Welcome to a new installment into the Nostalgia Trigger repertoire that I’m calling RETROspectives! In this series, I’ll revisit three PC games from 1987-1992 – the first five years that I, your host, have existed in human form.
I must say, I am very excited to talk about this game today. This is one of the oldest games I remember playing and one of my favorite gaming experiences that stands out whenever I think back to my younger years. This was and still is one of the toughest and frustrating games out there, and if you’ve played it before, I’m sure you’re with me on that.
What’s also really cool about this game is that with the advancement of browser technology, right after you finish reading this article, you can experience the entire game, for free, right in your browser. That way you can experience this infuriating and incredible and incredibly infuriating game at your own leisure and with no upfront cost. Score!
I welcome you all to take a nostalgic trip back to discuss three great games that were a staple of my childhood. In this first part of what I intend to be a three-part series, I present to you all: Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel.
Introduction and Formation of Sierra On-Line
It was the tail-end of the 1970s when a two-person game development operation On-Line Systems was born out of Simi Valley, California. Of course, this was before the term “startup” was prevalent, and certainly far from the modern stereotypical startup lifestyle, filled with free snacks and ping-pong tables and kegerators. Little known to the founders Ken and Roberta Williams, a husband and wife team of gamers dissatisfied with the text-only adventure game offerings available at that time, this tiny company would revolutionize the adventure game as we know it, and grow to become Sierra On-Line, the 12th-largest computer software firm, in less than five years.
The culmination of all this work during the early to mid-1980s was the Adventure Game Interpreter, a top of the line game engine with the capability to run colorized adventure games, with full audio and animation. The games developed in this engine comprised of static graphic layers, a character whose directional movement was controlled by the player, “hotspots” on the screen that could trigger events and map changes, and all actions were performed entirely by entering text. It was a modern take on the text-adventure game style. A handful of games, many of which with titles ending in “Quest,” started to get released throughout the latter-half of the decade using this Adventure Game Interpreter, until it was phased out in 1988 in favor of Sierra On-Line’s new technology. But today we’re not here to talk about that new technology. We’re keeping it old school!
The “Quest” Games
Following the success of the first three King’s Quest installments, along with Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry, a new series was born, Police Quest. Ken Williams, the original founder of Sierra On-Line, had befriended a retired highway patrolman by the name of Jim Walls. Williams convinced him to join him on a new career endeavor, citing Walls’ extensive knowledge of police work the missing piece to the puzzle. Walls was hired by Sierra On-Line as a game designer, and what resulted was a series of Police Quest games, the first of which is the subject of today.
Enter: Sonny Bonds!
When you start the game, you assume the role of police officer Sonny Bonds working a fictional town in suburban California, on what appears to be a mundane day of traffic duty. What’s in store for him today? Routine traffic stops, or busting a major drug dealer?! Only time will tell.
Controlling Sonny is done in two main ways – first, the directional arrow keys to toggle his walking direction, and secondly, by typing commands into the interpreter. Taking a walk over to the showers is where your quest truly begins, in a rather.. mundane.. fashion. But police procedure is of the utmost importance in this game – something that you will learn quickly. Following a quick shower, a change of clothes, and perhaps trying to enter an already-occupied bathroom stall, you report to your morning briefing.
At the briefing, Sergeant Dooley has some rather unsettling news: use of hard narcotics has been on the rise amongst Lytton teenagers! Who is supplying these kids with cocaine? And thus begins your quest.
“This is a pretty challenging game, how am I supposed to know how to do anything?” I am glad you asked.
The Police Indoctrination Guide
As mentioned earlier, In Pursuit of the Death Angel was the first of three games in the Police Quest lineup that were designed by former police officer Jim Walls, which I find fascinating in itself. And as realism was the sole purpose of bringing Walls on the team, what resulted is a labyrinth of text-entry where police procedure must be by the book. Arguably, the story-telling aspect is secondary to proper procedure, a point that’s made evident by the point counter in the top left of the screen. Each time you do something correctly in the story, you get a point. Again – by the book!
Speaking of books, there was a literal book included with the game that would be required reading if you intended on completing the game at the highest score. Realistically, it was required reading for getting past the first five minutes without rage-quitting. Reading is a big part of this game – you’re going to be skimming over the Indoctrination Guide as well as on-screen subtitled dialogue most of the time.
The Indoctrination Guide itself contains all the information you could ever need to be a police officer, at least in the confines of Police Quest. Arrest procedures, penal codes, the importance of daily showering; all of these things are detailed in the ‘Guide, and you will be making frequent references to it – so keep it close by! While written for use in a video game, it is actually fairly accurate for what it is. Of course, being authored by a former police officer helps, and it definitely shows in the level of detail it has.
It’s a quick read if you want to be thorough – a mere 20 or so pages, mostly taken up by radio codes – but fortunately for the player, it provides a bit of a crash course for the first few minutes of play, near the tail-end of the guide. It guides you through to the point of entering your squad car and ending what you could call the “Introductory” section, although truly nothing in this game resembles a tutorial whatsoever. The first section merely doesn’t punish you with a Game Over every time you make the smallest mistake.
After hopping in your squad car, you are free to leave the station, drive around town, and protect and serve.
The Most Difficult Driving Simulator Ever Created?
The world of Lytton itself is vast and easy to get lost in. Luckily, when you crack open the beautiful big PC game box, along with your Indoctrination Guide, you will find a map detailing the town of Lytton. During gameplay you are free to drive your squad car anywhere around the city, talking to everyone and solving crimes. Or at least when you’re able to advance the plot.
The game itself is open for you to explore, and can be called one of the first open world games, although it is still very linear in where you have to go to advance the plot. The driving user interface is very rudimentary – cars are represented by little colored rectangles and stop lights little red and green squares.
As soon as you begin driving for the first time, you will notice something: driving is excruciatingly difficult. Furthermore, a crash is an instant Game Over for you! Driving the car correctly without crashing into a building was probably harder than most of the regular game itself. Unlike Sonny’s movement, you can drive the car diagonally, but it’s still very difficult at times. Looking at the map, you can see that there’s a diagonal highway that goes across town. While it is possible to drive on the highway, it’s pretty dangerous and not recommended. Where this highway mostly causes issue is when you have to drive underneath it. It’s very easy to lose your car completely and go into a panic when it resurfaces. I should mention now that you need to obey traffic lights. Add in the psychotic drivers and tailgaters, and you have yourself a dangerous situation.
There’s also the speed of the game to consider. You are actually able to change the internal clock speed of the game to fine tune how quickly Sonny moves, but that also transfers to how fast the car drives. As you can imagine, it’s very convenient to be able to walk faster (Sonny walks about as fast as sap drips out of tree), but not so convenient when you hop in your car, forget you had the speed turned up, gain control of the car, and immediately plow into a building. Particularly when you haven’t saved recently. As the speed of the car is dreadfully slow by default, making the speed any faster makes mistakes pretty much unavoidable.
Throughout the game, there are points where you need to chase down and pull over vehicles. When the sirens are activated, the squad car moves at about double speed, further enhancing the difficulty. You will need to drive a lot, and park correctly, throughout this game. It’s panic-attack inducing stuff, people, trust me.
I fondly recall the first time playing this with my friend, and bursting out laughing the first time we had to drive somewhere. And not because of the graphics necessarily, but the sheer absurdity of the whole thing, which should be relatively simple to control. But it was fun, and while getting frustrated isn’t fun, somehow Police Quest made you want to try again. To aim for that higher score, to get across town without killing yourself, or turning blinding into a dead-end and crashing. It’s that “silly fun” I keep talking about, and it added such character to the game. A trait that so many games today lack.
Easter Eggs Galore
This game has so much packed into it, every time I played it I ran into different funny situations. There are plenty of laughs shoved into the gameplay, both developer-intentional and otherwise, and messing around with the text interpreter can yield some pretty fantastic results.
- take your clothes off at random (REMOVE CLOTHES)
- try to enter a bathroom stall that is occupied (OPEN DOOR)
- change into only a towel, and walk out of the locker room
- go North from the starting point, type USE COMPUTER, search for any profanity
- while driving, pull over an attractive woman, and type “HAVE SEX”
A Gaming Classic
This game was the first one its kind that I had every played, and it was definitely a challenge getting into as a young kid. I imagine for a first timer trying to play in 2017, it would be even worse. But there is some value to learning the police process – it manages to connect you to Sonny Bonds; to put you in his uniform and feel a sudden surge of responsibility, and a duty to protect and serve. It’s a video game thriller that was far ahead of its time, managing to somehow tell a great cop story with the limited technology available.
Looking at the game without rose-colored glasses may not make this so obvious if this is your first timing hearing about this game, but if you allow yourself to sink into the game a little bit and see where it takes you, Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel will make you glad you did. It is truly a video game antique.
I hope you enjoyed this look back to one of my favorite games of all time – it was a great experience going back and re-playing some of it, although my patience was tested many times and a lot of it was written from nostalgia alone. That’s the thing about nostalgia – sometimes you can just put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and let the happy memories come flowing out!
Oh yes – I mentioned earlier: this game is entirely playable, for free, right in your browser!
I’d love to hear some feedback from anyone actually attempting to get anywhere in this game, particularly those who have never played it before! I’m sure there are others out there who have experienced Police Quest. I’d love to hear your memories from the game!
Thanks for reading – next time we’ll be revisiting a game that’s sure to put you into a quandary…