Friday, 19 June 2015

Game 54: Space Quest IV - Final Rating

By: Joe Pranevich

Now here we are: the end of the line. It’s time to stop procrastinating by reviewing “hint books” and having “interviews”; we have to get down to the business of giving this game a final rating. And honestly, this is much more difficult than the six other games that I have reviewed for this site. This is a game that meant a great deal to me at one time, and while I can see its flaws now, I still might be wearing some of those rose-tinted glasses. But the only way out is forward, so let’s see how Space Quest IV does in the PISSED rating!

After some debate, I have decided to review both the 1991 floppy disk edition of the game and the 1992 CD-ROM version. The games have enough differences that they will get different scores, but the official score for the spreadsheet and contest will be the floppy score. The lucky reader that guesses the score will not only get a fine collection of CAPs, but also a Ace Hardway tee-shirt thanks to a donation from our friends at SpaceVenture! We will also give out some CAPs to the person guessing closest to the CD-ROM score, but we only have one shirt.

With that out of the way, let’s begin!

Puzzles and Solvability

Here’s an unfortunate fact: this is the first game that I have reviewed for “The Adventure Gamer” where I didn’t need to take a hint to succeed. Yes, I had played the game before and I am sure that helped, but it is also a positive sign that the Two Guys built a game that is well-balanced and solvable. While none of the puzzles were too hard for me, there were a few that were too easy or not obfuscated very well. For example, almost all of the quests in the mall can be solved simply by traversing the environment clockwise and visiting each store one-by-one. It’s not until you get to the ATM card puzzle that you need to backtrack, but by then you have a pair of pants, a wallet full of cash, and a hint book. Perhaps this was my own memory making things easier, but just re-ordering the stores could have made that section a bit more challenging without changing any of the narrative flow.

Eluding the Sequel Police was especially hard in the CD-ROM version.

We have talked quite a bit about the time-based puzzles in my posts and so I do not want to retread all of that, but there are some key differences here between the floppy version and the CD-ROM version. In the original version, the introductory sequence with the Sequel Police felt well-balanced, but many of the later timing puzzles were much harder. The final trip through Vohaul’s base was considerably more difficult in the floppy edition. But, this actually reflects a reasonable difficulty curve with the game and it seems right that the timed sequences would get harder as you get deeper into the action. The CD edition is spoiled by having its most difficult timing challenge right off the bat, before you can even get in to enjoy the game. This is a pacing snafu and I suspect that it’s a big turn off for new players.

Space Quest IV is also one of the earliest Sierra games that we have seen with relatively few dead ends. There ARE dead ends and some of them are nasty, especially if you forget to write down the time codes for Space Quests 12 and 10. Beyond that, the game goes to great lengths to ensure that you can get all the way back to the beginning if there was an item that you missed. The only item in the game that I believe you can miss out on is the gum wrapper in Space Quest 10. There may be others, but overall this was a great and novel effort in the pantheon of Sierra games.

Don’t forget to write down the time coordinates!

My only other gripe for both versions is the very first time code, the one that takes you to the dinosaur zone in SQ10. It seems really easy: Roger just needs to enter anything as time coordinates and it will work after one or two tries. But there is nothing that hints at this and it really doesn’t make much sense. A typical response must be to suspect that we missed a clue earlier, but this isn’t the case. It’s not a fair puzzle and is perhaps the one I enjoyed least in this game, even though I vaguely remembered it from when I played as a kid. I have read online that in the floppy version that this is dealt with by the copy protection, but that is untrue: after you enter the copy protection code, you are still left with a pod and no idea what code to punch in.

I give this category a 6. The puzzles were logical and provided a sense of achievement, without too many dead ends. The CD-ROM version loses a point for the poorly balanced difficulty. There was an over-emphasis on timed sequences in both versions, but that supports the overall theme of the game. More on that when I discuss the game’s atmosphere in a bit.

Floppy Rating: 6
CD-ROM Rating: 5

Interface and Inventory

For me, the toolbar-based interface used in this games and the other Sierra tities of this generation is the iconic Sierra interface. It is simpler than the typing-parsers used in previous Space Quest games, while still retaining a small but reasonable set of verbs. From listening to their commentary, I know that Mark and Scott did not like this change, but for me it fits comfortably like an old glove. I smiled when I started the game for the first time and saw the classic toolbar! Although there were absolutely no plot-related reasons to ever use the “smell” or “lick” icons, the writers peppered the game with interesting and humorous responses when they were used. Those could easily have become wasted space, but it never felt that way. That said, I rarely remembered to lick and smell things and so I missed out on a lot of the humor in my first playthrough. I may have to go back just to play with those and see what happens. I do not think I need to explain much more about this interface, especially as we already dealt with it on King’s Quest V, but it’s a solid win for Sierra and a solid win for this game. Not perfect, but quite solid.

Whee this game improves on its predecessors is in the variety of one-off interfaces that are employed: the bargain bin, the Radio Shock robot, and the supercomputer UI to name a few. These all work so well that we forget that each of them must have been individually designed and programmed. If nothing else, they provide a nice break from the routine.

I just adore this. Seriously.

The game’s inventory is pretty functional with only around a dozen total objects in the game that you can carry, nearly all of which are directly related to a puzzle. The small number means you never have too many to manage in the inventory screen, while still enough that you need to think about what you want to use and where. I also like that you get a close up of items when you look at them and a few can be manipulated on the inventory screen itself. I struggled at first to figure out how many Buckazoids I was carrying, but now I freely admit that I was just an idiot: it’s written on the coins themselves. The only objects in the game to have multiple uses was the hint book and the money, while the unstable ordnance only exists for you to pick it up and then put it back down again. The inventory also provides another avenue for humor, and I don’t think I can say enough about how awesome the “Space Quest IV Hintbook” is as an actual in-game object.

The CD version improves the graphics and adds a new interface screen for the ATM, but otherwise does not make any notable changes in this category. I particularly dislike that this version makes you pick between the text and the narration, rather than allowing both to be seen and heard at once. I suspect this is because the two do not match as some of the voice actors may have ad libbed some of their lines, but it is still a striking absence. (Quest for Glory IV, a game we will not play for a while, has exactly this problem: it does support text and speech at the same time, but it is hilariously obvious when they actors go off script.)

Floppy Rating: 7
CD-ROM Rating: 7

Story and Setting

Space Quest IV is not the first adventure game, or even the first adventure game at Sierra, to tackle time travel. That honor goes to 1982’s Time Zone by Roberta Williams, a Missed Classic that I hope to play for the blog eventually. But Space Quest IV’s use of “sequels” rather than dates made for a fresh new approach and one that I do not believe has been reproduced since. It is charming and wonderful, and even fits nicely into the overall Space Quest narrative. You don’t have to bother knowing, for example, just how long Roger spent in that suspension pod prior to Space Quest III. This novel approach is the central element to the game’s setting, so much so that you never return to Space Quest IV at any point in the narrative.

The events in Space Quest XII are clearly the most important to the story. There is a pretty good backstory provided for the destruction of Xenon and the rise of Sludge Vohaul, even tying in the Leisure Suit Larry IV joke. But as you venture deeper in the game, it loses its narrative focus. Pretty much from the moment that you leave Xenon to your arrival in Space Quest I, the game is nothing more than an extended chase sequence interrupted occasionally by adventuring. The player does get the hint that Roger’s son has been captured and that pushes you to return to Space Quest XII to start the final segment of the game, but this is not “in universe”. Roger doesn’t get to watch the cutscene and so your return trip to SQ12 is more because that is where the plot needs you to go, rather than any character growth or decisions in the game itself. There should have been more to it, but as it is it is a bit of a wasted opportunity.

So, when were you planning on telling him?

Now let’s tackle a more controversial question: does this game really do anything interesting with time travel? Yes, being rescued by your son and traveling through time sets the whole game in motion. But after that, are there any elements that take advantage of the time trave premise? Just about none. Except for the hint book, you could replace each time zone with a separate planet and the whole story works as a generic space adventure. You never have to bury an object to find later, play guitar at an “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance, or try not to run into your past selves. It may be a nitpick, but I think if you are going to tell a time travel story, you should make sure you are telling a story that is predicated on time travel. I want to deposit a buckazoid in the bank in Space Quest I and take out a million in Space Quest XII. Is that too much to ask?

I suspect I am coming off as negative, but I did find the individual settings to be fantastic. Each area was distinctive, with its own music and artistic style, but yet the game never felt disjointed. It all holds together rather well thanks to what I assume is great art direction. My favorite area from a design perspective is the dinosaur and underwater parts of SQ10, but all of them have their charms. Only the gritty SQ12 area wore out its welcome by the end, but I could just not be a fan of gritty space adventures.

Floppy Rating: 5
CD-ROM Rating: 5

Sound and Graphics

Let’s state the obvious: this is a pretty game. The graphics are beautifully done, even when projecting the “gritty” future, the locations are well-designed, and there are some good uses of animation. The artists’ attention to detail is apparent and there are many little things to notice if you are looking for them. I love Sierra’s use of motion capture here as a way to add realism to the environments, with even some minor figures like the Latex Babes getting a mo-cap study made of them. That said, the animation here is quite clunky even for the “cartoon” look they were aiming for with only a few parts of the screen able to move. This worked fine for some sequences (Roger captured by a dinosaur!), but others felt stilted. It is great for a game of this era, but it doesn’t age quite as well. We cannot forget that this was Space Quest’s first foray into 256 colors, so some aspects (like animation) may have been prioritized lower.

I love the separately scrolling backgrounds.

The music and sound effects in this game, especially if you had one of those fancy MIDI-things, are fantastic. It’s a sign of a great game that I can still remember the music after I am done playing and there are a few such songs here. Some of the music is a bit derivative, for example the theme when you turn on the timepod does sound more than a bit like John Williams’s main theme from Superman. I suspect that was a deliberate homage, but it’s very tough to take an iconic theme like that, reuse it in a different context, and not have it become distracting.

The sound effects in the game are good, but switching between the CD and floppy versions, the latter starts to feel a bit sparse. There are more sound effects, smoother animation, and some of the cutscenes seem to be a bit longer in the CD version. The narration and voice acting is best of breed for the games of this era, especially the narration by Gary Ownens. Quite frankly, I can’t remember a single other voice in the game except his, but now I can’t even imagine what another narrator could sound like. The improved effects and narration combine to give the CD version another point in this category.

Floppy Rating: 7
CD-ROM Rating: 8

Environment and Atmosphere

Oh, the dreaded “E”. I’m not sure how my fellow reviewers feel, but “Environment and Atmosphere” is a challenging category to rate. What we are looking for here is the way the game made you feel, combining the setting and the art style, as well as the tone of the narrative itself and how all of that comes together into a cohesive package. It’s a subtle category, but perhaps also one of the most important ones: if an adventure doesn’t gel then it isn’t very fun, even if it has all of the technical points right. When I look at this question, I like to ask myself: do the environments support the mood of the game? Does everything click into place? For Space Quest IV, I have to say that the answer is yes.

A large bird flies overhead. Well, that’s ominous.

I’ve remarked on this before, but beneath the time travel exterior, SQ4 is ultimately a chase game. Roger spends a bit of time in each era exploring and adventuring, but before long the Sequel Police catch up and he needs to get out of there. This creates a tense mood to the game, like you are always on the edge of your seat for the bad guys to show back up. Some of the game’s great moments contribute to this mood, such as the silhouettes in SQ10 and the sound effects of the approaching killer droids in Vohaul’s base. When Roger does get a break, the game’s humor comes out and serves as a palate cleanser. The mall sequence serves almost like an intermission, but the “fun” also creates a feeling of disquiet when contrasted with the much darker first half of the game. I really like the way all of this came together into a solid package.

There are no differences here between the CD and floppy versions. While the CD edition adds polish, it doesn’t add enough to change the score.

Floppy Rating: 7
CD-ROM Rating: 7

Dialog and Acting

None of the above categories would mean a hill of beans if there wasn’t great text behind the game, and that is a place where the Two Guys really shined. The areas are described well, there are fun and funny interludes with the “lick” and “smell” icons, and there are great little details like the text on the games in the bargain bin. But despite that, I struggle to remember a single iconic line from the game, except perhaps the line that “you’ve been a real pantload” which I found to be just an annoying misstep. It’s a terrible line that conjures a terrible image and you have to hear it far too often.

So like a cross between “Fallout” and “The Manhole”?

I think I’ve already given out some Gary Owens bonus points, but here’s another one. In the CD edition of the game, he brings up the whole production. He takes the lines and makes them absolutely sing, far better than I could have done in my head. He so eclipsed the other voice actors (most of which I assume were Sierra staffers) so completely that I cannot recall a single one of their voices. It’s his voice in my head for this game.

Floppy Rating: 7
CD-ROM Rating: 8

Final Score

Let’s do the calculation! For the floppy version, we have 6+7+5+7+7+7/.6 = 65! Wow! That is the same as Indiana Jones and Loom, and easily makes the top ten we’ve played so far. In fact, this is the best game we’ve played (in my opinion) since Trickster’s departure. The CD version scores a bit higher: 5+7+5+8+7+8/.6=67. We can’t credit those points entirely to Gary Owens, but he really did a fantastic job here and will be missed. Since the floppy version is the one that counts:

It looks like Torch wins! He is feeling lucky after all. MrValdez gets the second prize for coming closest to the CD-edition’s score. Torch, please drop an email to the staff address in the left column and we’ll work out with the SpaceVenture people how to get your prize to you.

How does this compare to your guesses? Fourteen of you submitted ratings, ranging from a low of 55 to a high of 70, with an average guess of 61. This means that I rated the game a bit higher than most of you expected, but pretty much both editions are within the range you predicted. That seems about right.

One Final Contest

Before we depart for new games, I offer you one final contest: I scattered sci-fi television and movie references into each of the post titles AND a fair number of the picture captions. For a couple of extra CAPs each, can you name which films or other media I was playing homage to?

To help you find these references and get your CAPs, here are my posts:
  1. Introduction
  2. Roger Wilco’s Bogus Journey
  3. The Time Traveler’s Ex-Girlfriend
  4. Outlet Shopping on the Edge of Forever
  5. Back to the Sequel
  6. Won!
  7. Epilogue: Marmota Monax Die
And with that, I am signing off for now. My next mainline game for the blog will be “The Adventures of Willy Beamish”, probably in late summer or early fall. Before that, I hope to have one or two more “Missed Classics” in, starting with “Questprobe: Spider-Man” in July. See you soon!

CAP Distribution

200 points and a well-earned break for Joe Pranevich
  • Blogger award - 50 CAPs - for blogging through Questprobe featuring the Hulk
  • Blogger award - 50 CAPs - for blogging through Mission: Asteroid
  • Blogger award - 100 CAPs - for blogging through this game for our enjoyment
45 CAPs for Andy Panthro
  • Genre support award - 5 CAPs - For an adventure sales announcement
  • Sponsor award – 20 CAPs - For donating a prize for the most obscure sci-fi reference in the game as spotted by the commenters
  • Companion award - 10 CAPs - for playing along with Space Quest IV
  • Three Digit Code - 5 CAPs - For explaining some basic geometry
  • Name That Tune Award - 5 CAPs - for naming a song overheard at the software store
20 CAPS for TBD
  • Companion award - 10 CAPs - for playing along with Space Quest IV
  • Genre support award - 5 CAPs - For a Sam & Max sales announcement
  • Name That Tune Award - 5 CAPs - for naming a song overheard at the software store
18 CAPs for Rowan Lipkowitz
  • Smarter than the average terminal award - 3 CAPs - For explaining what a dumb terminal is
  • Examining the examiner award - 5 CAPs - For explaining why Chief Examiner would program on paper
  • Award Construction Set Award - 5 CAPs - For explaining some references in SQ4
  • Planet's Crust Award - 5 CAPs - For correcting a detail in the post
16 CAPs for Ilmari
  • 16 Colors of Power Award - 5 CAPs - For introducing us to the EGA version of the game
15 CAPs for Aperama
  • Psychic preditction award - 10 CAPs - for guessing closest to the Hulk's final rating
  • It Came From the Desert Award - 5 CAPs - For recognising a Missed Classic
15 CAPs for Laertes
  • I can see my house from here award - 5 CAPs - For recognising the shot of Earth was taken from orbit
  • Attempted Companion award - 5 CAPs - for starting playing along with Space Quest IV but not getting very far
  • Honesty in Reporting award - 5 CAPs - for pointing out that he didn't get very far so didn't deserve the whole 10 CAPs
15 CAPs for Torch
  • Psychic prediction award - 10 CAPs - for guessing the score
  • Kick the map in the creek award - 5 points - for getting the mall map error in the hint book.
10 CAPs for Gregory Brown
  • Patch-O-Rama award - For linking to the patch that helps with a possible timing issue
9 CAPs for MrValdez
  • (Almost) psychic prediction award - 9 CAPs - for guessing the CD ROM version score
5 CAPs for Dehumanizer
  • The 30 year old version award - 5 CAPs - For detailed look on the different versions
5 CAPs for JosephCurwen
  • Remember... the Alamo" Award - 5 CAPs - For recognizing a Peewee Herman reference
3 CAPs for Reiko
  • Cool coat award - 3 CAPs - For finding a reference to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
1 CAP for Novacek
  • No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service Award - 1 CAP - For explaining the "puzzle" behind Monolith Burger that I did not find


  1. Yay!

    I knew second guessing myself was a good idea!

    Hmm.. or did I...?

  2. Two easy ones:

    5- Bach to the sequel = Back to the future
    7- Epilogue: Marmota Monax Die = Groundhog day

    1. And another one from the titles: The Time Traveler's Wife

      And from the Bogus Journey post...

      "Uncle Zombie wants you" is an Uncle Sam reference, but that's not sci-fi related

      "Nomad, is that you?" could be a reference to the terrain traveling robot

    2. Or then it's Nomad from Star Trek:

  3. I' guessing:
    2. Roger Wilco’s Bogus Journey = Bill and Ted's bogus journey

    Also the captions in that post:
    Cantina: Star wars ( fairly obvious )
    Space Gandalf: LoTR ( also obvious )
    Liquid metal: Terminator 2
    Wabbit: Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd something something

    1. Specifically 1951's "Rabbit Fire", I believe. (Although the "wabbit season" joke has been reused many times since.)

  4. For the most part, I'd agree - but for two things. First, I think that 'environment and atmosphere' is actually the easiest thing to rate in the PISSED scale. It's the quintessential 'spark' - 'is it good? Does it 'work'?' is all I have to ask, and if it does.. then it gets a high rating. Maybe that's just me, though. :)

    As for the time travel music being an homage to the Superman theme? I think of SQ's take as being more iconic, though it's possible that this is just because I've heard it far more times than the Superman theme. It perfectly gives off that 'things are going down!' vibe. Again, though, it's all about personal opinions - and neither have any real impact on the rating. I was, after all, only off by one digit - curse you and your free t-shirt taking ways, Torch! *shakes fist*

    1. I think each of the categories has something going for it, but "Atmosphere" is the hardest to break down into quanta because it relies on the other categories so much. You can have a game with good story but bad graphics, but for atmosphere to score high you need to have highs cores in other areas too. But I think we each have our own OCDs and some categories are easier or harder.

      For me, "sound" is tough because I often have to play with it turned off, so I have to go back later and re-review certain scenes. I *try* to play with it on as much as I can, but my play time does not always permit it.

    2. Also, I think Superman has to remain the "iconic" theme here. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1978, though did not win.

    3. I only did a review once and found that 'E' is a lot more qualitative than quantitative, in that it's a lot more easy to describe it that to give it a number.

    4. I'm sorry. I promise I won't do it again..........until next time, bwah hah hah hah!

      Anyway, I see there's a looong way to go to get to the top of the CAP leaderboard. Some of you guys need to start spending those things.

    5. I think the leaderboard is your total CAPs ever so as to not prevent people from spending them. You *should* spend them on selecting games for us to play each year and for bets.

    6. Ah.. Yeah, I guess that makes sense.

    7. Torch, there are lots of other ways to get CAPs. Good comments on posts get CAPs, pointing out sales on adventure games, making wagers at the start of a game, and contributing by writing a post all get you CAPs. While the leaderboard is tough right now, just being a part of the community will get you up there in no time.

    8. Dammit. I got 0 CAPs this round. Probably because all my comments were lewd trashy jokes.

    9. Don't worry, Kenny. You're still a chance of getting CAPs from the Leisure Suit Larry posts, unless Alex has had enough of lewd trashy jokes after playing the game.

  5. They apparently recompressed the background images with a smaller palette in the CD version by the way, resulting in more artifacts such as banding and less colour overall.

  6. CAP distribution and leaderboard updated.

    Also, we have a new game in our top 10 list (which is now a top 11 list) - Good work Space Quest IV!

    1. I don't think I deserve the companion award, I started playing way before Joe and I haven't yet gone very far.

    2. Does it become a top 10 again when there's enough >57 scores to push the three 57 scores off the top 10?

    3. Laertes, if you like we can take away 5 points for not playing much of the game.

      Then we can give you the "Honesty in Reporting" Award for 5 CAPs and so TBD doesn't need to fix the leaderboards and spreadsheets...

    4. Laukku: Exactly. And if we get another 57 we could have a top 12!

      Laertes: I can just take away the points but I like Joe's idea because it's more amusing, and anything that saves me extra effort gets my thumbs up.

    5. Agreed. But now everybody knows how to get easy CAPs ;-)

  7. Who wins the Sci-Fi reference award (and prize)?

    I haven't been back to check through all of the comments yet, so there's probably still time if anyone wants to make a last attempt (you can notice stuff from the screenshots posted in this series of posts, if you haven't played the game).

    1. Oh. How could I have missed that the first time through?

      Luke's landspeeder from Star Wars is in the first screenshot!

    2. If we did not get enough replies, then I propose we extend the contest through SQ1.

    3. So far I think we have Ilmari noticing that the Space Quest X subtitle is a take on "Leather Goddesses of Phobos" an infocom sci-fi text adventure, and TBD noticing the landspeeder. Surprised people didn't notice a few more! Can certainly extend it, if nobody would mind.

    4. Yea, probably better to extend the contest - seems a bit awkward, if only the admin are participating.

  8. Agreed about the lack of specifically time-travel-based puzzles. I'm fond of this game and enjoyed following the playthrough here, but in hindsight it feels a bit short perhaps - you go here, then you go here, then you go here and it's over. True of lots of adventure games, sure, but in general I felt the first round of the VGA-and-icon games struggling to maintain the variety and interest of the last generation of EGA-and-text games. In particular, some of the environments (especially SQ1) just seem short on action, or reasons to go back once you've done the one or two puzzles. Part of me wonders if they had a more elaborate outline in mind but had to dial back their plans with a time crunch forced by KQV.

    Obviously, we're still a few years out from, say, Chrono Trigger, but there is something about a time travel story that just begs for being able to alter "later" events by doing something in the "earlier" period - but of course, any major changes (thanks to your meddling in a previous game, the discount spacesuit emporium is now a Radio Shock selling the adapters you need!) would have meant having to do a whole new piece of time-intensive, disk-intensive background art. In general, I think as designers got used to the new interface, they did really nic games - Longbow, to which I've referred a few times, does a nice job of having you visit some of the same locations at different moments, getting that "a-ha, now I can finally..." moment... while others are very clearly a one-time deal related to a specific linear sequence you need to get through on a certain day). I really can't remember too much about Space Quest V beyond some of the thematic material - it'll be interesting to see whether it departs from this pattern.

    1. Yes. I hope to volunteer to play Space Quest V when it is time. I also hardly remember it, though I know I've beaten it back in the day.

    2. Space Quest V is their (well, -The- Guy from Andromeda's) take on Star Trek. It only has one unsolvable timer puzzle, so they're on their way up! (Basically, there's an arcade sequence where you need to lock onto something with a tractor beam, and if your computer is too fast it moves like Speedy Gonzales.)

    3. Yeah, weird that there weren't any actual time-travel puzzles (investing money, cutting down or planting trees, etc.) Hopefully Timequest does a better job with that.

    4. I seem to remember there are at least couple cases where the player will have direct effect on future time periods in Timequest. We'll see if I remembered correctly.