Sierra VS LucasArts: the remasters

Revelations are a strange thing, as they often hit you, if they hit at all, from the blue. The recent release of Full Throttle Remastered caused a revelation of sorts for me. Not a ground shattering one, but a revelation none the less: as a kid I always thought Sierra was the best adventure games studio around, but now, after playing some of the Sierra catalogs again and comparing them to LucasArts games,  I've arrived at a conclusion that not only was LucasArts much better at making adventure games, their games have actually stood the test of time much better than most of the Sierra catalog ever did.

Almost all of the reviews I've done of Sierra games contain a similar disclaimer in one form or an another that goes something like "the game is dated, but fun for what it is, but most modern players won't necessarily find this to be a good game," whereas with a lot of LucasArts games I feel that the games themselves, be them designed in the 1980's or 1990's, feel fresher and more modern in approach. Sure, they might have their own UI issues, like over abundance in terms of how many verbs games like Maniac Mansion or Zak McKracken use, but they do overall feel like better-designed games in comparison to Sierra titles.

Now, I'm not saying that all of the Sierra games are bad nor am I saying that all LucasArts games are great and free of problems. That isn't the case, but it can't be denied that Sierra did often rely on unfair design choices in order to pad up the games and in some cases they even added unnecessary cruelty in order to sell hint books for their own titles. That practice has made many of the Sierra's 1980's titles extremely dated and in many cases, you need to be willing to overlook a plethora of bad design choices despite you'd be playing a game you feel strongly nostalgic towards. Yeah, I'm looking at you King's Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest and Larry series.

A remastered version of the Day of the Tentacle. No matter the user interface, modern or original, it just works well even today as the design is rock solid.

Even in the 1980's LucasArts designers seemed to be more willing to use common logic in puzzle solving and after a couple of runs, they even ditched the idea of dying in a game as it was something that would detract from the fun and cause frustration among the players. Their games started to drop design ideas like mandatory mazes in order to make the plot and the puzzles from a greater bulk of the game instead of padded content, whereas Sierra was still using filler till the 90's. But then again, so were many other game studios, though that's a flimsy excuse at best.

For Sierra, it took a long time to learn the same lesson it took LucasArts only a couple of tries to figure out: most people don't want to feel like the game is designed to be against them. What shines through from even the earlier games is, that they were designed to be fun first and foremost and not extremely punishing or unfair in form of having puzzles which require the player to read the developers mind in order to see how something is solved.

The recent Full Throttle remastered is pretty much 1:1 with the original and works just as well today as it did way back then. Sadly enough they left everything as it was in the original instead of fixing some things that didn't work well during the release of the original.

Interestingly enough Sierra remade a couple of their own key games back in the day. For an example, there's a remastered/remade version of King's Quest 1, Police Quest 1, Leisure Suit Larry 1 and Quest for Glory 1, all done by Sierra. But back then Sierra wasn't that keen on changing the core design of the games, as they were essentially the same games, only with a bit more elaborate writing and updated visuals, otherwise, the puzzles and playthrough were pretty similar to their original counterparts.

Obviously when it comes to remakes and remasters it might just be about dumb luck as well. While in two recent remakes of Sierra games, Leisure Suit Larry 1 and Gabriel Knight Sins of the Fathers, the original designers had their hand in the pie, the resources and talent they had at their disposals didn't necessarily match their vision. Gabriel Knight remake was decent, but it still felt like it was a prisoner of its old design and Larry Reloaded just plain was a game that should have been redesigned with the more radical hand than it was, as the core game hadn't really endured time.

In comparison, Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle were not only helmed by the original creator of the game, but they had many of the old developers taking part of the projects as well. While that isn't the automatic key to victory, mind you, having those old developers in the team must have helped quite a bit, when the aim was to re-create something that would feel and look like the original, but in higher resolution and brought in more consistency in style whereas those recent Sierra remakes were a bit all over the place.

What it all boils down to in my revelation is this: if you'd take those old Sierra classics, like King's Quest or Space Quest, and try to remaster it, you'd have to change it quite a bit in order to make it feel really fresh. If you'd take them and turn them into 1:1 remasters with only updated visuals and audio, you'd still end up having games with very flawed and in many places frustrating design. You only have to take a look at those fan made remakes of King's Quest or Space Quest games in order to see how much was changed on those. King's Quest 2 remake by AGD Interactive [official site] was so different that they could have gotten away by slapping an inspired by sticker on it and selling it as a new game.

A remake of the Gold Rush! is just as bad as the original is unless you view it through thick nostalgia glasses. Interestingly enough the pre-rendered 3D graphics of the remake manage to look much worse than the blocky EGA of the original. As a note, the remake wasn't done by Sierra, but Sunlight Games in 2014.

LucasArts titles like Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken, which contain a couple of dead ends, deaths and other not so player friendly design choices, could in comparison get away with relatively light redesign. They would still, if those annoyances were to be removed, feel like older games for sure, but they'd still be vastly more playable and modern in comparison to what Sierra did back in the 1980's and early 90's.

There's only two Sierra series I can think of which could be transferred to modern audiences almost as they are. The first one is Gabriel Knight series, which already had a bit lackluster re-imagining. The games still have solid plot lines and puzzles, it just was that the remake of Sins of the Fathers added unnecessary puzzles and was technically, visually and in audio a bit clunky. The other series is Quest for Glory, which wins a lot by being an adventure RPG hybrid. It's a kind of a game in which people expect to die on an occasion and do mundane things like bulking up the hero because that's needed in order to solve some of the puzzles. And unlike many other adventure games, it has a benefit of being a game with multiple paths and different solutions to puzzles thank character classes, which make it possible to tackle things from a perspective of a mage, thief or a fighter,

But essentially I do think the game design on the old LucasArts titles was far better than in most Sierra games. In best cases, those old LucasArts titles can be transported to modern audiences with relatively few changes, whereas with Sierra games you'd have to include a disclaimer about illogical puzzles, cruel death traps and dead ends which force you to restore a much earlier save or in worst cases restart the whole game. Or you would have to redesign the whole game from scratch.

The original and remastered version of Quest for Glory. Sierra added some nice looking VGA art as well as better soundtrack and mouse driven user interface. Otherwise, the games are pretty 1:1 in what comes to content. Either version of the game works pretty well even from a modern perspective.