Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers review
When we last saw Roger Wilco in The Pirates of Pestulon, he had not only rescued the Two Guys from Andromeda, he’d even secured them a job interview with Sierra On-Line. Talk about full service heroism! On the way back to his home planet of Xenon at the start of his fourth adventure, Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, our hero decides to stop for a quick drink (or three) on Magmetheus. Before you can say “I fly better when I’ve had a few,” Roger is accosted by some official-looking thugs calling themselves the Sequel Police. Sludge Vohaul, Roger’s old nemesis, sent them to make sure the only person who’d ever thwarted him is off the board when he begins his next nefarious scheme. As the SP prepare to laser Roger out of existence, some even more mysterious characters intervene, open a rip in time, and hustle Roger through. When he regains the use of his senses, he finds he’s on Xenon, but it’s all wrong somehow. With horror Roger looks up at the top of the computer screen and sees the moniker: “Space Quest XII: Vohaul’s Revenge II”.
Yes, the future is now, and in more ways than one—or at least, it was back in 1991. Space Quest IV was the first game in the series to move from text parsers and EGA graphics to the brave new world of point-and-click, VGA graphics, and even full voice acting. Other adventures were experiencing a similar upgrade around this time, and technologically at least, it was the most significant shift in the genre since the addition of graphics, and arguably there hasn’t been another leap of that magnitude since. Unfortunately, other elements of Time Rippers like the puzzles and game design remained entrenched in the previous generation. But first, let’s talk positively about what changed.
The point-and-click interface that SQIV implemented is remarkably similar to the one we still use in many adventure games today. The possibility of doing something really unique or outside the box is exchanged for a certain amount of simplicity, but overall the increase in playability makes the sacrifice worthwhile. There are icons for Walk, Look, Interact, Talk, Use Item, and, superfluously enough, Smell and Taste, all of which can be accessed either by clicking on a task bar at the top of the screen or by cycling through with the right mouse button. As far as I can tell there is never any legitimate reason to Smell or Taste anything, unless you’re looking for a joke. I love unnecessary jokes as much as anybody, but it seems there are maybe a half-dozen possible responses regardless of what you attempt to sense that are recycled perpetually.
There’s no trade-off to ponder when it comes to the graphics upgrade, which is a complete improvement. The increase in resolution and number of colors make both the environments and the objects you interact with more recognizable and accessible (though smaller items, like an empty jar on a table, still look more like a misshapen lump than anything else). If there’s any lingering doubt, the time travel gimmick gives you occasion to literally revisit an EGA-version of the franchise (two, if you count an Easter Egg) and get a side-by-side comparison between the high-res Roger and his low-res surroundings. Besides these couple quick jaunts to the past, most of your time is spent in either a desolate future Xenon or a colorful shopping mall, which are about as far apart in design as you can get, and SQIV doesn’t offer much in between. There are also a few brief cinematics, featuring extra-detailed versions of the characters, but only their mouths and eyes move, creating a stilted appearance that diminishes the impact of these scenes.
There’s a bit more ambiguity on the audio front. On the plus side, Space Quest IV has become legendary, and rightfully so, for having one of the most spot-on voice actors in adventure game history. Gary Owens, former announcer of the old sketch TV show Laugh-In, plays the omniscient narrator to perfection. There has always been a sense that the Space Quest games are mocking Roger and, by extension, you the player, but now they’ve come out in the open with it. Owens has an ability to sound simultaneously dignified and ridiculous, such as when you’ve been cut open by a laser and he says: “Thank you for playing Space Quest IV! As always, you’ve been a real pantload.”
Alas, if only the rest of the auditory landscape were as pleasing. Even the best of the other voice actors are distractingly amateur, especially when compared with the ever-present Owens. A look at the credits reveals they are mostly Sierra employees (including Gabriel Knight’s Jane Jensen doing her best Mae West impression). Compounding matters is the perplexing inability to have speech and text active at the same time. I always prefer to have subtitles on when I’m playing a game, even if the voice acting is great, and forcing me to choose was a major irritant. The music sounds much the same as in previous Space Quests—no generational upgrade here—though for whatever reason I found it a bit tinny and grating this time around, and wished for an option to turn only the music down while leaving the other volume settings alone.
Sadly, the game design also feels like a throwback to earlier times. On the one hand, in order to find the objects required to solve puzzles later on, you’ll need to explore every nook and cranny collecting various random doodads, while on the other hand the vast majority of exploration you’ll attempt is severely punished. I’m not just talking about random deaths, which is a series trademark, I’m talking about dead ends. I encountered more dead ends (and narrowly missed opportunities to dead end) in this game than in any other I can recall. Didn’t write down a series of bizarre symbols before you wanted to see what that button did? Whoops! Have fun being stuck two hours from now when it comes up again. Tried to buy a Pocketpal Adaptor for your Pocketpal? Hope you saved right before, because if you bought the wrong one there are no refunds. In an era before Internet walkthroughs, how were players supposed to know when to stop trying to find a solution and restore to an earlier save?
The lesson here: Save constantly. Besides dead ends, you will certainly die many times, and probably many more times than you’ve ever died in an adventure game before. It seems almost everywhere Roger goes there are laser-toting baddies on patrol that must be evaded. If you’re the type of gamer who enjoys simply sitting and pondering a problem until you find that “Eureka!” moment, I hope you can do so while running. I don’t know if it’s a side effect of playing on a modern computer or if it was designed this way, but there will be times in Space Quest IV when you must cross from one side of a screen to the other, and until you stumble upon the exact right speed and direction in which to walk, you will be killed by a laser over and over again. After about 10 minutes and 150 “you’ve been a real pantload”s from Gary Owens, I came upon a glitch where I exited the screen a different way, was still hit by a laser and triggered the death animation, yet didn’t die and was able to backtrack and leave the area properly, where I was “resurrected” and the game continued. There are also a couple minigames, one where you make burgers and another that’s a sequel to SQIII’s “Astro Chicken”, but both are skippable and can be rendered easy by adjusting the speed in the options menu.
Even outside of these “action sequences,” the puzzles themselves are among the hardest in the series. Whenever I finally solved one, I never thought: “Oh, I should’ve figured that out sooner.” I thought: “How did they ever expect anyone to think of that?” The major problem is with the game’s structure, and how it relates to the puzzles. Roger travels through different Space Quest games, some historical and some imagined, and typically the item you need to solve a problem in Game C was located in Game A. This creates an issue when you’re experiencing Game A, as you have to solve a puzzle in order to claim an item that has no function for hours yet to come. This is a consistent dilemma, as virtually every puzzle is inventory-based, and without clear goals, the puzzles seem more difficult simply because you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish or why.
This lack of direction extends to the storyline. Like the previous Space Quest games, SQIV doesn’t rely much on plot or characterization to keep you moving forward. There’s a sense of wandering from one place to another without a lot of purpose or motivation. It’s a bit of a running theme in the franchise that everything happens simply because of some bad luck on Roger’s part. Here his adventures include accidentally warping himself to “Space Quest X”, getting accosted by some Amazonian women, wandering a shopping mall, then somehow ending up back at the same place he started to confront Vohaul. Roger’s own defining character traits are dopiness and a tendency towards baffling success. In the final scene of the game, it tiptoes up to giving Roger an actual emotional experience, but sort of blows it when a new character named Beatrice Wankmeister is introduced.
In the end, Space Quest IV’s goal, more than anything else, is to make you laugh. There are fewer science fiction-related gags in this entry, and a lot more pop culture references, most of which unfortunately don’t translate well almost twenty years later, from a bargain bin full of computer software parodying the PC game marketplace (like “SimSim”, the game that simulates a simulator, and “Checkerboard Construction Set”) to an electronics store mocking technology trends (remember laser discs?). At one point there is even an “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” joke. It’s a shame the designers didn’t push the time travel aspect further—you only visit two fictional Space Quest games—as it’s a topic ripe for humor. Still, there is a lot of comedy to be had thanks to Gary Owens, who at least doubles the funny factor of any joke simply due to his masterful delivery.
While the game could theoretically be completed very quickly, if you include how long it may take you to get through the trickier sections, Space Quest IV should deliver between 5 – 7 hours of play. Though the goals are often unclear, and I found some aspects of the game unpalatable, like the multiple opportunities to reach dead ends and frequent scenes where laser attacks must be evaded or dodged, the emphasis on humor and absurdity under the guiding hand of master narrator Gary Owens edges the experience into the positive column. If you like a tough, old-school challenge and have a nostalgia for humor circa 1990, consider taking a trip all the way back to the future with Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers.
Space Quest IV represents a technological leap forward that is sadly burdened with a stand-still game design. Often frustrating and overly difficult, it still contains enough humor and charm to keep players from too easily tearing themselves away.