Space Quest 1: The Sarien Encounter (1986)

When I played  Space Quest 1 the first time I was just a little kid. I didn't understand English very well yet and I had to use a walkthrough in order to play it, as without it I would have been pretty lost. I liked the game though, as it was a sci-fi game, set in a world where you had to foil a plot of evil aliens. I didn't think that the game was a comedy and while it had comedic elements in it, even visual ones, I didn't think it had them more than your typical action adventure movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Conan the Barbarian.

Later on, when I had learned more English I understood that the Space Quest series was a comedic sci-fi series, but I never really gave the comedic value of Space Quest 1 that much though: I just always assumed it was funny, but I never really paid that much attention to its actual writing, as I know the game by heart and can play it through without reading any of the texts on the screen. And then I played it with more attention just to arrive at a conclusion: it's not really a funny game. As it is, Space Quest really is more like your typical adventure movie like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has humour, but it's not so dominant that I'd classify it as a comedy.

See, the game starts with a text show, telling how Xenon's sun is dying. That's some serious business right there. It goes on how the science vessel Arcada has been out testing a Star Generator, which the scientific minds of Xenon hope will help them turn one of the uninhabited planets of Xenon's system into a new sun. Then the small comedy bit, that tells us that you, the player, later known as Roger Wilco, but whom you can here name yourself if you like, are a bad janitor, who wakes up from his work shift nap when the Sariens attack Arcada. You'd think that sets the tone for what is to follow, but it really doesn't.

Arcada and Deltaur from the original and VGA remake. The style difference is quite clear.

See, what happens next is this: Roger Wilco is the sole survivor of Arcada. Not only that, he has only 15 minutes to escape before the ships explode. And there are bloody corpses of his former crewmates everywhere. And the Sariens are still on a prowl and willing to kill anyone who's still about and not a Sarien.

Wilco then stumbles upon a dying scientist, who tells him to escape and that the Star Generator is in danger. At his last breath, he splurts out a code phrase for the Star Generator schematics. So from this on out, it's up to Wilco, a lazy janitor, to save the day. And nothing about that is particularly funny. Really, the only thing funny about the first part of the game is the snarky death messages you get, but overall the whole escape from Arcada bit is pretty serious and tense, especially if you're doing it the first time.

At this point I think I should mention there's two version of SQ1: the original EGA text parser version from the 80's and a later VGA remake, that uses Sierra's then state of the art mouse-driven controls. The biggest difference between the versions, aside from more music and what not, is the VGA versions 50's pulp sci-fi inspired artwork, that is colourful and aimed to bring out the comedy more. There's also a bit more dark comedy in the Arcada part, especially if you bother to check out the corpses of the now dysfunctional crew. But again, nothing about is really laughing out funny, more like smirk-worthy.

One huge difference between the remake and the original is, that during the Arcada escape part the remake is constantly telling you how much time till you die.

So after the narrow escape in an escape pod, Roger Wilco plummets into a desert planet Kerona. There's really not that much comedy here either, more than there is your typical action adventure kind of stuff. The janitor needs to find a way to get out from the desert and in order to do that, he needs to impress some locals by killing a nasty beast called Orat. And then there's a Sarien hunter spider droid as well, that is looking for escapees. After that's settled Wilco gets a ride and an arcade sequence of trying to dodge big rocks while driving a sand skimmer. As a note, the sequence is much easier on the remake.

The next place, a seedy spaceport named Ulence Flats (there's a joke in the name if you think of it a moment), that is probably the most comedy heavy location in the game. There's a bar with some familiar looking bearded performers there, as well as droid shop Droids B Us not to mention the used spaceship sales alien Tiny. As such, the place feels like a small breather before the next final step of getting aboard the Sarien destroyer Deltaur.

It's time to sit back and relax either in the more crummy original or a bit more colourful remake. And look the stable of sci-fi comedy, three-breasted alien woman in the remake. Because nothing spells fun like three tits.

The final part of the game goes pretty much as you'd expect it to go: Roger Wilco finds the Deltaur and in a good space hero fashion he enters it, disguises himself and locates first some means to battle, after which some means to destroy both, the stolen Star Generator which in Sarien hands would be a horrible weapon, and the start destroyer Deltaur. Some shooting later, Wilco boards yet another escape vessel, punches in some coordinates and darts back home as a hero, not only because he destroyed the Sariens and their evil plans, he also brought back home the schematics for a new Star Generator. So all rejoice.

As I said, before really thinking about it, I always kinda assumed that Space Quest 1 is a comedy adventure, but in the end, it really isn't that. What it really is, is a sci-fi adventure with some comedic elements in it, but it never really lets the comedy to take the driver's seat. It always feels more like an action adventure more than anything else really.

The VGA remake does emphasise comedy a lot more. It has a lot more text and a lot of it is meant to be funny. Also, the art direction it has underlines that it is meant to be a comedy, but I don't think it works that well, despite I do like the style itself, as I love pulp sci-fi.  See, as a game, the VGA remake feels very different from the rest of the series, especially with its vintage look. Unlike the original, it also underlines the parody aspect by having a lot of recognisable sci-fi stuff in it. So while the remake is, in essence, the same game, it's also a bit different. If that's a good thing or not, really depends on if you like what it is trying to bring to the table. For me, it's a hit and miss effort and I still prefer the original over it.

Same room, different era. From some reason the VGA remake makes the Star Generator look like a mustard bottle. I guess that's funny.

Another thing that jumps out is, that as a game it is very much plot driven experience. It's tightly segmented into four different areas, which you play through in order, but to which you can't return later on. In that it very much reminds me of modern plot driven choose your own adventure games that Telltale does, despite it is to the core very old school, learn by dying kind of a game. In fact, the game expects you to die so you can learn from your mistakes. So, if you play either, the remake or the original, save early and save often, as you are going to die before you figure out what to do and even after that when you try to do what you're supposed to do.

From the modern perspective, Space Quest doesn't really fit in the idea of good or fair game design. A lot of times the game is difficult, as it doesn't really underline things for you. You're supposed to be solving things on your own and in some cases you can even puzzles in different ways, gaining different scores from them. It also is needlessly cruel a lot of time, but that's most likely because games were designed to be harder in the 80's, as they were more expensive and people expected them to last, so unfair puzzles helped to keep people entertained as well as they made Sierra more money when they sold hint books or when frustrated gamers called to their hint lines, as the internet didn't really exist yet back then. Today the kind of design Space Quest revels in is kind of counterproductive, as the player can easily look solutions from the web.

Skimming over the sands of Kerona.

It would be easy to say, that from today's perspective Space Quest 1 isn't a good game. But at the same time that would do a disservice to it, as it still is an interesting game. Frustrating one, especially if you try to play it the first time, especially so if you're playing the text parser original and try to figure out the right commands, as back then that also was as much of a puzzle as the actual puzzles in the game. The VGA version is much simpler, as that leaves the ”figure out the right command” part out of the equation.

If you haven't played Space Quest games previously and especially if you haven't played Sierra games before, you do need to acknowledge, that you'll need to approach it with a certain mindset: the game will be unforgiving, hard and punishing, often to excess. And often unfairly. You need to pay more attention than in modern adventure games, as it can lead you into a dead end, of which the only way out is to restore a previous game, maybe even far away. But in a right mindset, it just works, if you are willing to put in some effort. Or just by using a walkthrough.

This change is pretty interesting. In the original, you'll find refuge from the rocks of Kerona, in the remake the rock formation has been changed into a huge skeleton of a creature long dead.

After you've completed the game once, the next thing that jumps out is, that it really isn't that long game. For the first timers, without a walkthrough, it probably takes tens of hours, depending on what's your frustration point. But if you know what to do and how to solve the puzzles, it turns into an hour-long adventure. And if you don't have a need to read anything, you can run it through in 30 minutes. That really tells a lot, if you ask me. The only reason Space Quest 1, or any other old Sierra game for the matter, was long, was a result of the puzzle and game design, that was meant to be challenging to the point of unfairness.

But, as I said, despite its flaws Space Quest still is an interesting game. It's not necessarily a great game nor a game modern gamers would fall in love with, but still, it is an interesting game.

This room in Arcada used to house the famed Star Generator. Now it only houses the corpses of your former crew members.

If you want to experience Space Quest, you can get it either from GOG or Steam. While I'd usually recommend GOG for older games because of better compatibility, but I must add, that the Steam collection is better value for money, as GOG is selling the Space Quest games in groups of 3. So the first three are one collection and the next three are a second collection, whereas the collection sold in Steam has them all and is much cheaper. But, you know, your choice and all that. And apparently Steam collection only has the VGA remake of SQ1, so if you want that as well, GOG is your store.