Category Archives: PC Games

51: Mean Streets

Publisher: Access Software
Developer: Access Software
Year: 1989
Platform: DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64

Review: The first of five games starring private detective Tex Murphy, Mean Streets broke ground where adventure games had yet not traveled. The true definition of a hybrid game, Access Software took several chances with the design. Combining inventory puzzles, interrogations, arcade sequences, and even a flight simulator, the developers threw in everything but the kitchen sink.  Either the game would appeal to a wide market, or alienate everyone. Not every experiment proved successful, but everything is held together by the game’s personality.

Tex Murphy frequently tops lists of greatest adventure game characters. While most of those amorous feelings toward Tex likely rest with the final three games of the series (where Tex is in his full-motion video glory), the springboard is Mean Streets. Moving to San Francisco in the near post-apocalyptic future, Tex accepts $10,000 from bombshell Sylvia Linsky, who’s looking for answers regarding her father’s suspicious suicide. Tex, obviously a film noir buff, plays the part to the hilt. His arrogant, calculating demeanor is offset by his charm and good looks. He employs, predictably, a cute and innocent secretary, who obviously has a crush on him. He also has an exotic, sultry informant, just one videophone call away. He also has a quid pro quo relationship with one of the local detectives. In short, he’s a well-done cliché.

But it’s not just Tex that has personality.  The entire game oozes cool. The future is as bleak as every good 60’s bomb-fearing prophet would have you believe. San Francisco is divided, the fallout mutants segregated into the bad neighborhoods. The politics in the city are practically militant. Corruption is commonplace. Nobody trusts anyone, including Tex. And everybody has a fucking gun.

The gameplay itself is average at best. With no mouse support, the interface is clumsy. Basically, play goes like this: travel to residence of witness/informant, interrogate said witness on a limited set of topics, bribe or threaten as necessary, get new information, and repeat ad nauseam. Interludes include arcade sequences where you must duck under bullets–they’re slow bullets–and shoot the endless bad guys. Occasionally, you must raid someone’s home or office, steal their valuables (hey, someone’s got to pay for Tex’s ammunition and bribe money), disable alarms, and find more clues.

The arcade sequences are all exactly the same, with background swaps. They’re incredibly easy, and ultimately boring. Further, they’re entirely silly, detracting from the atmosphere. The flight simulator is clunky and also pointless. Nothing happens in your hovercraft other than going from one location to the next, so after the first couple of trips, flying becomes a chore.  Thankfully, there’s an autopilot option available, so whenever you need to go somewhere else, you can simply set the course, head to the fridge, and come back a couple minutes later when the craft finally lands.

The entertaining parts are the typical adventure game fare. Searching residences is rather easy, as you simply select actions and objects from a menu while walking around. But there’s so much to see in every room, and by the time you’re through investigating, you have a pretty good picture of the occupant. The hit man’s got cigarette butts, a blow-up doll, and a briefcase with a tag that threatens the life of whomever touches it. One suspect’s beach home has lingerie and handcuffs lying about, evidence of an affair with another suspect. Try to taste the lingerie? The game responds with disgust at your impure thoughts. Try to eat the two-day old pizza? The game lets you do so and tells you how lovely it was. Swallow the contents of the mysterious bottle? Meet the grim reaper. In fact, there are many entertaining ways to off yourself, a part I always yearn for. And there are also several hilarious pop culture references, my favorite poking jabs at Lost in Space.

Meanwhile, interrogation is even easier, but fun nevertheless. The various personalities you run into are a blast, but besides that, Mean Streets broke a lot of new ground here. Digitized graphics were almost unheard of in 1989, and the actors all pose for their parts well. This was also the first major game to have 256-color VGA graphics and have digitized sound from the PC speaker! The speech is minimal, but what’s there adds more flavor to the game.

The game is fairly non-linear, with clues obtainable via many sources. Having enough money for bribes should never be an issue as long as you steal enough from the various homes you enter. Ultimately, Mean Streets is one heluva easy game (with a fairly predictable plot), unnecessarily padded with the non-adventure elements. But it contains enough great dialogue, characterizations, and atmosphere to warrant at least one playthrough by fans of the series. It’s certainly easy to see why a sequel was soon forthcoming.

Remember, the only good freak is a dead freak.

Contemporary RatingLow.  The confusing and time-consuming flight simulator along with the keyboard only controls date the game terribly.

Cruelty Rating:  Tough.  You could run out of money if you’re extremely careless.  There are puzzles that have local time limits, but they’re apparent.

52: Manhunter 2: San Francisco

Did I say Top 50?  I meant Top 52.  There’s two games I couldn’t leave off.

Publisher: Sierra
Developer: Evryware
Year: 1989
Platform: DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, Macintosh

Review: The Manhunter series is easily the most original idea that Sierra published.  The first game, Manhunter: New York, is not nearly as good as the sequel.  Unfortunately, you pretty much have to play it to understand anything that is going on in this game.

Aliens landed in 2002, setting up shop in New York (and then later, San Francisco). It took them less than three days to destroy the city, and less than a year to end the human resistance. Or so they thought. You have been assigned by the alien “orbs” to be a man hunter. Since some of the aliens’ technology is not as compatible with human beings as they thought it would be, you (along with many others) need to help them. You have no choice. You must investigate humans who are not obedient and report them to the aliens.

You are given a tracking device in which you can watch the perpetrator commit the crime. They are then tagged, and you can continue to watch where they go until the signal is lost (usually when they go under ground or die). You can also manually tag other humans near the perpetrator, and watch where they go, as they may be linked with the crime. You can then travel wherever they did and do some research.

Of course, you must help the resistance while you are supposed to be helping the aliens. Since the resistance cannot be overt, you must pick up clues and look for symbolism which will give you tips on what you need to do. Other man hunters will help, if they trust you. But gaining their trust takes effort.

Most of the game is merely going to places, picking up items, and manipulating them (which is fairly easy). There are also several arcade sequences. Some are easy, some are ridiculous, but only a couple add excitement to the game.  There is almost no typing needed and no mouse support.  You more or less move the cursor with the arrow keys until you land on something important. What makes this game challenging is the keen eye one must have to catch all of the symbolism and apply it to the situation at hand, or one further down the road. Definitely not a game for those who like to rush. The puzzles are long, difficult, and extremely satisfying to complete.

For the time, the music is scary enough and the graphics are well done, occasionally ribald and quite gory. Creepy for sure! Definitely not for the faint of heart. The atmosphere doesn’t quite approach scary, but there are definitely some tense moments.  One of the game’s charms is that real locations in San Francisco are used, such as Alcatraz, the Transamerica Building, Coit Tower, and the Bank of Canton.

While I can’t really recommend this game today to anyone but the hardcore adventure gamer (or those who love gory games), it holds a special place in my memory and deserves a mention on the countdown.  And frankly, so does this guy.

Contemporary RatingLow.  Controls were confusing, even in 1989, and requires playing the original (which I don’t recommend!).

Cruelty Rating:  Polite.  You can die and lose your progress, but dangerous situations are apparent. Saving your game at regular intervals prevents frustration.

Top 50 PC Adventure Games: Scales

To help you determine if the game might be worth playing, each game on the countdown will have both of these scales at the end of each review.

Contemporary Scale

High: Easy to pick up and play, even if you’ve never played an adventure game.  Highly intuitive.

Medium: Some frustrations that gamers today shouldn’t put up with, but is intuitive enough that if you like the story, you’d probably forgive them.

Low: Does not translate well today.  Unless you’re a completionist or the premise really strikes a chord with you, it’s best to avoid it.

Cruelty Scale

Merciful: Impossible to get stuck, and if you die you’ll regenerate right before your mistake.  Saving the game is only necessary if you decide to turn it off.

Polite: You can die, and you should save on a regular basis just in case.  However, you can never make the game unwinnable.

Tough: You can make the game unwinnable, but only if you’re being careless.  Your instinct will be to save before experimenting.

Nasty: You can make the game unwinnable by accident.  You’ll know you’ve done so, but it wasn’t obvious beforehand.  Save often!

Cruel: You have to worry about walking dead without any clue that you’re doing so.  Saving the game doesn’t prevent catastrophe, and it’s likely at some point you’ll have to restore back to a much earlier point in the game and replay entire sections.

Top 50 PC Adventure Games

As a kid growing up with an IBM in the 80’s, our choice of games were mostly limited to awful strategy games programmed in BASIC or adventure games.  Our family consumed a lot of these and we often played them together.  I fell in love with being in an adventure where I had choices to make.  I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books, but adventure games allowed for critical thinking.

Most adventure games have required hammering your way through a story while trying to determine what random inventory objects you’ve collected will help you advance the plot.  It was a limitation of the beast, though some games were able to take this idea and still create captivating stories.  The best games were so immersive that the puzzles were seamless rather than obtrusive.

I’m talking a lot in the past tense.  Not every game on this list is from the 80’s, or even the 90’s. Some quality adventures are still made, but they’re fewer and far between, and I’ve had less time to play what’s out there.  I have no doubt there are brilliant games I haven’t played.

Considering all the hybrids out there, what qualifies a game as an adventure?  For me, it’s when the predominant feature of the game that shines through is the story.  The Professor Layton games have stories, but they’re essentially pure puzzle games with threadbare plots thrown around them.  Half-Life has a good story, but the predominant feature of the game is in the action.  At times the distinction feels arbitrary, but I sense there won’t be any obvious games passed over.

I realize some of you have never really played adventure games; to be honest, many of the old games do not hold up all that well, and even the old ones I love often could not find an audience.  To help you decide if a particular game might be appealing for you today, each game will have two scales.

The first scale is how well a game translates today.  If the story is awesome, but the controls are so clunky or the parser so unforgiving that it would turn off modern gamers, then the rating will be low.  If it’s still easy to pick up and play today, the score will be higher.

The second scale will show you how cruel or fair the game is.  Can you put the game in an unwinnable situation because you forgot to pick up that knife on the beach fourteen hours ago?  That’s the kind of cruelty gamers just don’t put up with today.  I wouldn’t either, but I did when I was younger, and I still fondly remember some of those games.  On the other hand, there are plenty of games on the list that never feel unfair.  Hopefully, you’ll find these rankings useful in addition to my reviews.

I have played to completion around 120 bona-fide adventure games.  While to some extent I like over half of them, there are about fifty that I find to be pretty solid and ones I would gladly play more than once, and in many cases, have done so.  See you on Monday for DbT’s third countdown!

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary

I figured I might as well fill up the countdown free weekends with more Star Trek, so the next several weekends we’ll look at some gaming from the Star Trek Universe.

Year Released: 1992
Platform: PC, Amiga, Mac
Developer: Interplay

One of the few true adventure games that Interplay had produced, they struck gold with this license. With characters lifted perfectly from the TV show, the game is a pleasure to watch (let alone play) if you even moderately enjoyed Star Trek.

Deftly incorporating all facets from the show, Kirk and his crew must solve each of seven missions efficiently and in accordance with the prime directive. In other words, don’t mess with the natives! After each mission, an admiral from Starfleet will give you a rating representing how well you accomplished your goals. The higher the rating, the more powerful upgrades you receive for your weapons, shields, and flight control. These resources are key if you want to stand a fighting chance during the battles. Several times you will be confronted by either the Romulans, Klingons, or Elasi pirates, and unless you become a master of the controls, you’ll need all the help you can get.

The majority of your rating relies on your demeanor towards native populations and to adversaries. During conversation, you are presented with several choices of how to respond. You can pick the funny, brash, or sarcastic comment, but these will get Kirk in trouble most of the time. Not only do you have to be a good adventurer and fighter, you have to be a good diplomat as well.  Also, solutions that require the least amount of violence also tend to get rewarded well.

A few of the missions are a breeze, but watching the characters interact is such a joy that I am glad the game wasn’t extremely difficult. However, there is one excruciating mathematical puzzle which I could never solve. Several years after pounding my tricorder against a wall–aided by an internet walkthrough–I acquired the answer.  While I grasp the solution now, it is a significant barrier to those who aren’t adept in mathematics, and can prevent otherwise solid adventurers from completing the game.

Interplay did an adequate job of incorporating the four icon system into gameplay.  At times you must combine items in your inventory and manipulate them, and the designers came up with some inventive uses for the phaser.  The graphics are excellent, and the sound is even better than on the original show. Imagine what twenty-five years can do for production values.

Perfect characterizations (aided by the voices of the real-life actors on the CD-ROM version), combined with a fluent story, moderate challenge, and excellent graphics and sound, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary should be modeled by today’s adventure games.

Rating:  77