Kickstarting the history of Sierra On-Line

July 8th, 2013 2:00 PM
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We retrocomputing enthusiasts have seen Kickstarter used for books (The First Apple, What's Where), games (Shadowgate, Ultima), and documentaries (GET LAMP, 6502). Now it's time to open your wallets again, as the latest project to warrant an Apple II user's investment is a documentary of Sierra On-Line.

Sierra On-Line was the developer and publisher of such classic point-and-click adventure games as the noble King's Quest, comedic Space Quest, avaricious Gold Rush!, and lascivious Leisure Suit Larry (a modern remake of which was published just last month, courtesy Kickstarter). Many of these franchises got their start on the Apple II, so naturally we should be keen to back this project, right?

I bid caution: Kickstarter is an investment platform, and you'd do well to research this project. In this case, this project already toured the Kickstarter circuit in 2012, when the creators asked for $40,000; they received $1,312. Their pitch video at the time consisted entirely of gameplay footage and title cards — no interviews, no introductions, no voiceovers. To their credit, that initial fundraising failure didn't deter the film crew, as their new pitch video demonstrates they've spent the past year conducting interviews with Sierra On-Line luminaries. Having that in their pocket may justify their new request for $125,000. (Makes you wonder what they were hoping to accomplish with just a third that sum!) They have thus far received $10,367, or nine times more than their last effort — but it's a slow start, an still a long ways from their goal.

One thing missing from their new video is the talent behind the camera. I'd like to know that the documentarians dedicating themselves to this project are as passionate about adventure gaming as they need their backers to be. The enthusiasm that Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder brought to their comic strip documentary, Stripped, was contagious and, I suspect, a large part of why it raised double its goal on its first Kickstarter and its second Kickstarter. Between the lack of personality in the video and the relatively terse text write-up, the drive behind the Sierra On-Line film is not as explicit.

The Sierra On-Line documentary is entitled Heroes, an improvement over the original name, So You Want To Be A Hero? One backer suggested, why not call it Quests? I like the ring of that, since it abstracts and plays upon the King's/Space/Police Quest series. The project creators acknowledged and thoughtfully responded to that suggestion:

We chose the title Heroes for the film for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, the term "Hero" was a theme rooted in the adventure games. From the perspective of all of us who played the games, we had the opportunity to be a hero. We also felt that this was an appropriate term that serves as an homage to all of those at Sierra who worked tirelessly to create the games we all know and love a success.

Will this Kickstarter meet or even exceed its fundraising? Will the final film, scheduled for a March 2014 release, reveal anything new about this storied game company, or will it cater more to nostalgic fans? We'll begin to have the answers when the Kickstarter campaign closes on the evening of August 5.

In the meantime, digital antiquarian Jimmy Maher, whom we interviewed this year on Open Apple, has written extensively about the history of Sierra. Although he's not collected his works on this particular subject into a book, I encourage you to scroll through his posts and read them in the order in which they were published; the detail and accuracy of his narratives are remarkable.

UPDATE: This project has failed, having raised only $28,872, or 23% of its goal.

Ancient DOS games

August 15th, 2011 11:11 AM
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Thirty years ago, when multiple incompatible computer formats vied for dominance, there were as many cross-platform games as there were exclusives. Companies who could afford to port their software benefitted from a larger potential audience, resulting in Mac, DOS, and Apple II users having similar yet disparate experiences of games such as the Ultima series.

The modern benefit to such historical cross-pollination is that many classic Apple II games can still be enjoyed, albeit in alternative formats. For example, in the July episode of Open Apple, I mentioned a free version of Ultima IV that requires DOSBox. (Several listeners recommended I instead run the game using Boxer, a DOS emulator specifically for the Macintosh.)

For a more turnkey approach to reliving the classics, I recommend two online distributors who have made games such as Ultima and Zork available again: Steam, and Good Old Games (GOG). Unlike the remake of Ultima IV (or even ADG's non-profit remakes of King's Quest), Steam's and GOG's offerings are not free for the taking — but these commercial products are designed to be run from a modern operating system, usually Windows XP or higher but occasionally for the Mac as well. How else can you easily and legally enjoy the Zork anthology for just $3.59, or four classic LucasArts point-and-click adventures for $9.97, in a native, offline environment?

If you're not sure which of these games to start with, you don't need to delve into old issues of Nibble to find what critics of the age had to say. Modern reviews are still being published at Web site Pixelmusement under the title Ancient DOS Games (ADG). Here's their review of King's Quest II:

They may not be identical with the Apple II games you remember, but these games are legitimate originals that have taken straight from the past to be enjoyed in the present. So… enjoy!

Best computer games from the '80s

May 30th, 2011 2:45 PM
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Awhile back, TIME.com produced a list of the best computer games from the 1980s. Lists may be quick and easy ways to generate pageviews, but they're also enjoyable opportunities to reminisce and debate.

Time's list, which did not limit itself to the Apple II (see Retro Gamer for that list), consisted of the following apparently unranked one dozen games:

  • • California Games
  • • Ghostbusters
  • • Quest for Glory
  • • SimCity
  • • Prince of Persia
  • • Police Quest

I haven't actually played many of those games, or at least on their native platforms. But it does inspire me to jog my memory by consulting Wikipedia's list of Apple II games and list of Apple IIGS games to see which would make my must-play list. Here are my candidates:

And that's not even counting non-commercial games, such as GShisen or Silvern Castle.

What games top your memories of the Apple II?

The King's Quest continues

April 14th, 2011 2:50 PM
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As mentioned on this week's episode of Open Apple, remakes of Sierra's first three King's Quest point-and-click adventures are now available as free downloads from developer AGD Interactive. The only game in that series I'd previously encountered was the fifth, courtesy its Nintendo adaptation. I wouldn't think earlier incarnations of such a crude game would age well, but I've briefly played AGD's version of King's Quest III, released just this year, and found it a superb and enjoyable title that is competitive with today's games.

If you've never played King's Quest and are wondering what all the hubbub is, Clint puts the original game in context, recollecting how groundbreaking the interface was compared to predecessors such as Mystery House:

To our modern gaming world, King's Quest is hopelessly antiquated in both look and play, but it still stands as one of our most important relics of computer gaming. And back in the day, I was as mesmerized as anyone by the amazing magic it represented. King's Quest … was nothing less than revolutionary, and I don't think it's too much to say every graphical adventure game that followed owes it (and, I guess, IBM's money) at least a nod of respect.

As Clint alludes to, King's Quest did not emerge in a vacuum, nor did it prove to be an anomaly. The entire lifespan of the genre that Sierra redefined is reviewed in Ars Technica's in-depth look at the 25-year rise and fall of a beloved genre. The piece encompasses all variety of graphic adventures, from the Macintosh classic Shadowgate to LucasArts' many SCUMM titles to Telltale Games' recent episodic ventures, such as Sam & Max.

It's a lengthy piece of journalism — nearly 7,000 words. In about as much time as it'll take you to read, you could play through the entire King's Quest game, as demonstrated in this speed run:

If you ask me, such experiences are meant to be savored, indicative as they are of a more thoughtful era in computer gaming. My thanks to AGD Interactive for bringing the past into the present, and for Sarien for suggesting that touch interfaces such as the iPad offers are ripe for a resurgence in the genre's popularity.

(Hat tip to Blake Patterson)

UPDATE: Want to see the full King's Quest played in real-time? Spend 98 minutes watching this video!