To those familiar with Sierra's adventure game lineup in 1993, the release of Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist can be remembered as something of a pleasant surprise. Known for its enormously successful Quest franchises, the Sierra of 1993 was still counting profits from the success of King’s Quest VI one year earlier. Fortunately for adventure gamers of all ages, this windfall allowed Sierra to experiment with original projects and the first became the hilarious game known in full as Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist. As a graphic adventure it succeeds on a number of levels, due much in part to the wit of the game’s co-designers, Al Lowe and Josh Mandel (Lowe created the popular Leisure Suit Larry series and Mandel was a lead writer on many different Sierra titles).
As the title of the game suggests, you play as Freddy Pharkas, a smarmy gunslinger-gone-pharmacist in the American Wild West. Freddy’s change in profession is the result of an unfortunate accident as a lawmaker—he lost his right ear in a duel. Freddy’s story begins in Coarsegold, a crumbling frontier town where he has set up a completely different identity as the friendly town pharmacist. Although popular with the locals, Freddy has his heart set on winning over the town’s schoolteacher, Ms. Penelope Prim, who he is worried will reject him because of his violent past. Unfortunately, Freddy soon learns that Coarsegold has secrets of its own, and he may have to confront his own troubled history in order to save not only Coarsegold, but the woman he loves...
"Peerless, earless and free..."
After the Sierra logo finishes gleaming, you are introduced to the game with the hilarious "Ballad of Freddy Pharkas," a bouncing-ball singalong performed with all the swagger of a tone-deaf cowpoke. In all honesty, the tune was actually performed by none other than one the game’s co-designers, Al Lowe himself (Don’t believe me? Consult Lowe’s Humor Page). The satirical, kitschy opening number sets the tone for the rest of the game, which is filled with quirky humor similar to the movie Blazing Saddles. According to his website, Lowe says that Pharkas “may well be my funniest game,” and he isn't kidding. Freddy Pharkas is one of the most side-splitting games I have ever had the privilege of playing. The humor comes in a wide variety-- scatological jokes are dispersed between both whimsical satire and some all-too-obvious parody. The combination of Al Lowe’s over-the-top humor and Josh Mandel’s reined-in sarcasm brings to the game the best of both worlds: a witty Wild West adventure that isn’t afraid of being either outrageous or understated.
The game’s sense of humor is most clearly evident in the manual, lovingly titled "The Modern Day Book of Health and Medicine." An exercise in farce, the manual is a compendium of crackpot methods in turn-of-the-century medicine. For example, here are the instructions for rescuing a choking victim: “If the victim gags violently and turns blue, this may just mean that the victim has swallowed something cold and distasteful. Cover the victim with blankets and provide plenty of strongly-flavored hot tea.” There are even tricks for wart removal (See: TOM SAWYER). What is the most surprising about the manual is that it is not just a way to get a few laughs, but is also the source of many of the game's puzzle solutions. Dispersed in between jokes about hernias and backyard remedies are the solutions to many of the in-game puzzles. I love how Freddy Pharkas admirably incorporates the manual with the situations you encounter during your adventure. To its credit, I never once felt like it was getting in the way of playing the game.
One of Freddy Pharkas' more innovative puzzles is located in the backroom of Freddy's pharmacy, where he spends much of the game's first act filling prescriptions. The pharmacological workbench therein, stocked with every chemical from Furachlorodone to Magnesium Sulfate, makes for one of the most entertaining environments I've ever puzzled through, comparable in originality to puzzles such as Gabriel Knight III's Le Serpent Rouge. After examining your prescription and consulting the manual, you are able to stir ingredients (only with a clean glass rod, mind you) and grind out pills for your customers. I thoroughly enjoyed the pharmacy puzzles of Freddy’s backroom, which were both entertaining and memorable. I could easily see a completely unique game based on filling prescriptions the Freddy Pharkas way.
The rest of the game’s puzzles are as outrageous as the writing, which--depending on the type of gamer you are--may make the remainder of the game difficult to complete. To put it simply, not every puzzle in Freddy Pharkas is as entertaining or as straightforward as filling prescriptions. While most of the game’s puzzles are solvable within the context of both the manual and the game environment, the in-game logic behind a few of the solutions can be downright absurd. The game relies heavily on traditional item manipulation puzzles, and a few of the puzzles where you need to combine multiple inventory items can be pretty frustrating. While I personally enjoyed my experience playing Freddy Pharkas for this review, I can still vividly remember many nights of bleary-eyed frustration back in 1993. A word of advice for those who may find themselves stuck and unsure about what to do: The manual is your friend. Read it!
I should also note that like most Sierra adventure games, it is very possible to die in Freddy Pharkas. Like the Space Quest series, many of the death sequences are funny, and sometimes it is worth facing your demise just to see what Whittlin’ Willy, the game’s cranky old narrator, has to say. Unfortunately, there are times in the game when being able to die is much more of a burden than a comic relief. As newcomers to the game are bound to discover, Act II introduces a number of timed events, none of which are visibly shown to the player. After a lackadaisical first act where the player is free to lead Freddy about town, there is no real indication in Act II that lets the player know he or she needs to act quickly. Newcomers are bound to die multiple times before they realize what is going on. Even though I have played the game multiple times and know what to expect in advance, I still find myself not being fast enough for the invisible timer. Fortunately, of Pharkas' four acts, only Act II has these unadvertised timed portions, and a good number of Save/Reload slots should get most gamers through it.
Freddy Pharkas' engine is typical of Sierra VGA adventures at the time, using their traditional icon-based control system and hand-painted backgrounds. This interface works well for the game; maneuvering Freddy around Coarsegold is simple and uncomplicated. I do have a minor quip with the CD-ROM version of the game, however. For those who like to listen to voices and follow along with the text, the CD version of Pharkas has no option for Voice + Text, only Voice. This is an unfortunate mistake, and it isolates foreign gamers who may want to listen to the American South dialects with the text on screen. Fortunately, the Text Only version is still available on the CD version, but it requires an edit of the Sierra.ini file to enable (change the resAUD value to a bogus CD-ROM drive). I know this sounds pretty crazy, but it is necessary if you would like to read the dialogue text during the game.
Despite this frustrating text issue, I still highly recommend the CD-ROM version of the game. The voice work in Pharkas is top notch, with the narrator’s sarcastic drawl contrasting nicely to Freddy’s exuberant voiceover. The other voice actors have excellent performances as well, my favorite being Freddy’s Indian assistant, Srini (from India, of course). If understanding Southern dialects is not a problem for you, by all means seek out the CD-ROM version. The voice work exponentially improves the game experience.
As for the orchestration, Pharkas is full of memorable melodies, the best of which is the MIDI version of the “Ballad of Freddy Pharkas.” Nearly each and every screen in the game has its own accompanying music, which is quite impressive, given that Pharkas’ backgrounds are all a pleasure to listen to. The game even implements a cross-fading effect as you transition between game screens so that the different melodies seamlessly blend together. One final note on the music-- the majority of game takes place in the same 10-15 screens, so some gamers might get sick of one or two backgrounds before the game is over. Still, the music is creative and catchy enough that this should not occur for most people. I even found myself humming one of the backgrounds hours after finishing the game.
Although I haven't explained much of it, Pharkas’ plot is very well-designed. It won't win any Academy Awards, but the script is entertaining enough to carry the humor of the game from start to finish. The plot is also a very effective ode to traditional spaghetti westerns, and seasoned adventurers will find enough twists and turns to keep on their toes. I particularly enjoyed how the end of the game tightly integrates your experiences during the game into context. It is disappointing, however, when the ending momentarily hints of a future sequel. Mediocre sales of the game in 1993 killed any chances of it happening, which is tragically unfortunate for such a high-quality title.
Freddy Pharkas is an entertaining romp in the Wild West with something for nearly every adventure gamer. At its core a light-hearted satire in the vein of Blazing Saddles, Pharkas succeeds on a number of levels. With hilarious writing, a compelling story and one unforgettable manual, it is an amazing example of how collaboration between two different designers can create an adventure that appeals too all people. Provided that they don’t mind a few outrageous puzzles, I recommend Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist to any adventure gamer wholeheartedly.