While our janitor-cum-hero managed to thwart Sludge Vohaul’s evil plans at the end of Space Quest II, he barely escaped with his life aboard a rudderless life-support pod drifting through space. In Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon, Roger Wilco’s new adventure begins when an automatic garbage freighter sucks his ship in and deposits him with the rest of the trash it’s accumulated on its journey. “Rudderless” is an appropriate word to use, however, as the story wanders along without a rudder for quite some time, and you’re at least halfway through the game before you discover that the eponymous Pirates have kidnapped the famous game designers, the Two Guys from Andromeda, and for some reason only you can save them.
If you can manage to escape the garbage freighter, you’ll find yourself with a choice of three planets to travel to, but without truly having any reason to pick one over the other. Eventually you’ll have to visit all three: the desert planet, the fire planet, and the fast food planet. You explore each one, fending off alien monsters and other deadly obstacles, while gathering lots of neat inventory for whatever conflicts you’ll assume are coming down the road. It’s not even that the designers tried to make a deeper plot and failed; it’s more as if they simply didn’t feel a plot was necessary, opting instead to throw together a lot of weird sci-fi images and monsters, pumping it full of jokes, and calling it a game. Luckily, they were generally right, as the game is stocked with enough charm and clever puzzles that you won’t want to stop playing, even if your motivation for doing so is a bit foggy.
It’s easier to keep your head in the game this time around, as the interface from Space Quest II has been vastly improved. Mouse support has been implemented to a degree, primarily to assist with moving Roger around (sorry, you still can’t use it to interact with the scenery). Better yet, while the text parser is still necessary for any other actions you want to take, typing a command actually pauses the action now, so when you’re hurrying to think of a fast response to a deadly problem, you can start typing immediately and figure out what you actually want to do at your leisure. The game’s internal dictionary is fairly flexible, and it will recognize almost every reasonable thing you ask of it, though you’ll usually stick to standard commands like LOOK, TAKE, and USE.
With those commands at your disposal, you’ll want to LOOK at every object in every room to discover things unapparent to the naked eye (especially with 1989 graphics) and TAKE everything you can, nailed down or not. Most of the puzzle-y goodness comes from using your bizarre inventory to interact with the environment and you never know when a loose piece of wire or some fireproof underwear will come in handy. Whereas many comedic adventures are driven by non sequiturs, SQIII is surprisingly forthright and clever in its design. Even if you get stuck and consult a walkthrough, you’ll never say, “Oh there’s no way I could’ve thought of that.” Helpfully, the traditional Sierra score counter is always at the top of the screen to reward you for a correct move (or penalize you for a mistake), and point out when you’re going in the right direction. Besides the customary inventory puzzles, there are also some mazes and even a fun bit of cryptography to spice things up.
SQIII may in fact have a little too much variety for some adventure game fans, as there are several major action-based and other unusual sequences that must be overcome, including the big “endgame” moments. None of them are particularly difficult by design, but can cause frustration due to their execution. “Astro Chicken” is a game-within-the-game that involves steering some plummeting poultry onto a small safety platform. Miss it, and he dies. Fall too fast, and he dies. (At least you have enough “buckazoids” to try, try again as often as you need.) In most adventures of this period, pressing the right arrow key once starts your character walking right, and pressing it again stops him. In action games, one typically holds the button down to cause a character to keep moving and releases it to make them stop. What makes these action sequences so frustrating is that they use the former control style and not the latter. It’s consistent with the adventure sequences, but not particularly intuitive. Once you get used to it, however, you’ll get by fairly easily.
In saying that, don’t think you won’t die, because you’ll probably die many, many times over, so you will need to save regularly. But as any Space Quest veteran knows, dying is one of the funniest parts of the game. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself committing suicide regularly just to see what horribly humorous thing kicks Roger’s bucket next. If you’re familiar with late ‘80s sci-fi culture, you’ll also find more sources of amusement in all the references, from getting into the cockpit of the Aluminum Mallard (yuk yuk!) to being chased around the universe by Arnoid the Annihilator (waka waka!). You’ll also be pleased with how many superfluous responses are included in the text parser. After some large animal heads peeked out from the shadowy foreground, I typed “LOOK WOLVES” only to be informed “They’re rats!” They anticipated my confusion that specifically? Impressive.
Less impressive are the visuals, but if you’ve played late ‘80s PC games before, you’ll be more comfortable with the blocky EGA-graphics than someone whose first PC didn’t even come with a floppy drive. Fortunately, most items on screen are large enough that they’re recognizable regardless. Even when an object is hard to discern, typing LOOK ROOM will usually narrow it down to a few choices. Though this is one of the first games from Sierra to have sound card support, the music and effects are sparse, and contain plenty of beeps and boops. Still, for a game that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary, it’s remarkably playable and aesthetically charming even today.
Like the previous games in the series, this Space Quest isn’t an epic one, and you’ll reach the end in 3 – 5 hours. Thankfully, there don’t seem to be as many ways in this iteration to accidentally reach a dead end, or at least I didn’t stumble across any myself. There are many things one could complain about here: the aimless lack of plot, the relatively large action-to-puzzle ratio, the briefness of the experience, and the antiquated graphics, sound, and text interface. Yet for all that, The Pirates of Pestulon remains lovable, especially for those of us old enough to be nostalgic about games like these. It’s quite funny, and the puzzles are designed well enough to make taking another road trip to nowhere with Roger Wilco a worthwhile voyage for any gamer.