Rest in Bits: Sierra

Sierra Logo

The Sierra Logo – an indicator of good things to come.

It may seem odd to bring up Sierra in this fashion since Activision announced the brand’s resurrection. But it may be even more relevant now to remind people of the vast legacy that name brings to games and the expectations of those who remember.

Originally founded as On-Line Systems in 1979 by Ken and Roberta Williams, it wasn’t until 1982 that the company adopted the famous Sierra On-Line name. But already the company was innovating in the area of graphical adventure games.

It can’t be emphasized how much of an impact these early adventure games had, not only by Sierra but others of the era such as Adventure International, Infocom and later LucasArts. These were some of the first games to provide compelling narratives in a structure far more accessible than RPGs of the time.

And its not just the adventure game legacy Sierra is recognised for… there’s a few titles like Homeworld, Starsiege:Tribes and a little gem called Half-Life worth thanking them for. But those are a part of a different legacy that’s not necessarily what old school gamers consider Sierra to represent. Those gamers remember the “Quests”; King’s Quest, Police Quest, Space Quest and Quest for Glory are what matter.

The following is just a smattering of games from the Sierra stable which I had the pleasure of playing throughout the years. I’ll admit that it wasn’t until I started to think back on the old days that I realised how some of my best early gaming memories were tied to their pioneering work.

Troll’s Tale (1984)

Troll's Tale - Intro Screen

Troll’s Tale – the first adventure game I beat.

Created by Al Lowe, later of Leisure Suit Larry fame, I was introduced to this game when I was in primary school. Having only been recently exposed to computers at the time, seeing this interactive storybook on an Apple II was a sight to behold.

Though the game itself didn’t have a parser, more a set of multiple choice actions, that simplicity made it a perfect introduction to children getting their first experience with computers via games.

I still remember the moment I finally completed the game and how excited I was to show it to my classmates. If only I could get a retroactive achievement unlocked…

 The Dark Crystal (1983)

Dark Crystal - Ending

The Dark Crystal

Thought this came prior to Troll’s Tale, it was wasn’t until my parents bought the family an Atari 800XL computer and later a disk drive that I got to play this game.

Designed by Roberta Williams and based off the Jim Henson film, it follows the movie narrative fairly closely.

Visually it was another step up and I remember just how amazed at the time with how ‘active’ the screens were. Actions often resulted in items or characters appearing and disappearing which really helped in dragging players into the game world. It had been done before but this one at the time I remember best.

Using the classic verb + noun style of parser (eg. OPEN DOOR, GET KEY), it was a challenge for me to get far early on as it was such a new way for me to interact with a game. In later years I finally got the chance to sit down and play through it and appreciate the monumental effort that must have gone into making the game at the time.

And it was built in only a month.

Space Quest Series (1986-1995)

Space Quest 1: The Sarien Encounter

Space Quest 1: The Sarien Encounter

Sierra may have been more famous for King’s Quest, but it was its loony science fiction cousin that I got a lot more enjoyment from. Created by Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe the games parodied not only sci-fi but also big corporations and even a dig or two at Sierra itself.

The first game (subtitled The Sarien Encounter) introduced us all to Roger Wilco, janitor extraordinaire, who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is forced to escape the ship he works on after an attack. The opening itself is very much a spin on the same sequence in Star Wars but finds ways to inject its own humour into the situation.

A sequence I remember best takes place a little after the escape where Roger arrives at an outpost that bears quite a resemblance to Mos Eisley (Star Wars). There’s a cantina nearby which you direct Roger into only to find… the Blues Brothers performing on stage.

Another clever moment occurs when Roger finally has enough money to buy a ship; to get the discount needed to complete the purchase he has to use a voucher. It’s no where to be found in the game… it was actually packed into the game box (like Infocom “feelies”) and is the only hint you get of its value.

Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers

Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers

I have even fonder memories of Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers which was a CD-ROM tour de force at the time of its release.

As the name implies, Roger’s latest adventure involves time travel and no stone is left unturned as you travel to Space Quest games from both the past and future. Seeing your VGA Roger visiting EGA Space Quest 1 will certainly generate a smile.

Best moment in the game is when you have to buy a game hint book in a bargain bin from the future to help you through a puzzle later in the game. It’s gaming’s equivalent to Gray’s Sports Almanac from Back to the Future.

The original developers are back with a Kickstarter that is Space Quest in everything but name. However delays in production left it floundering for some time but it is slowly getting back on track. I for one hope to see it soon.

Leisure Suit Larry Series (1987-2009)

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Wizards

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Wizards

The series Al Lowe is most famous for, starring one of gaming’s biggest ever losers in Larry Laffer. Though the more recent games on consoles were roundly criticized for being bad games with suspect intent, the originals were enjoyed by many for their dirty humour but honest intent. Yes, Larry was looking for love in mainly the wrong places but most of the misadventure was on him not on those in the world.

I remember playing the first game (Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards) for the first time in high school; the game had a set of trivia questions in the beginning to hopefully ensure only people of the appropriate age could play. However I don’t think the creator of the questions thought that most could be answered by any child with a minimal understanding of their parent’s music library. Or maybe they did…

Best memory? The sequence when Larry is attempt to buy condoms; guys who remember buying them for the first time will get that one straight away.

There were plenty of sequels and even a recent update to the first game but of all the titles in Sierra’s gaming past this might be the one that will have the most difficult time in making a comeback in the long term. Not that there is a glut of games like it, quite the contrary, more that it is difficult seeing how publishers could be comfortable in publishing them knowing they are not going to get high returns.

After the dramas and dilution of the Atari brand, here’s hoping that Activision take the initiative and ensure that the resurrected Sierra creates some new gaming memories that give the legacy justice. With a new King’s Quest and Geometry Wars (the classic Xbox shooter) they are starting small but gamers will be watching.

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