Please note: some of the links in this review will take you off-site. These have been set up to open in a new window.
Where do you go after you've made three games in a universe and have - rather neatly - tied the series up? When confronted with this problem, Al Lowe chose to go in a completely bizarre direction, "skipping" Larry 4 and giving us a somewhat cartoon-y, rather crass and not very pleasant New Larry. I wasn't really a fan, as you can tell from this review.
The Space Quest saga had a similar quandary to ponder.
They had - after all - functionally wrapped up the series by plopping the two guys into Sierra [in a wonderfully meta third game that was far too short, in my humble opinion - it was also a VERY weird outing in that series in that it mostly didn't sit well as a story, but that's another matter entirely.] and sending Roger on his merry way, hurtling through the stars.
So, of course, they did what any comedic duo would do at this point. They bounced some crazy ideas off the wall. One of these crazy ideas was making another meta-game. This time, they'd ostensibly call the game "Space Quest IV" - the next part of the saga - but instead of setting the game in Space Quest 4, they'd bounce you all around the time-line of the game's universe.
This is so clever that I'm not sure why anyone hasn't done anything similar with their game before [or since] - It's a wonderful joke that heartily and cheerfully consumes the entire game.
It does, however, have some downsides.
So, let's - for a second - talk about the setup before I talk about why parts of it don't really work well.
In the introduction, we see Roger. He's on vacation and he's clearly having a blast, telling folks about his exploits and...well, exaggerating his past successes. Enter the sequel police, a force sent back in time to eradicate Roger so that he cannot meddle with Sludge Vohaul in the future. Luckily, much like with the Terminator franchise, there's a group of rebels who figure out this is all going to happen and they slip Roger away into a time-and-place that the bad guys won't think to search: Space Quest twelve. It even says so on the title bar and everything.
From here, Roger must use his wits - as he always does - and a time machine or two to go zipping around the past and future so that he can put an end to what's happened in - particularly - Space Quest Twelve.
And therein lies some of the trouble.
It was easy for the two guys to take their old games and bolt them to the new one - there's a hilarious section set in Space Quest I. You can - quite easily - get tossed into Space Quest III by accident. And all of this is well and good, but there was no way to know what technology might have been built in the future and so - of course - no good way to make the games from the future look futuristic. No 3D, for example. But - for what it is - an interesting in-joke that takes up the whole game - it's a very fun conceit.
What's less fun is the sparseness of the game. Yes, it does have a voiceover version. And certainly, that version is AMAZING. I mean, come on? How can you not like Gary Owens narrating? But the two guys rushed through some of the development of this particular game, and it shows.
The interface is fairly standard, though it does have a lick cursor - and you can apply that to all kinds of things for funny reactions. But the inventory itself suffers greatly. Where previous games might have made quips about the items you pick up, here, the developers opt for a very Police Quest take on your possessions: things are given cursory descriptions.
Then, there's the reliance on far too many arcade sequences - indeed, the latter bulk of the game is nothing but one arcade sequence after another as you attempt to make money, [by working at a fast food place] escape the sequel police in an anti-gravity space-skating rink, [more tricky than it sounds] avoid some angry bikers, [by being rather deft and precise with the timing of a click] avoid deadly robots in a space station. [by always moving] I think you see the problem. There's just not enough pure puzzle solving for me to get behind it one hundred percent.
Which is a shame - previous entries in the series have managed that tightrope rather well.
The music is fine, as always - this being a Space Quest developed with the Roland MT-32 in mind. And the graphics - for what they are - are spot-on. But I can see - from this particular iteration of the series - that Mark and Scott are tired. Their ideas are funny as ever, but they're not really putting in the kind of effort that made Space Quest I through III so fun. That latter half with the arcade sequences is novel. But it's also a sign that they simply don't know what to do for puzzles at this point.
So, do I think it's worth it?
On one level, i can't recommend it enough. The odd conceit of the game - and that it never really takes place in Space Quest IV is wonderful. We learn some quite interesting lore from this particular entry in the series, [in fact, this might be one of the most lore-heavy Space Quests to date] and the voiceover version cannot be praised enough for somehow getting Gary Owens on board. It also has one of my favourite endings - which is a surprisingly bittersweet affair for a comedic game.
But...on the other hand, those arcade sequences really are a turn-off. And the unfortunate lack of it looking "modern" when it's trying to take you to these far-flung eras of the series is understandable, but a pity.
I would absolutely recommend it if you're playing through Space Quest as a whole. But if you're looking for a singular game to try out in the series, I still think that Space Quest III is better. [Yes, it's very short. Yes, it's got an incredibly goofy and disjointed story-line and yes, it absolutely has a handful of frustrating arcade sequences, but the third game is where they seemed to get the formula "completely right."]
You can find my play through of Space Quest IV here.