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.Continued on the next page...