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The Memory Card .65: A glimpse into the future

3:00 PM on 08.27.2009 // Chad Concelmo

“The Memory Card” is a seasonal feature that dissects and honors some of the most artistic, innovative, and memorable videogame moments of all time.

Sequels can be very rewarding for a player if done right. Instead of offering something as basic as a continuation on a familiar style of gameplay, some videogame sequels are full of plot twists and references to earlier games in the series, giving players who have stuck with the series from the beginning a real sense of satisfaction.

But how cool would it be if the very first game in a series could offer glimpses of things to come in upcoming sequels? This has been slightly touched on in the past with games that already have green-lit, in-production sequels, but in most cases it is impossible -- a designer can’t see into the future, right?

Well, apparently there are designers out there with some crazy, mystical, psychic wizard powers, because Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter -- the first game in the incredible PC adventure game series -- accomplishes the impossible! There is a great moment about halfway through the game that features something that doesn’t happen until five real-time years -- and three sequels -- later!

It all gets a little complicated, so stretch those brain muscles and hit the jump for a really cool videogame moment that defies the space-time continuum!

The Set-Up

Back in the 1980s, after the success of King’s Quest, publisher Sierra made a very wise decision to produce a series of other “Quest” graphic PC adventure games. Along with Police Quest and Hero’s Quest, two designers named Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe came along and created arguably the best of the Sierra adventure games -- well, at least according to me -- Space Quest. For  a young, adventure game-loving me, the Space Quest games were absolutely perfect creations, combining the fantasy aspects of King’s Quest (but in a luscious sci-fi setting) with the humor and irreverence of Leisure Suit Larry (another hit Sierra series).

The first chapter in this critically-acclaimed series of epic adventure games is called Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter.

In the game, you play as Roger Wilco, the janitor of a massive spaceship called The Arcada. As the game begins, Roger is seen waking up from a mid-shift nap in a broom closet just as the ship is being seized by the evil Sariens, an alien race set to steal the Arcada’s Star Generator, a very powerful experimental device.

After narrowly escaping death by boarding an escape pod, Roger finds himself stranded on a barren, desert planet called Kerona. Once he finds transportation by solving a series of challenging puzzles, Roger makes his way to the small town of Ulence Flats.

While here, Roger sells his newly acquired desert hovercraft, successfully bets his earnings on a deadly slot machine, and uses his winnings to purchase a beautiful, new space cruiser from the local used spacecraft dealer.

Using this ship, Roger travels to the home base of the Sariens, detonates the stolen Star Generator, and saves the galaxy! Woo hoo!

Because of the huge success of Space Quest (people in the ‘80s did have good taste!), Sierra released a large number of sequels at a rate of almost one a year. One thing that makes Sierra sequels so special is the fact that they completely exist within the same world. Not only do their stories continue game after game, they constantly manage to reference each other, greatly rewarding fans who decide to play all the games in a series.

When 1991 rolled around, Sierra had already released Space Quest I-III, with the fourth edition, Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, fresh on store shelves. This fourth game in the series sported pretty VGA graphics (a first for the series!), a rich musical score, and even in-game voices! Impressed by the game’s visuals, the designers of Space Quest decided to remake the original game (The Sarien Encounter) using this fancy new technology and release it only months after Space Quest IV.

The result was a great success, with many gamers purchasing the remake and introducing themselves to the wonderful world of Space Quest for the first time!

But looking past the financial success of the game, what impresses the most are some of the extra, wonderfully creative little touches Sierra decided to add to the remake. With the knowledge of what happens in the three sequels, the designers decided to throw in some very clever references that make playing the remake followed by the next games in the series an absolute joy to experience.

One of these added touches comes about halfway through the remake of The Sarien Encounter and is the focus of this week’s Memory Card: A glimpse into the future.

The Moment

The storyline of the Space Quest remake is exactly the same as the original. The only real differences lie in the presentation, with a couple small puzzle changes evident here and there.

But I will get back to the remake of the first Space Quest in a second. For now, let’s focus on Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers for a second (you will appreciate why in a second).

In that game, you, again, play as Roger Wilco as he tries to save the galaxy from an evil force.

Early in the game, Roger gets a hold of a spaceship with the ability to travel through time. At this point, Roger can actually travel between different games in the Space Quest series, most of them fictional, non-existent creations in the future (i.e. Space Quest X, Space Quest XII).

While this mechanic is clever unto itself, later in the game Roger actually has to travel back to the original game, Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter, to retrieve something from a vendor in Ulence Flats -- the same Ulence Flats Roger visited all those years ago.

Once his time machine materializes in the past, Roger journeys to many familiar locations, including the bar containing the slot machine and the used spacecraft lot he purchased his spaceship back in the first game.

After finding what he came for, Roger leaves the original Space Quest and continues on his universe-hopping adventure.

Confused yet? Oh, just be prepared.

Now let’s get back to the remake of the original Space Quest. As I mentioned, this remake was released just a few months after Space Quest IV, so the designers already knew exactly what would happen in that game.

So, as Roger journeys through his original adventure in the remake, he once again makes it to Ulence Flats after crash landing on the desert planet of Kerona.

After winning all his money on the slot machine, Roger heads over to the used spacecraft lot to buy the spaceship that will take him to the home base of the Sariens.

Once he purchases the ship, boards it, and takes off, something pretty awesome happens:

Instead of cutting to a shot of Roger leaving the planet and flying through space -- as the original game does -- the camera remains focused on the used spacecraft lot. In the bottom corner of the screen, as Roger’s ship disappears into the starry background, a strange, metallic spaceship materializes on the surface of the planet.

The ship just sits there silently for a second, and, just as its hatch is about to open, the game cuts away and joins Roger back in his spaceship outside the planet to continue the adventure. The glimpse of the mysterious ship is only for a second and almost not even noticeable.

For a first time player of Space Quest, this moment means nothing. If anything, it comes across as just super confusing and a little odd.

But for someone who has played Space Quest IV, the reference is immediately evident: the materializing spaceship is none other than Roger’s time machine from SQIV as it travels back to the original game!

Okay, let me wait until you wrap your head around all that ...

Got it?

Okay. Brilliant, huh?!

You can watch the time machine from the future sequel appear in the Space Quest remake right here (the scene starts at 6:00):

The Impact

Remember that scene in Back to the Future – Part II, the one where Marty goes back to the same high school dance that he played the guitar in during the first Back to the Future movie? Or the scene later in the sequel when Marty rushes up to Doc in the street right after he just went back in time after the lightning strike?

After seeing Back to the Future – Part II, I always thought it would have been amazing if the director Robert Zemeckis had somehow known exactly what was going to happen in the sequel and added little hints of things to come. Like, when Marty was playing his guitar on stage in the original film, how cool would it have been to see a quick shadow pass by of the future Marty crawling in the catwalk overhead? Or seeing a blurry shot of future Marty running towards Doc in the street right before he goes back to the future at the end of the first movie? Nothing too revealing, just a quick little something to confuse the audience slightly and have them wonder what the heck they just saw ... only to have everything be oh-so-satisfying once everything comes together and is explained in later sequels.

For me, this is exactly what the designers of Space Quest did by adding the time machine cameo in the remake of Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter! And I don’t think any other videogame -- or any movie for that matter -- has done something quite like it since!

Of course all of this would have been so much more mind-boggling if the designers had inserted this time machine in the real original game (not the remake) all those years before. But, for obvious reasons, the graphics were not capable of displaying something with 256-colors in a 16-color EGA world.

When given the chance with the remake, though, the designers made the conscious decision to connect all the Space Quest games in a small, brilliantly subtle way.

I, unfortunately, will never be in this position, but I always imagine how cool it would be to sequentially play through all the Space Quest games for the first time, making sure to play the remake of the original game in place of the actual first game. That way, the time machine reference will have its full impact.

And, even better, the reference won’t even hit the player until three full games later! Roger Wilco doesn’t go back in time to Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter until halfway through Space Quest IV!

Lucky for gamers everywhere, the recently released compilation -- that allows you to play all the DOS-based games on Windows -- replaces the original Space Quest with its remake in an effort to make it the default for anyone wanting to play the first game in the series. While this is sad for retro gamers looking for a full, nostalgic experience, it’s great that the designers will be getting what they want by having their clever added touches in the remake be acknowledged and admired.

I love stuff like this. LOVE it! I just love when game designers take that extra effort to add something into a game that may seem insignificant to some, but completely elevates the overall experience for others.

Obviously I am in the latter group.

Sequels can be much more than just cash-ins featuring repetitive gameplay and familiar characters. They have the power to really play with the endless creativity of storytelling and present the audience with something they have never experienced before. The time machine sequence in the remake of Space Quest -- however short -- is the perfect example of this. Having a moment in a far-off sequel appear in the first game of a series is pretty revolutionary and the payoff of having it all come together is an extraordinary feeling.

Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe: 1, Robert Zemeckis: 0.

In your face, movies.

The Memory Card Save Files

.01 - .20 (Season 1)
.21 - .40 (Season 2)
.41 - .60 (Season 3)
.61: The dream of the Wind Fish (The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening)
.62: Leaving Midgar (Final Fantasy VII)
.63: Auf Wiedersehen! (Bionic Commando)
.64: Death and The Sorrow (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)

Chad Concelmo,
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