Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge review
A year has passed since Space Quest I for our hero, Roger Wilco, and all he has to show from being declared Hero of Xenon is a new position as head janitor on Xenon Orbital Station 4 (he’s also the only janitor on Xenon Orbital Station 4). One day he’s called away from his regular duties for a special task: some travelers were sick on a transport dock and he needs to mop it up. When he arrives, there’s no mess in sight, but before he can leave he’s clonked on the head. He wakes up aboard the asteroid base of the evil Sludge Vohaul. Vohaul reveals himself as the mastermind behind the Sariens and the theft of the Star Generator in SQ1. The Generator was his invention, and he intended to use it to wage war, not to make peace. Since Roger blew the Generator up, Vohaul devised a new, more devious plan. He would infiltrate Xenon with thousands of genetically-engineered door-to-door life insurance salesmen, thus sapping the populace of their will to live. To make sure Wilco won’t be around to stop him, Vohaul orders his men to take Roger to the planet Labion to work in Vohaul’s mines for the rest of his life.
As he’s being transported across the planet’s surface, Roger’s ship runs out of fuel and crashes in the jungle. The guards are killed but Roger survives, and now he must make his way through the jungles of Labion and once again save Xenon from Vohaul’s machinations. Labion has a few unfriendly inhabitants, but they’re all either critters or monsters, lacking distinctive personalities. When it comes down to it, Roger and Vohaul are the only true characters in the game. You may recognize the name Vohaul from the data cartridge in SQ1, where a scientist named Slash Vohaul explains what the Star Generator is and how to destroy it. Many have assumed that Sludge and Slash are the same person, and the developers just decided to change his name when they made a sequel, though designer Scott Murphy has said the two Vohauls were intended to be brothers, and while evil Sludge invented the Generator as a weapon of destruction, nice guy Slash planned to use it for the good of the universe. This divergence in viewpoints led to Sludge sending the Sariens after the Generator in SQ1, and—yadda yadda yadda—here we are today.
Today, in this case, being 1987. In an age before mouse support, everything was handled with the keyboard. Roger is directly controlled by the arrow keys, and the ESC button will open up menu options like SAVE and INVENTORY. There’s a permanent cursor affixed to the bottom of the screen so you can enter your commands, but be forewarned that the action doesn’t pause once you begin typing like in some later text-driven adventures, so on occasion you’ll either need to type quickly or begin typing before something happens in order to survive. The text parser understands simple verb-noun combinations like LOOK ROOM, TAKE KEYCARD, or BLOW WHISTLE, and the internal dictionary allows for a decent amount of accepted synonyms to minimize frustration.
In addition to the basic stuff, some situations will make use of more complex commands like TAKE A DEEP BREATH, and it’s in instances like these that the text parser really shines. I’m not going to tell you when a deep breath is necessary, but it’s that kind of puzzle that makes an old-fashioned text-driven adventure still worth playing almost 20 years after they were made obsolete. There’s no good way using a point-and-click interface to tell your character to take a deep breath, nor to do any of the other unique actions required in SQ2. Besides these few innovative moments, the rest of the puzzles are inventory-based. The first third of the game is rather slow, puzzle-wise, and is mostly a gathering of items before you find their uses. The inventory puzzles are clever, sometimes unusual, but otherwise very fair. The only times I needed to consult a walkthrough were when I reached dead ends.
As is all too typical with Sierra games in the ‘80s, there are many ways to get to a place in the game where you can no longer go forward, and no longer go back. The dead end. Your adventure experience rendered unwinnable. You must search every single location, every single screen, and indeed every single moment, quite thoroughly to avoid this. The most common method of steering yourself towards a dead end is to miss an item you need for a puzzle later, but there are a few other especially devious ways available. I’ll simply state that if an alien gives you a kiss, even if it seems harmless, you should probably consider the long-term effects on your health before trekking onwards.
And there will be lots of trekking taking place. Did I mention the majority of the game takes place while lost on a jungle planet? Space Quest II contains not one, but two mazes for Roger to lose himself in (and of course, die, but more on that later). The first maze is fairly straightforward, as the entire thing takes place in a single screen. However, the width of the passages can be as little as two or three pixels, and if Roger touches the sides, he’s instantly killed (reminiscent of the board game "Operation"). Put the game speed on slow and take your time. The second maze covers several screens and is almost completely black except for a few inches around Roger. The easiest way through would be drawing a map and using some trial-and-error, though I’ll confess I plowed on mapless and luckily stumbled upon the exit in around five minutes.
Even if you could see more of the screen around Roger during the maze, it wouldn’t necessarily make much of a difference. The EGA visuals in SQ2 are about as primitive as you’ll see in anything claiming to be a “graphic” adventure. Never count on your eyes alone to explore a room, that’s what the LOOK command is for. Some objects are nothing more than little blocks of color, while others are completely invisible. At one point you may see a tiny pink creature do a bizarre little shimmy before running into a swamp. If you think on your feet and use LOOK to see what he’s up to, you’ll have a clue on how to proceed, but if you don’t, and he runs off—you may as well RESTORE, because he ain’t coming back. If there’s not much to look at, there’s less to listen to, as 1987 was a time before sound cards, so all Sierra had to work with were boops and beeps. They do a couple good songs with those boops, like the intro music, but the vast majority of playtime passes without even a PC speaker-generated peep.
One song you’ll hear quite a bit is the Death Theme. As with most Sierra adventures, there are so many ways to kick the bucket you might spend as much time dead as alive. Within a few minutes of landing on Labion, Roger could fall into a hidden ditch, get eaten by monstrous fungi, or find himself stuck to a tree and waiting to be consumed by vicious swarms of insects. Trust me, it’s more fun than it sounds. The designers knew what they were doing when they decided to make dying the funniest part of the game—after all, if you’re going to get slowly roasted over a campfire, you may as well get a chuckle out of it. If you manage to stay alive, there’s still fun to be had, even if most of Space Quest’s trademark sci-fi humor is lacking (understandable since over 2/3rds of the game takes place in a jungle). At one point, Roger will find himself in a multi-gender, multi-species, public toilet designed to accommodate all possibilities. The urinal at chin height is particularly frightening.
If you find the style of humor isn’t working for you, you won’t have to endure it for long. Space Quest II will take 3 – 5 hours to complete, depending on how long you’re willing to explore a dead end before you consult a walkthrough. While the text parser may frustrate a modern gamer, it can also yield very rewarding puzzles unlike anything you’ll get from a mouse-driven interface. If this is your first foray into text-driven gaming (possibly as part of the 2006 Space Quest Collection), it’s a good start, as it’s much more forgiving than its contemporaries (I’m looking at you King’s Quest III). So what are you waiting for? Xenon is on the verge of a full-scale invasion, and there’s nothing worse than dealing with pushy life insurance salesmen.
Despite plenty of opportunities for frustration, there’s enough humor and clever design to make it worth soldiering through the rough patches. As 1/6th of the bargain-priced 2006 Space Quest Collection, there’s no excuse not to play it.