1988 was dominated by Sierra! In fact, five of the eight games I played were from the adventure gaming giant, all of which I played back to back. It was a year that included an engine update for the company, with AGI being replaced by SCI, but it was also a year that saw little evolution in the non-technological aspects of the genre. The three SCI driven games were sequels that carried the torch of their predecessors while sporting a new chassis, while the two AGI driven games (Gold Rush and Manhunter) were far more creative and original, yet sadly suffered in other areas. 1989 will see the company continue to crank out the sequels (Larry and Space Quest III), but it will also be the year that sees Sierra spreading their wings, with the Quest For Glory and Laura Bow series seeing the light of day. I’m super excited about it too!
Sierra ruled the genre in the late 80s, but their reign wouldn't last forever
Leaving Sierra aside, the rest of the competition in 1988 was inconsistent to say the least. Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders took the amazing work that LucasArts put into Maniac Mansion and built a bigger, more ambitious game around it. I’d heard about the game previously of course, but after playing it, I’m a little surprised at how little praise it gets these days. The same can’t be said for Psycho and to a lesser extent Captain Blood, with the former being undoubtedly the worst adventure game I’ve ever played. How it got a commercial release is anyone’s guess! Captain Blood at least had an intriguing concept and kept me interested for a few hours, but the end result was akin to learning the language of multiple alien races with no significant reward in return. Anyway, without further ado, I bring to you the inaugural TAG Awards!
Who will win this year? What will the awards even be? Oh the excitement!
The Charles Darwin TAG: For the Most Evolutionary Game of 1988
King’s Quest IV takes out this award, not only for being the first game to showcase Sierra’s impressive new SCI engine, but also for being the first game to have a lone female protagonist. The game also has the best quality music found in an adventure game to date, putting it just ahead of the also very impressive Zak McKracken.
King's Quest IV was the first game on the list to look AND sound good
Also worth a mention:
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders - for superior graphics, varied environment, and high use of multiple puzzle solutions
Police Quest 2 - for rewarding diligence without punishing those just looking for entertainment, as well as taking the genre to a new cinematic high through numerous pulse raising scenes.
The Lament Configuration TAG: For the Most Ridiculous Puzzle of 1988
Winner: Manhunter: New York
Manhunter just scrapes through against stiff competition, with the dinosaur in the museum puzzle just too ridiculous to ignore. After spending the last hour desperately trying to find a way to open a barred wooden door, I eventually found a crowbar in the mine-infested Strawberry Fields. Using the crowbar on the door didn’t actually open it. It just disturbed a dinosaur that apparently lived in the museum, which then helped me out by removing the large bar, but only after I showed it a medallion that proved that I was part of a rebellion against invading aliens. Right!!!!
Also worth a mention:
Leisure Suit Larry 2 - I realise Al Lowe was taking the piss when he made the player choke and die on a bobby pin in a plate of food, just so they could restore and retrieve it, but still...
Captain Blood – “Female Good Disarm Small Scientist Dead Female Female Radioactivity No Insult Laugh Urgent”. Need I say more?
The Needle's Eye TAG: For the Most Unsolvable Puzzle of 1988
Winner: King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella
King’s Quest IV gets its second TAG award, but this time it’s for negative reasons. I think it’s the only case where I actually deducted one whole category point for a single puzzle. Finding the whale is hard, since it’s not always visible in the same place. Once you do find the whale though, there’s no real reason to try to do anything with it. Moving towards it makes it swim away. The solution is to stay absolutely still for a while (why would anyone think to do that?), after which the whale dives beneath the water and then comes up and swallows you. Don’t even get me started on the tonsil maze within the whale, but that’s another matter altogether.
Horrors? It took me hours to be swallowed by this whale!
Also worth a mention:
Police Quest 2 – the whole first section of Police Quest 2 was confusing and complicated. The vague assignment details, the hidden storage bin and the business card locker code are all quite challenging to overcome, but it’s the unseen timer (you only have a certain amount of time to leave the station) that really pissed me off. The game doesn’t even inform the player that they’ve spent too long in the station, and instead sends them back inside for a non-descript working over by the boss.
Manhunter: New York – figuring out the “suspect” names in Manhunter is tough going, but figuring out the name of antagonist Phil Cook is pure guesswork. It might seem somewhat obvious in hindsight to try Phil Cook when a dying man has written Phil Cool on a rock (he didn’t quite make it you see), but considering you don’t even know for sure that you actually need to find anyone at that stage of the game, it’s close to impossible.
Special Mention must go to Leisure Suit Larry 2 and Psycho for having game breaking bugs that almost literally make the games unsolvable.
The Megan Fox TAG: For the Most Memorable Moment of 1988
Winner: Police Quest 2
I’d been struggling to enjoy Police Quest 2 after the first hour or two, but that all turned around when Bains jumped out from behind some bushes in the park and starting shooting at me. If that wasn’t enough to display the potential of the game, his escape and subsequent drive-by sure did, especially when I found myself investigating a crime scene with my field kit and then scuba diving in the river looking for a body mere minutes later. All of a sudden I was hooked!
The excitement level increased dramatically from this point onwards.
Also worth a mention:
Leisure Suit Larry 2 – I really love the humour in Larry 2, and there are almost too many highlight moments to mention on that front. I’m going to raise two that come to mind though, being the hairdressing scene where Larry falls asleep and dreams of running on the beach with a naked woman, while the hairdresser watches the thought bubble coming out of his head, and the cliff face where the player is able to earn unlimited points by taking advantage of an apparent game bug only to find out that Al Lowe understands gamer tendencies better than they might realise.
Zak McKracken – Zak is filled with memorable moments, but none surpass exploring Mars for the first time. Not only did I get to control two totally new characters, but I also got to explore an alien environment, dealing with the harsh conditions while solving the mysteries of an ancient race. That highlight was probably only surpassed by the exciting moment when I finally put everything together and was able to plan my way through each destination in the game, with the climax beckoning.
The Severed Head TAG: For the Worst Game of 1988
Worst adventure game of the year? More like worst adventure game ever! As if the daft puzzles and shocking movement wasn’t bad enough, the game breaking bugs made it more than a short-lived chore. Psycho lived up to my extremely low expectations and some!!!
I think everyone should play this game. It will make you enjoy every other game you ever play from that point onwards!
Captain Blood – I was actually quite interested in this game after the first session, but it simply failed to reward my efforts, forcing me to restart several times and becoming nothing more than a silly alien symbol deciphering simulation. It’s the only game on the list that I couldn’t bear to play all the way through, and let’s hope it stays that way.
Manhunter: New York – I take no pleasure in putting Manhunter on this list because I really did enjoy it for the most part. Its dodgy visuals and controls can’t be ignored though, so it sadly fell to a sub-50 score and forced its way onto this list.
The Atlantean Medallion TAG (aka The Cleavage of Sophia Hapgood TAG): For the Best Game of 1988
Winner: Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders
Zak certainly wasn’t flawless, but when you combine the SCUMM interface, the best graphics yet seen in an adventure game, hugely varied environments that cover the globe and beyond, and genius use of multiple puzzle solutions, it’s difficult to understand why it isn’t considered a classic alongside Maniac Mansion and the plethora of other LucasArts games that would follow. Not even the annoying mazes could dampen my enthusiasm to save Earth from certain stupidity!
A very underrated game in my opinion, and a clear winner for 1988
Also worth a mention:
Police Quest II: The Vengeance – The Police Quest sequel took everything that was good about the first game and improved upon it. It still included the manual following puzzle solutions, but did so in a clever way that rewarded players determined to be thorough investigators without alienating the less inclined. If it wasn’t for the rather uninspired first quarter and the dodgy inventory system, it may very well have challenged the top of the leader board.
King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella – The fourth King’s Quest outing looked and sounded better than all previous Sierra games, and was a thoroughly enjoyable game to boot. The plot took place in the familiar fantasy setting that series lovers would be used to, but mixed in stronger mythological and gothic themes to make it slightly less sugary. Unfortunately there were a couple of very bad puzzle design decisions that marred the experience, leaving it slightly below where it could have been.
And there it is...the inaugural TAG Awards. It was much harder than I thought to come up with interesting awards, so I'm sure it will evolve as the genre does. Comments and recommendations welcome as usual!