Sunday 28 June 2020

Game 121: Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist (1993): Introduction

by Alex

Hello there, dear The Adventure Gamer family. I am back after a long absence to review another game, and another Al Lowe game, but this time it’s not an entry in the Leisure Suit Larry series. No, I’m leaving my polyester pal behind and traveling to the old west to play Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, Mr. Lowe and co.’s 1993 outing in the Sierra adventure game library. There was a CD-ROM version (more on this later), with voices and everything, released in 1994, but I’m playing the DOS version, mainly because I’m not a huge fan of CD-ROM games.

1993 is smack in the middle of the golden age of Sierra adventure games, which I contend lasted until 1996. You might disagree with me, and I’m sure will let me know in the comments below, but that’s what makes life interesting, right? And we all need a little adventure, uncertainty, and chaos in our lives right about now.
Well actually, no. I certainly don’t! Thankfully, I live out in the middle of nowhere, USA, where nothing happens and we like it like that, but life has certainly been adventurous, uncertain, and chaotic enough for me and my family, thank you very much! We’re all fine, and I hope you are too. But with civil society is crumbling all around me, there’s nothing better to do than fire up an old adventure game and blog about it. So here we go.

The last game I blogged about for The Adventure Gamer was Quest for Glory III: Wages of War back in 2018. In the interim, my wife and I had another child, started a business, and I’ve published two novels, with another novel and a non-fiction book set to publish before the year is up. Plus, I got to meet Joe Pranevich in person, which was really cool. But how many adventure games did I play during this time? With the exception of the first two Quest for Glory games with my son, zero. So I’ve been busy. If both my adventure gaming prowess and my writing are rusty, please bear with me as I play myself back into shape.

Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist—and I’m sorry, every time I hear the name Pharkas all I can think of is Scott Farkus, the bully who tormented Ralphie, his brother, and their friends in A Christmas Story.

This guy.

Anyway, Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist is Al Lowe’s homage to comedy westerns a la Mel Brooks’s popular 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles. Would you believe I have never seen Blazing Saddles? I know Gene Wilder’s in it, there’s a gigantic Indian named Mongo that punches his horse, that Cleavon Little’s character gets called the N-word a lot (which means this movie is probably not long for this world), and that the central bit of humor is a gigantic fart joke.

Al Lowe

So, yes, no wonder Al Lowe wanted to make his own version of it. That sort of humor is right up Lowe’s alley. I didn’t intend that to sound dirty, but since we’re talking about an Al Lowe game, all of our minds immediately went to the gutter (don’t lie).

But Lowe wasn’t alone! Oh no, Lowe designed Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist (I’m calling it FPFP from now on because the full title is a real mouthful (fingerful?) to keep on typing) with Josh Mandel. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he worked on many Sierra games either as a producer, designer, writer, voice actor, artist, or some combination of those roles. Which games? How about Space Quest 6, The Dagger of Amon Ra, King’s Quest V and VI, and EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus. Mandel worked for other companies afterwards, such as Take-Two Interactive and Mattell, but he also lent his voice talents to the fan remakes of the first three King’s Quest games, reunited with Al Lowe on 2013’s Leisure Suit Larry: reloaded, and was a writer on Quest for Glory designer (and sometimes TAG commenter) Lori and Corey Cole’s Quest for Glory quasi-reboot Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. He was also the model for the coroner in Police Quest III: The Kindred, but the less said about that game, the better.

Josh Mandel

I also think he might like fart jokes.

Before firing up the game, let’s take a look at the manual.

Titled The Modern Day Book of Health and Hygiene, 1881 edition, the manual is presented like an old-time medical—some might say “pseudo-medicine” almanac written by one Hyman J. Lipschitz, M.D., the President of Phrenologists for Health, Enervating Elixers, Longevity, and Mental Energy, aka (sigh) PHEELME.

This guidebook also has a pretty humorous disclaimer on page two:
Note to those people who might think a parody of a quack remedy guide that pretends to be from the 19th Century could really contain factual information but are too stupid to read disclaimers such as this anyway: The information contained herein is absolute and utter balderdash, provided by Sierra On-Line, Inc. for your Entertainment ONLY and to provide information and clues for FREDDY PHARKAS, FRONTIER PHARMACIST. Do not take the medications we prescribe. Do not apply the balms and liniments we describe. Do not attempt the procedures we outline. Do not believe that Manual Labor is still the President of Mexico. Nothing within this pamphlet is accurate and truthful, to the best of our ability. We are being entirely facetious. Do not, repeat DO NOT, use this documentation as a real medical guide! It’s a joke! Okay? Get it?
We get it, Al and Josh, we do. Also: the president of Mexico being named Manual Labor is a precursor to the horrible/awesome name puns that pervade this game.

Anyway, this isn’t so much an instruction booklet on how-to-play, but what I’m assuming is a very elaborate form of copy protection. You see, Part 1, the Pharmacopoeia, describes various chemicals that can be used as medicines, and in some cases, how to make them. They are sometimes funny, and clearly some entries are there just for laughs, but I’m getting serious King’s Quest III vibes from this whole thing.

Excerpt from the Pharmacopoeia

Part 2 features “home procedures” for things like acne, broken bones, and constipation (no coronavirus though). There’s also a (sigh) flatulence spectrometer, where the doctor is advised to catch fart gas in a paper bag or something and burn it in a spectroscope to figure out the exact chemical compound of what is causing the patient to have the vapors. Things like lentils, apples ‘n brown sugar-cinnamon, and meaty by-products, along with the cure. This is the level of humor we’re dealing with, people. It’s an Al Lowe game, what should I expect?

Actually, the manual is pretty funny, full of the dry, straight-faced humor we’ve come to expect from Mr. Lowe, and the kind of humor I actually get a kick out of. It reminds me of Mad Magazine, where the humor is stupid and low-brow, but an intelligent kind of stupid and low-brow. You know what I mean, right?

In any event, it’s time to start this game up.

Hello, old friend.

The familiar Sierra fanfare and accompanying logo always give me all sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings, as does the sound and graphical style of the title screen, and I’m particularly excited to delve into Freddy Pharkas (wait, that didn’t come out right . . .) since I’ve never played this game. That’s right! Other than reading about this in Sierra’s InterACTION magazine (Sierra’s version of Nintendo Power) when I was a kid, I have no experience whatsoever with FPFP. I’m playing this blind, and have been looking forward to this for quite some time.

This issue right here—I wish I still had it, but scans of it are available at Al’s site

I decide to check out the game’s prologue, and am treated to a well-written and well-composed Western ballad detailing the life of one former famous gunslinger Freddy Pharkas and how he came to be a one-eared pharmacist in the frontier town of Coarsegold, California, a real town near Sierra’s actual location in Oakhurst, California. Coarsegold was apparently also the setting for Sierra’s 1981 On-Line Adventure #3: Cranston Manor, which TAG reviewer Joe Pranevich is yet to review.

The ballad is quite good and humorous while packing in a lot of backstory (kind of like this post). Al Lowe wrote the music—although future Quest for Glory IV composer Aubrey Hodges is the main composer for this game—and Lowe and Mandel both wrote the lyrics. I’ve reprinted the lyrics below so you understand the game’s premise, interspersed with screenshots from the intro (follow the bouncing ball!)

He was born in old St Louie,
By the age of four Dad knew he was the
Best little crackshot the West had ever seen.
By the time he reached pubescence,
He could outshoot all the adolescents
West of Durango and north of Abilene.

Pharkas, Freddy Pharkas.
Famous gunslingin’ deputy.
Freddy Pharkas, Freddy Pharkas,
Frontier hero-to-be.

Then one day young Freddy Pharkas
Stared at eyes as black and dark as night, the
Eyes of an outlaw, well-known throughout the West.
Oh, the tough kid’s name was Kenny,
And he outdrew Freddy Pharkas, when he
Shot Freddy’s ear off to prove who was the best.

Now our hero, Freddy Pharkas,
With wounded pride and earless carcass,
Vowed to the heavens to give up gunnery.
He’d be better off, he reckoned,
With the lifelong dream that always beckoned:
Pestles, not pistols, and pharmacology.

Pharkas, Freddy Pharkas,
Highest score on his S.A.T.,
Freddy Pharkas, Freddy Pharkas.
Five-year college degree.

After Fred matriculated,
Got his Ph.D. and graduated,
Moved out to Coarsegold and bought a pharmacy.
He’s a real prescription writer,
And they don’t know he’s an ex-gunfighter,
Locked up his mem’ries, repressed them totally.

But his peaceful new survival
Soon was shot to hell upon arrival
Of Coarsegold’s schoolmarm, the sweet Penelope.
She has captured Fred’s affection,
But he’s scared he’ll get a huge …rejection,
Can’t bear to tell her just what he used to be.

Pharkas, Freddy Pharkas.
Frontier Pharmacist bourgeoisie,
Freddy Pharkas, Freddy Pharkas.
Peerless, earless, and free!

The CD-ROM version is apparently sung by Al Lowe himself, because as he describes on his website, everyone thought he had a “funny voice.” You can read all about it, and listen to the ballad, here.

Act I then begins, making me think this game is going to be chapter-based, and you are taken to Coarsegold’s main street as someone is boarding up a building, where a toothless old coot named Whittlin’ Willy starts to tell you all about ol’ Freddy.

Nope, not sitting on your lap. Not getting anywhere NEAR that lap, thanks.

I gain control of Freddy and check the interface. The standard Sierra point-and-click icons are there (Walk, Look, Action, Speak, Inventory), and I take a moment to click the Action icon on various things, which may-or-may-not have included Freddy’s man-region.

I mean, it’s an Al Lowe game. I kind of had to.

There are no surprises, which works for me as this interface generally works really well. In my inventory I only have the key to Freddy’s pharmacy. I’m looking forward to inventory gags, as Al Lowe’s Leisure Suit Larry V was full of humorous messages—each unique!—when you clicked any item on any other item in your inventory. I hope this attention to detail, and bad jokes, carries over to FPFP.

And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is a (sigh) Golden Balls Saloon.

This humor style, of course, is par for the course and I don’t view it as a negative per se. I groan and cringe at these kinds of jokes, but I actually like them. They’re generally harmless and Al always seemed like a good guy who just like getting a few yuks out of gamers.

Here he is, describing the inspiration for FPFP:

“In 1992, I noticed that there wasn’t a single Western computer game, even though Western movies had been popular off and on for years. But I wanted to make a humorous Western. What sort of Western could be funny? While discussing this with Roberta Williams, I started to say ‘farmer’ but my mouth tried to say ‘rancher’ and out came a tangled mess that kind of sounded like, ‘farmer-cist.’ Hey! A pharmacist? Why not? Thus was born Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist!

I think it may well be my funniest game, due in great part to the wit of Josh Mandel. Computer Gaming World called it ‘The Blazing Saddles of computer games’ (see box cover below) which I considered perfect praise since that movie was my inspiration.”

Funniest gmae, huh? I sure hope so! Leisure Suit Larry has its moments, but nothing is really laugh out loud funny. Maybe FPFP will be. We’ll see!

I have high hopes reading this bit of trivia from Josh Mandel:

“Mandel had explained in a commentary the reason why there were so many more jokes in the Floppy Disk version as compared to the CD-ROM version of the game, ‘I had co-designed, directed, produced, and written the floppy version; there were no plans at all, at the time, to produce a CD version. When sales of the floppy version justified a CD version, I was no longer available to produce and direct it, having by then started on SQ6. Al Lowe was then tapped to do the casting and recording of the CD version, but the game already had so much text in it that, when it came time to record the inventory text, Al just stopped—he was, he said, tired of sitting in the sound studio. As I had written the vast majority of the game's text and dialogue, I pointed out to him that, in the process of cutting roughly 15% of the game's text from the recording, he'd not only left out many jokes, but many clues and hints as well.’”

And like I said, I’m playing the DOS version, so not only will I not be missing out on “clues and hints,” I’ll be getting all the jokes as well. Oh boy!

Mind you, I have no clue what the plot is, but I’m eager to hop in and see what Coarsegold has to offer. If there are references I don’t get in my posts, please let me know. I’m a medium-sized Western fan. I love the idea and image and aesthetic of cowboys and the American west, I’ve seen several John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies, and I have some Louis L’Amour paperbacks I need to get around to reading, but I’m no expert or connoisseur of the Western genre. Then again, I’m no expert or connoisseur of the adventure game genre and that doesn’t stop me from writing about, so maybe I have nothing to worry about.

Anyway, time to saddle up and play. See you next time, pardner! Yee haw, yippie-ki-yi-yay, and all that jazz.


  1. Oh boy. If you thought the magic-as-copy-protection thing was a pain in KQ3, the pharmacy stuff in this one is just awful.

    1. If I remember correctly, the copy protection (aside for giving you clues to some of the puzzles) is used three times. I don't get why Sierra didn't stop after the first time you need to use it. You have the manual, or you don't, as was my case in the 90s, the reason why i couldn't make progress back in the day, not knowing the reason was that i was playing a pirate copy. Fair enough

    2. Three (well, technically four) times in Act 1 as explicit prescription filling (as opposed to filling explicit prescriptions... oh my) and then fvzvyne grpuavdhrf nf ceboyrz-fbyivat gjvpr va npg gjb.

    3. Nyfb, vvep, gur Rkprecg sebz gur Cuneznpbcbrvn gung Nyrk cbfg vf n fbyhgvba gb bar bs gur chmmyrf, nz v evtug?

    4. See, I always loved using the manuals/feelies for copy protection throughout the game; it always felt so immersive. Then again, I was very protective of the manuals (especially ones as well made as this game's) and would never part with it.

    5. Oh that's just a part of the arms race between developers and hackers. Developers knew that hackers would remove early-game copy protection, but wouldn't necessarily play long enough to find mid-game copy protection.

      As for this game, I will say: catchy tune for the intro, but the humor really fell flat for me. I guess I'm just a Gilbert fan, not a Lowe fan.

    6. Lisa H.: Worse than King's Quest III's? Even though I don't have to type? That's not the news I want to hear. You are tearing me apart, Lisa!

    7. Nothing in gaming was as awful as that KQ3 recipe creation, at least nothing I can remember when I was that age.
      The stress of typing fast while worrying about that damn wizard returning combined with my childhood ADHD, my friend nervously bouncing around behind me and the lovely weather outside distracting me with it fun outdoor activities, did not lead to a quick resolution. We buggered up that sequence many times, we spent the equivalent of a part-time job in time over a week trying to get past that. I distinctly remember getting to one of the last lines and messing up the typing and it all falling apart.....I nearly tossed my friend's pc out the window, or I would have if I wasn't a small child at the time.

    8. I suppose if typing speed is an issue then that could be more stressful. I find it hard to successfully pick the right ingredients from Freddy's shelf and the whole thing is just so damn tedious. The KQ3 magic felt better integrated into the gameplay as puzzle solutions rather than just there to annoy me.

  2. Oh, man, Freddy Pharkas! When I was growing up we were never allowed to play any of the LSL games, but this one slipped past my parents' censorship. I was too young to get about 95% of the jokes, but to this day I still remember that opening theme song, even though I haven't played it since it came out. I also liked the "getting a point" sound, as it was literally an old man saying "Score!" instead of just a ding or fanfare or whatever (this may have been the CD version).

    I haven't played it as an adult, so I look forward to your playthrough, if only to at least finally get the jokes that flew over my head 25 years ago! It has a pretty high reputation these days, so I'm going to be optimistic and guess 66.

    1. I could be wrong, but I think the whole "Frontier Pharmacist" angle had to do with the popularity of the show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman", which also featured an Old West medic and was pretty famous at the time.

    2. "Score!" amuses me too.

      One of my favorite jokes in this is when Freddy puts something sharp in his pocket, and the line is something about how he'd nearly circumcised himself, "but that's no skin off your nose."

    3. You can download the "score" sound from the link that Alex put where Al Lowe explains the origin of FPFP

    4. @MisterKerr: My experience was the opposite of yours. We played Leisure Suit Larry as kids, mainly because my parents had no clue what they were about until it was already too late. I never played this, though, even though I wanted to. Computer games were hard to find where I grew up in the middle of nowhere, New Hampshire.

    5. @Lisa H.: Yes, "Score!" is amusing. Also, that joke you mention cracked me up as well. It's when you get the icepick and click it on Freddy.

      @Leo: I don't know if I want to download that, although it could be a funny ringtone or something.

  3. Mongo's not an Indian, he's just slow in the head. Good movie, as is most of Mel Brooks's filmography.
    I had (well have) the demo for this on a compilation of games. Good demo. I'm gonna guess 58 though. I think I'll play along too, I have a good knowledge of westerns.

    1. @MOrpheusKitami:

      Mongo's not an Indian . . . okay, good to know. He was played by Alex Karras though, right?

      Awesome you will be playing along, AND that you have a good knowledge of Westerns. You can fill in the jokes and references I miss.

  4. Love this game, it is, with Gabriel Knight 1, probably the best games made by Sierra.

    I guess 70

    1. @Alex Romanov:

      Wow! As good as Gabriel Knight 1? I'm going to enjoy this then.

      So far, I like it.

  5. Welcome back Alex, I missed your funny writing. This is,IMHO, the funniest game of Sierra (and one of the best of their catalogue, along with the Robin Hood one). Yes, western is my favourite movie genre, but leaving that aside, i really think this is a pretty solid good game. The CD Rom version has a very good work with the voices, the sheriff is funny as hell. Check it on youtube. Also, check Blazing Saddles, the ending is pure madness. My guess is 72

    1. @Leo Velles:

      Thank you! I'm happy to be blogging again and am flattered by your compliment.

      This game already seems a cut above the last few Leisure Suit Larry games I played in the humor department. I can't want to get into it.

      Maybe I'll finally watch Blazing Saddles someday.

  6. 63

    Will be playing along, unless the copy protection (which i just got to) makes me ragequit.

    1. LOL, you could hardly be blamed.

    2. @Laukku:

      Great! Happy to have you along.

  7. Let's say 59 just to not be carried out by all the hype surrounding this game...

    1. It's funny, cause we are making a bit of hype here in tgr comments,but i think this is one of the least known or remembered Sierra game

    2. @Vetinari:

      That's fair. A group always needs a wet blanket--I mean a realistic, sober-minded thinker!--to keep everyone else grounded.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Since it's still an Al Lowe game, I'm guessing 69!

    I picked up the CD-Rom version of this in a Babbage's Bargain Bin, and it was so worth it. Never knew that was Al Lowe singing the ballad, he has a real Pat Buttram tone that works perfectly for it.

    The Manual really made me laugh, especially the entry on pregnancy describing it as a parasitic relationship between the host and offspring (and maintaining it after birth, only monetary). I probably read the manual for its humor more than I've played the game all the way through.

    1. @Mr. Sack:

      I kind of want to give this a 69 just because.

      The manual is wicked funny. There are so many classic asides and little throwaway jokes that add up to a pretty hilarious reading experience.

  10. I'm willing to bet 10 CAPS: ur svaqf bcravat gur cuneznpl erjneqvat svir uhaqerq cbvagf (bire unys gur gbgny fpber) gb or bar bs gur shaavrfg wbxrf va guvf tnzr. V fher qvq jura V svefg cynlrq vg!

  11. I spent a fair bit of the summer of 1998 hanging out with Josh Mandel, and can confirm, he was a fart joke aficionado.

    1. @Adam Thornton:

      There is a story you must tell us in here somewhere.

  12. Boz it's Al Lowe, I'll say 69....teeheehee

    I just played this one for the first time year ago, and really enjoyed it, the ending drags a bit though.
    Unlike most other people, I REALLLLY LOVED the chemistry concoction mini-game, something about using an out of game to solve a puzzle made me feel good and sm-rt

    1. Argh, beat to the punch...line. I'm sorry, I don't know what's wrong with me, Al Lowe and Josh Mandel make my dad-joke mojo flow

      I'll change my guess to 71

    2. @Ziggi:

      Always good to hear reports that a game I'm about to play is great. I've suffered through enough garbage for this blog already . . . and I think I still have one last Jim Walls game before me.

    3. @Alex, Responding late because I've been kind of off-line:
      I'm conflicted on that last Jim Walls game. In retrospect, it wasn't THAT bad, I was just a pissed-off teenager that wanted a real Police Quest 4 with Sonny Bonds again and instead got Blue Force. But if I didn't have the history with PQ1 being my very first Sierra game ever, I might have actually liked it a little.

    4. @Michael, No problem!

      Interesting thoughts about Blue Force. I also would've loved a TRUE Police Quest 4 back in the day (the one we got was just . . . blah). I actually did not know Blue Force even existed until I started reading this blog. So we'll see when we get there.

  13. I'm gonna guess 64 for the score!

    This is one I never played, so I'll be interested to see what it's like.

    1. @Andy_Panthro:

      Cool! 64 is as good a guess as any. I'll allow it.

  14. With the forecast of pentagrams low I will go with 67. Great to see you back Alex, I wasn't reading the blog back when you were most active but read a lot of your blogs from way back, and conquest of the longbow still stands out in my memory.

    1. And is it me or is this story being told by a hat wearing, pipe smoking cat?

    2. ShaddamIVth: No pentagram puzzles is an automatic 10 bonus points on the PISSED scale, if I may make up a completely artibtary rule.

      And a hat wearing, pipe smoking cat? Sure, why not.

  15. Hi guys, most of the scores between 65 and 72 are already busy. For this reason, I will go boldly with 73. This is one of the three of my favorite Sierra games next to GK 1 and SQ 5. Great sense of humor, relaxing atmosphere, memorable characters, and beautiful graphics. I may be a heretic but I think that the manual-based copy protection is nicely incorporated in the game. Remember that in the early 1990s such protection was usually "please enter the seventh word from line 15 on page 27 in the manual".

    1. Patryk,

      Having played some of this game now, I agree with your assessment of the manual-based puzzles. They're actually pretty well done.

      It's interesting that you call this your favorite Sierra game next to GK 1 and SQ 5. Those are also two of my favorites. I think SQ 5 does not get nearly enough love, but it's really a well-constructed, well-paced, and fun, adventure game.