Space Quest I: The Sarien Encounter review

The Good:
  • Full of humor and charm
  • Dying is actually part of the fun
  • Vintage Sierra look and feel
The Bad:
  • Very short
  • Very easy
  • Multiple opportunities to dead end
  • Story and characters are shallow
Our Verdict: Undeniably flawed, yet undeniably fun, the original Space Quest is perfect for classic adventure lovers and sci-fi fans. As 1/6th of the bargain-priced 2006 Space Quest Collection, there’s no excuse not to play it.

In the early 1980s, Sierra On-Line was already a premiere source for graphic adventures, and specialized in fantasy games like Wizard and the Princess, The Black Cauldron, Mystery House, and King’s Quest I. When programmers Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe pitched their boss, Ken Williams, on a new sci-fi comedy game, Williams was skeptical and turned them down on the spot. Not willing to give up so easily, Murphy and Crowe created a short demo of their idea, which Williams actually loved, and they ended up using it as the first four rooms of what went on to become Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter.

First released in 1986, Space Quest I originally utilized the EGA graphics and text parser common to adventures of the time. During Sierra’s re-release craze of the early 90s, SQ1 received a graphics upgrade to VGA, and the text parser was replaced with point-and-click action icons. If you want to play the original, you’ll need to hit up the auction sites, but the VGA remake was included in the 2006 Space Quest Collection.

As the story begins, the Starship Arcada is under attack. The evil Sariens have boarded and are killing off the crew, one by one. The all-powerful Star Generator has been stolen, the self-destruct sequence has been initiated, and all appears lost. But wait! There, asleep in the broom closet, is our hero, Roger Wilco… the janitor? He steps out from his afternoon slumber to find his co-workers dead and strewn about the floor. Using only his wits – what he has of them anyway – Roger makes it to an escape pod seconds before the Arcada explodes. With the might of the Star Generator on their side, the Sariens are now capable of destroying entire planets. Roger’s pod crash lands on the desert planet of Kerona, and from there he has to overcome traps, battle monsters, and find a way back to the Sarien mothership before his home planet of Xenon is blown to pieces.

Over the course of the series, Roger Wilco became one of the most beloved characters in adventure games, but in this first outing, he doesn’t have much of a personality. All we know of Roger is told to us by the game itself, and we’re assured time after time that he’s barely capable of tying his shoes, much less saving the universe. While Roger himself has virtually no dialogue in the game, the other characters can be pretty talkative. The tent city of Ulence Flats is populated with a slimy used rocket salesman, a morose robot warehouse worker, and a space-pimp (or is he just a snappy dresser?) with an eye for collectables.

Roger is controlled via a point-and-click interface, with the action icons hidden all along the top of the screen. Your interactions are limited to Walk, Look, Use/Take, Talk, Smell, Taste, and Use Inventory Item. Smell and Taste aren’t actually used for any practical purposes aside from jokes, which feels like a missed opportunity for more innovative puzzles. The EGA version uses a text parser of the oldest kind, where the game doesn’t even pause when you start to type something. Due to the timing of some sequences, you’ll need to begin typing before you even enter the room to avoid disaster. Obviously this is the best they could do at the time, but it can be frustrating for a modern player to be killed because of a typo. Furthermore, the game’s internal thesaurus could use some updating. I spent too long trying to find the right word for a crate before I discovered it could only be a “trunk.”

There’s nothing inside that “trunk” to collect for your inventory, but get in the habit of checking everything anyway. Virtually all the puzzles in SQ1 are inventory-based, and the game has no problem allowing you to forever leave one area without an item you’ll need in the next. If you’re an experienced adventure game player, you already have a “pick up everything that’s not nailed down” attitude, and with that you’re likely to avoid missing anything vital. The VGA graphics make all the items clearly visible, and while hotspots aren’t highlighted, giving every screen a vigorous clicking-over isn’t difficult and yields lots of good jokes. Two dead ends in the game felt a little unfair, as there’s no logical reason you’d need to act the way you do in order to proceed, but with the way they’re constructed you could easily get through them quite by accident and never realize your narrow escape. There are two copy protection puzzles, but the 2006 Space Quest Collection comes with a PDF of the manual, so as long as you print those pages or keep it open in another window, you’re okay. There are also two bits of info you need to write down to use later, so have a notepad handy.

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