Whilst the golden age of the graphical adventure game was arguably the 1990s – an era when text adventures fell out of commercial favour and largely lay dormant until the fan community came up with robust tools like the Inform or TADS languages to produce new content, and a time when the most widely-celebrated classics of the genre came out – Sierra had arguably built the foundation for that success over the course of the 1980s.
Specifically, they had pioneered the format with the early King’s Quest games, explored an intriguing variety of genres, cooked up first the AGI game engine and then the significantly more powerful SCI engine, which would debut in 1988 and versions of which would underpin their adventure games for much of the next decade, and in 1989 they rounded out the decade by producing the largest and most diverse portfolio of adventure games they’d make in-house over the 1980s.
They would also, with the two Manhunter games, dip their toe into publishing the adventure game works of other development houses. (I’ve not covered those since I’m concentrating in this series strictly on the games that Sierra developed in-house with perhaps an exception or two – I intend to do Space Quest V even though technically Sierra outsourced the development on that, since it’s an entry in one of their iconic series.)
At the same time, change was in the air. Although Sierra’s artists were very capable, and had produced some fantastic work within the confines of EGA graphics, the VGA era was dawning and previous graphical standards were beginning to look dated. And whilst the SCI system incorporated mouse support for the first time (though ScummVM, the engine often used to play old adventure games on modern computers, does patch mouse support into at least some of the earlier AGI-driven games), the adventures still weren’t full point-and-click, relying on a text parser which, whilst robust to brute force puzzle solving, at the same time also occasionally caused frustration when the verb or noun the game was expecting you to type in wasn’t the one which came to mind first. Recent adventures by the likes of LucasArts had pioneered full point-and-click setups, whose ease of use made the Sierra adventures seem less user-friendly, less welcoming to beginners, and generally less convenient than the competition.
Thus, over the course of 1990 Sierra girded themselves for a technical great leap forward. Rather than putting out a similar number of games to the swathe they produced in 1989, they put out 3 adventures, two of which came out close together towards the end of the year, and all in the fantasy genre. Each game was by a different main designer and represented a different take both on game design and the genre in general. Would this turn out to be a good start to the decade, or would Sierra bungle in the same year that LucasArts put out the universally acclaimed classic Secret of Monkey Island?
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