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Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter

Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter


Developer: Sierra On-Line The title screen.The title screen.
Released: 1986.10.31
Genre: SciFi / Comedy
Graphics: Pixel art / 2D
Perspective: Third person
Gameplay: Parser










The spaceship Arcada is carrying Star Generator, a device that has been developed by the scientists of Xenon, capable of turning a lifeless planet into a new sun. Arcada is attacked by the Sariens, who after boarding the spaceship kill the crew and steal the Star Generator. The only survivor is the protagonist, who works on the Arcada as a janitor. That's right, a janitor. And not a very good one. But being the only survivor, the responsibility of being a hero falls on his shoulders.

The protagonist.The protagonist.

The starting point for the first chapter of Space Quest is certainly unique. While there are other games where one can save the world, or galaxy, or something else along those lines, the background of the Space Quest protagonist is unmatched. This is of course more than fitting for a game which tries to parody well-known science fiction formulas, such as Star Wars. In fact, the level of parody goes so far that several commonly recognised scenes (at least among fans of science fiction) have been duplicated in Space Quest. Like the original Star Wars, the story opens up with a spaceship that is being boarded by enemy forces. And later in the story there will be desert bars and droids, of course.

To fully understand Space Quest requires some in-depth knowledge of science fiction. This doesn't mean that a random, non-die hard person couldn't find the story and situations amusing. But to get the most out of everything, knowing and recognising references to Star Wars, Star Trek and other science fiction will surely be beneficial. The very concept of creating a device to turn a lifeless planet into a sun has been explored many times in science fiction, including The Sands of Mars, the first published novel by Arthur C. Clarke. There are also some references to King's Quest game series which are to be found if the player has the passion to explore the gameworld thoroughly.

All of that is a big plus for the game and shows that the developers weren't simply trying to make an "easy" game, but a game which has even deeper levels of immersion within. As for the game being easy or hard gameplay-wise, it should be considered as hard and unforgiving. Starting from the very beginning, there are many ways to fail in the game. Either by dying, or by causing a dead-end from which to game can't be successfully completed. Of course, this also fits into the story. When the protagonist wakes up to find out the crew of Arcada being killed, and Sarien troopers walking on the corridors of the ship, the risk of getting shot and killed heightens the tension and deepens the immersion. While this approach certainly has its supporters and opponents among players, it is a very logical choice.

Exploring the dangerous surroundings.Exploring the dangerous surroundings.

Somewhat unfortunately the extent of danger is overused in Space Quest. There are ways to die, or at least cause a dead-end, in all but three of the rooms in the game (room refering to a game design room here, including locations which are outdoors). It feels as if the designers had used two lists as a basis of their game design: things that need to be accomplished in a room, and things that can prevent game completion in a room, and made sure every room has something from both lists. There are a lot variations on the things that need to be accomplished as well as on ways to fail, but overall, every location follows the same pattern. This shifts much of the focus from following the storyline to avoiding failures.

There are situations where the many ways to fail seem unnecessary and almost unfair. A good example of this is Ulence Flats, a location which copies much of its atmosphere from Mos Eisley as seen in the original Star Wars movie. Ulence Flats is a really charming place, including dealers for spaceships and droids, not to mention a sleazy bar (which somehow happens to have notable live performers, such as The Blues Brothers and ZZ Top). It would be nice to have a chance to just explore the area more, but in the area there are at least four different ways to encounter a situation which prevents completing the game. One of these is a slot machine that needs to be used to get money, known as Buckazoids in the game, but it is also possible to lose all of the money, in which case the game can't be completed. The slot machine also has death as one of its rewards, in case three skulls show up.

Ulence Flats bar.Ulence Flats bar.
This approach reduces the gameplay to save-restore cycles, but fortunately the deaths in the game are entertaining (at least if there's a saved game to continue from afterwards). Some deaths include funny animations while others have texts popping on the screen mocking player's skills. The scoring system is the usual Sierra score, where every right action will reward some points, but the game can be completed even without having maximum score. Some of the actions for extra points have no meaningful relation to gameplay as such, but can have entertainment value, such as references to King's Quest.

The puzzles in the game are not very challenging, the biggest challenge is finding items. When an item has been found, usually its purpose in the game is mostly very straightforward. Although there is one item that can be picked up and examined, but which can't be used in any way. The parser in the game is good but not excellent. Sometimes synonyms for verbs are accepted without any problems, but in some cases there is only one verb which is understood by the parser. In addition to adventure game puzzles, there are some minigames, such as the slot machine mentioned earlier, as well as an action sequence where the player needs to fly a skimmer across a desert. In the end of the game it is also possible to carry a pulseray gun which can be used to shoot enemies.

Flying a skimmer.Flying a skimmer.

Visually the game is OK, but the quality of pixel art is varying. Locations like Ulence Flats look great, whereas some other areas look a bit plain. One problem with the graphics is that in a couple of occasions it is hard to see any depth, but some passageways may need to be accessed going behind some objects or constructions. Mostly there aren't any major problems though. Sounds in the game consist of beeps of all kind, some areas being almost completely silent, while others, such as the warning signals in the very beginning, fit the mood perfectly. Again, Ulence Flats is great soundwise too, the music in the bar creates a nice atmosphere. Final music when completing the game is also as great as beeps can possibly go.

Overall the first chapter of Space Quest is both entertaining and promising, but also leaves room for improvement. Those who don't mind dying and advancing through trial and error in adventure games, may enjoy the game much more than those who prefer safe and relaxed exploring. And obviously how deeply one is familiar with science fiction will greatly affect one's perception of Space Quest. Despite some issues playing Space Quest is a rewarding experience and leaves the player wanting for more. If nothing else, Space Quest offers a chance to see what you never see in Star Wars or Star Trek - a day in space janitor's life.

The door is locked.The door is locked.



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