Vohaul Strikes Back

I don’t ask for much out of an adventure game. Give me a vaguely coherent plot, a functional interface, a sense of what to do next, and constructive feedback about my actions—honestly, this is like asking for a car with a discernible front and back end, a steering wheel that moves when you turn it, a gas pedal that isn’t hidden in the trunk, and lights on my dashboard that display icons of unbuckled seatbelts and gas pumps instead of Morgan Freeman and apple pie. Is this really too much to ask?

No. For what might be the first time in adventure game history, no, that is not too much to ask. And we have Space Quest: Vohaul Strikes Back to thank for that.

Now, I’ve played a lot of adventure games. Monkey Island. King’s Quest. Sam & Max. Back to the Future. Hamlet. Gemini Rue. Machinarium. Police Quest. Samorost. Jolly Rover. Teen Agent. Leisure Suit Larry. Lure of the Temptress. Quest for Glory. Flight of the Amazon Queen. Beneath a Steel Sky. Nightshade. Zak McKracken. Even text adventures such as Zork, Planetfall, Fallacy of Dawn, and Thy Dungeonman. Good games. Terrible games. Great games. Enough to know the difference between good puzzles that I’m not thinking hard enough about and flat-out bad puzzles. Enough to have some pretty high standards when people start talking about “breathtaking graphics”, “amazing music”, “hilarious dialogue”, “functional controls”, and other subjective descriptors that belong in quotes. So please appreciate the weight of the statement I’m about to make:

Space Quest: Vohaul Strikes Back is the best adventure game I’ve ever played.

And yes, I’ve played the good Monkey Islands, too.

SQVSB ApesIf the quality of a game can be measured in monkeys, then this one’s at least pretty good.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the Space Quest series—you know, where intergalactic janitor Roger Wilco saves the universe multiple times over, occasionally on purpose? If you haven’t been exposed to this delightfully off-the-wall sci-fi adventure game series, the developers of SQ:VSB have got you covered: there’s a brief, optional, and amusing recap of the most relevant story points of the Space Quest series, which is accessible from the game’s menu screen. Also, as a fangame, it’s free to download. You now officially have no excuse not to play this game.

SQVSB Cliff “But…I can’t play; I’m too busy falling to my doom!” NOT AN EXCUSE!

Set an indeterminate amount of time after the events of Space Quest 6, SQ:VSB weaves together two of the series’ biggest plot threads: Roger’s ongoing struggle against Sludge Vohaul, his dead-twice-over arch-nemesis, and Roger’s relationship with Beatrice Wankmeister, his future wife and eventual mother of the time-traveling son who once saved his life. If the preceding sentence sounded like, “blah blah blah Wankmeister blah blah” to you, then the long and short of it is that hero Roger and heroine Beatrice interrupt their romantic vacation to go to a miserable ice planet where villain Vohaul is plotting to kill them. Roger has the best ideas.

What’s so compelling about SQ:VSB is that it was developed by people who have actually played adventure games. You can tell from the quality of the challenges, the flow of the story, the abundance of helpful puzzle clues, the accessibility to first-time players, and the game’s self-aware sense of humor: these are people who’ve come up against all the moon logic, loopy interfaces, timer glitches, obnoxious characters, dopey backtracking, misleading feedback, drastic shifts in tone, and convoluted plot twists the Sierra and LucasArts adventure game catalogs have to offer—and they’ve learned all the right lessons from them. Anything that ever ruined another adventure game is very probably corrected, omitted, or lampooned here.

It helps that the people behind SQ:VSB are very obviously devoted and knowledgeable fans of Space Quest. Like, all of Space Quest; not just the more popular installments. (This is an oblique criticism of how Mega Man games insist on predominantly copying Mega Man 2, by the way.) You’ll catch a glimpse of Slash Vohaul, the scientist behind the Star Generator in SQI, meet the furry cousins of the Pinkunz from SQII, fly (and promptly crash) the Aluminum Mallard from SQIII, flash back to the format countdown sequence of SQIV, visit a place that evokes nostalgia for the Genetix lab in SQV, confront a challenge that’s clearly a parody of the infamous Datacorder puzzle in SQ6, and hear at least one passing mention of other Space Quest fangames.

The humor is as ridiculous, referential, and cleverly midbrow (not quite highbrow; not quite lowbrow) as we’ve come to expect from Space Quest. The new characters fit right in alongside the old ones, and I daresay a few of them (General Forksmith and Never Kenezer being my two favorites) are some of the most amusing and/or interesting in the series. The game makes meaningful connections both great and small to all of Roger’s past adventures, all the while tying up a few loose ends that have nagged fans since as far back as whatever decade came between the ’80s and the ’00s. I cannot emphasize enough how much the developers get what Space Quest is all about. Perhaps I’ve become jaded from too many sequels and fangames that’ve missed the mark and I’m being overenthusiastic at the first sign of something different, but SQ:VSB handles the source material with respect and offers up some darn fine adventure gaming, so my enthusiasm is perfectly justifiable regardless.

SQVSB BeatriceFor example: Beatrice kicks just as much butt as ever. A lesser fangame would’ve forgotten that Roger is really the damsel in distress here.

In terms of visuals, the game is very much in line with SQ6—which is to say that I’m not wild about them. This is strictly personal preference; the graphics are perfectly fine, but I prefer the more consistent look of…well, any game in the series aside from SQ6. The stylized backgrounds are full of color and detail, and the environments all feel appropriately cold, austere, creepy, messy, silly, and so forth—each location is less like a screen with a puzzle and more like a snapshot of a real, fictional place, showing genuine signs that people live there (or die there). The character sprites are a bit of a shock by comparison, as they’re all very cartoony and relatively low-detail, but they do work to the game’s advantage: it’s easier to maintain a consistently lighthearted tone when all the heroes and villains aren’t so hyper-realistic that the serious moments get taken too seriously and the death sequences are unbearably gross.

SQVSB IntroHe’s right. Some of the deaths are still gross.

The music adds a great deal of atmosphere, harmonizing (hah!) with the graphics and the narrator’s descriptions to firmly establish the feel of each area. The very best, most wonderful interplay between the graphics and music is at the very beginning of the game—an awesome remix of the SQIII theme paired with the intro credits energetically bursting through hyperspace sets the tone for the entire game. As a Space Quest fan who’d been longing for just one more sequel to do the series justice, it took a long time to come down from that high. You might not remember most of the tunes once you’re done playing, but you don’t have to—like extras in a movie, the music is always there in the background, watching in horror as Roger does something fatally stupid again. Or something like that.

SQVSB JailGetting punched through the wall is…not how you solve the puzzle.

So you might’ve picked up on the fact that there are death sequences in this game. These deserve their own paragraph because they’re a cornerstone of the Space Quest series—some of the funniest and most creative moments in the game are often Roger’s last. Fortunately for people who never internalized the “save early, save often” maxim, SQ:VSB makes it impossible to dead-end the game in an unwinnable scenario, even after you die. There’s always a “Try Again” option that brings you back to that pivotal moment when you decide between licking that electrified fence and making a conscious effort to pretend like you’re saving the galaxy. There’s never any danger of missing a critical item before a point of no return, and the few deaths that are caused by slow reflexes can be avoided if you practice, for crying out loud turn the game speed down to the minimum—so, once again, you have no excuse not to play this game.

SQVSB Moon Cat“But…I can’t play! I’m about to be lasered to death by a Moon Cat!” NOT AN EXCUSE!

SQ:VSB holds up well on a second playthrough, if for no other reason than that there’s so much that you will miss the first time around. The developers went overboard with giving practically every character and object a unique (and worthwhile) response to practically every action you can attempt to perform on them. (Use rusty hacksaw on Beatrice? Don’t mind if I do!) There is a secret developers’ room, which is not as secret now that I’ve mentioned it, where you can chat with the people involved in making the game. That one inventory item you thought was completely useless probably is, but have you tried giving it to everybody? And you have your choice of two endings to the game (that don’t involve Roger getting punched through a wall): one of them offers the kind of closure SQ6 was never able to give the series, and the other looks like this:

SQVSB EndingThat’s right. You’ll have to wait until you’ve beaten the game for yourself to find out. Far be it from me to spoil that one of the endings sets the stage for a follow-up fangame, Space Quest: Incinerations.

If there’s any area where the game falls short, it’s probably a matter of personal preference—for me, the game’s as close to perfect as the genre has ever come (that’s a lie; Dangeresque – Roomisode 1 is legitimately perfect), but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t change anything. I’m not any wilder about the graphics now than I was four paragraphs ago. I could do without some of the more juvenile humor that very occasionally surfaces, tasteful as it may be. The interface could stand to be slightly more streamlined. There’s one brilliant room near the end of the game that I’m afraid to revisit because of its practically unavoidable visual reference to something I’d really rather never see again. My editorial disappointment with a handful of minor typos and grammatical errors—in a free-for-download fangame with an estimated 8000 lines of dialogue to proofread—has allowed me to frown at some otherwise hilarious lines. But that’s all me. From as objective a standpoint as possible, the game succeeds at everything it attempts to do; the designers can’t be held accountable if you’re a snot who can’t appreciate high-class entertainment.