As with a lot of older pieces of entertainment, it can be difficult to look at these titles without one's judgment getting completely be-fogged by nostalgia. For many of us, these were our introduction not just to computer games, but to computers in general; I can't say for sure that I'd know half of what I do about Windows if Ken and Roberta Williams didn't force me to make sure I had sufficient "heap space" to run their software (and if you get THAT reference, you probably need a hug and a good cry). But with appreciation slowly returning for these classics, it seems a fitting time to re-examine the best works developed by this dream-factory. Shall we?
10) Police Quest II: The Vengeance
Of Sierra's Quest Family, Police Quest is probably the most underappreciated series. The concept was ambitious, as Ken Williams and former police officer Jim Walls sought to create an interactive crime thriller not only set in the real world but beholden to actual regulations and procedure. In the first game, in which series hero Sonny Bonds was a California patrol officer in the fictional town of Lytton, it meant pulling people over and spending a lot of time gambling undercover. In this sequel, Bonds has been promoted to detective, and while protocol is still an issue, the activities you get to do are a little more varied and engaging than giving speeding tickets. You must track down your old foe, criminal mastermind Jessie Bains (supposedly based on a real person) before he kills you, your girlfriend and the others who testified against him. This necessarily leads to gunplay, SWAT team raids, bomb disposal and even a scuba diving mission. And as with the first game, one unlawful move could sink your entire career and net you a finger-wagging endgame message from the pixelated head of Jim Walls himself (the Game Over screen in the third Police Quest was even more hilarious). So not only can you not draw your gun willy-nilly, you have to make sure you're in a situation when doing so is legally justified. You would think all of this would make the game too strict, but it actually makes it more fun, in a weird way, since there's at least logic to the puzzles, even if it's government-mandated logic. Don't forget the funky synthesizer score, another element that makes this feel like an episode of some lost '80s cop show. In a good way. The best, in fact.
9) Lighthouse: The Dark Being
Sierra's later forays into the first-person genre were generally ill-fated, tedious orgies of pain, with a focus on self-contained, annoying sequences like sliding puzzles. The one good game to follow this model, Lighthouse, had its fair share of frustrating moments, but balanced that out with an intriguing concept and an involving expansion of the Myst formula. The story has you journey from an Oregon lighthouse into an alternate dimension to find and rescue an eccentric scientist and his newborn daughter from the titular Dark Being. This Dark Being's evil plan is to bring bad technology to his otherwise idyllic dimension, and stopping him means you must also fight weird-looking monsters and clockwork bird-people. Essentially, Lighthouse is Myst, only with more of a plot, more characters, timed action sequences, an inventory, and a villain that appears onscreen. So in my book, it's an improvement all 'round. Yes, there's the underground track maze (mazes are the bane of my gamer existence) and the unlocking-the-safe bit took me forever to do right for some reason. Take those away, and you have a unique, overlooked little title.
8) The Colonel's Bequest
I feel like there should have been one more Laura Bow game than we got. The Dagger of Amon Ra was punishing and badly written but the whole campy 1920s murder-mystery thing had potential. As such, we can take heart in the fact that the first Bow game, The Colonel's Bequest, does a few things right that its later sequel missed. You are indeed Laura Bow, a young journalist and would-be sleuth visiting the plantation of a friend in order to hear her aged old uncle declare his will to his remaining offspring. Naturally nobody is satisfied with his arrangement and so there are secret conversations, lies, and murders as the night ticks away. The dialogue is silly and the characters stock, but the environment is rich, spooky and atmospheric, and it's possible to complete the game without learning everything or even solving the case correctly, which can inspire multiple replays. There's also the shameless, leery French-maid-undressing-behind-double-doors scene, which certainly must have inspired multiple plays back in the day, if you know what I mean.
7) Island of Dr. Brain
I've spoken of this one before, but it deserves another mention, as it is not only a great educational game but a neat hybrid adventure as well. Having discovered the lair of the titular mad scientist in a previous game, you are now tasked to go to his secret island to retrieve a battery for his latest top secret project. This game is so effortlessly educational, it teaches you basic geography skills during the copy protection puzzle! While exploring a castle is cool, if kind of creepy, exploring a tropical island is a lot cooler, especially one with its own volcano and everything. Rock and roll. There are puzzles about all sorts of topics from chemistry to art history (making this the only adventure game I know of to feature a bust of Dali As part of a puzzle), and the familiar icon interface makes it feel like part of the Sierra clan of classic adventures. There's an inventory, adjustable difficulty level, hints, and (in the CD-rom version) even a fully voiced, creepy Dr. Brain to congratulate you. No doubt in the director's cut he also buzzes in and asks you awkward questions about your bowel movements in front of all your best friends.
6) Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers
There are some games that I swear know that they're impossible to beat, and the fourth entry in Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe's legendary sci-fi/comedy saga seems to enjoy flummoxing the player at every turn. How can I tell? Because the narrator, Laugh-In vet Gary Owens, seems to take an inordinate amount of glee in informing you of the many ways you can "fade from the living organism club", and in a game in which death doesn't lurk so much as stomp around waving and shouting your name, it's a refreshing touch of honesty (though it doesn't make dying any easier). It's for this that Time Rippers is so dear to my heart; well, that and the craziness of the "plot", which starts as a kind of Terminator riff but soon spins off into its own deranged orbit of meta-silliness. Space janitor/loser Roger Wilco stumbles through various Space Quests both real and imagined to save his home planet and future son from voice-modulated villain Sludge Vohaul. This includes a jaunt to the AGI graphics of the very first Space Quest, where monochrome bikers harass you for being in better resolution than them. There are also the villainous Sequel Police, androids dedicated to tracking our hero down throughout his various adventures. But Owens steals the show, so much so that they brought him back for the sixth and final game in the series, sadly overdoing it there by having nearly every observation turn into a smartass conversation between him and Roger. Sometimes simplest is best. Owens' performance here is so good and so rich with memorable lines it makes up for the hilariously bad Roger, who sounds kind of like a constantly surprised flamboyant surfer. Actually, the Roger performance is part of why I love this one so much.