more than 500,000 copies and was the highest selling game of all time for the next five years. It won several awards as well, such as the Best Adventure Game of the Year from both the Software Publishers Association and Computer Gaming World Magazine.) Also released was the Gabriel Knight Series.

1995 – Sierra moves their headquarters to Bellevue, WA!  (Ed- this was exciting to me since I lived 20 minutes away from their new headquarters and drove past it everyday wondering how I could get a job there.)

1995 – Roberta Williams releases Phantasmagoria, what she considered the pinnacle of her adventure game career.

1995 – Joint venture with Pioneer Electric Corp. releases Sierra games into the Japanese market.

1996 – Release of The Realm Online, a MMORPG which is highly successful.

1996 – Sadly, this year marks the end of the original Sierra company when CUC International, a membership-based consumer services conglomerate, aggressively sought to expand into interactive entertainment and in February offered to buy Sierra at a price of approximately $1.5 billion.

I could continue, but to be honest I always lose interest in my favorite companies at this point.  It reminds me of when TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast.  When honest, hardworking individuals with the bonus of being creative geniuses release material for public consumption you can FEEL what they were feeling when they made the game and laugh or cry along with the programmers.  It seems that the minute big money comes into the equation, everything changes.  It’s not that Sierra being successful was a bad thing, it just ended the era of creative adventure gaming that I loved so dearly.  Or maybe it wasn’t their fault at all, but ours.  Instead of the computer nerd being the only person interested in computer and video games, the average american wanted to give the games a shot and suddenly they weren’t so “nerdy” anymore.  The average american also craved instant gratification and gratuitous violence.  Completely acceptable if this is what floats your boat, rocks your lizards, makes your bed, or unbuckles your pajama pants, but I miss my good old fashioned adventure games.  In fact, instead of playing Halo Reach tonight and seeing how many kills I can get, I’m going to turn on my desktop computer and play a couple hours of Space Quest 1.

Don’t you worry Roger Wilco, we’ll save the universe together again… now where did I put that mop bucket?

Are you craving adventure now? Take advantage of these special offers on used and new games by Sierra available from Amazon.com! You can’t beat these prices unless you work for ScumSoft and get a intergalactic discount on software packages with your ScumSoft Virtual ID Card.

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About Jonathan Nerdtrek

Jonathan is the Editor-in-Chief of NERD TREK and Game Developer for Adventureaweek.com. Obsessions include his Rise of the Drow Kickstarter, Elder Scrolls, Tabletop RPGs, and this website. Visit Jonathan's profile on facebook!