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From King's Quest to Leisure Suit Larry: A Brief History of Sierra On-Line

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If you had a home computer in the 1980s, you probably played at least one adventure game from Sierra On-Line. Here’s a brief history of the company - and the games - that helped define a generation of computer geeks.

Hi-Res Adventures

In 1979, Roberta Williams’ husband, Ken, a programmer, bought an Apple II. When he wasn’t coding, she was playing early text-based computer games like Colossal Cave Adventure. These early games featured short bits of text to describe the environments the player encountered, and then used a simple verb-noun command system (i.e., “get rock”) to interact with the world. After playing through every game she could find, Roberta convinced Ken to help create Mystery House, a game she had written based on And Then There Were None, an Agatha Christie novel about ten people trapped inside a house with a killer.

But rather than make just another text adventure game, Roberta upped the ante by drawing simple digital pictures of 70 rooms inside the titular mansion. Now, when a player entered a new area, they saw a picture on the top half of the screen, with the normal description and command interface below. It sounds simple by today’s standards, but it was actually the first computer adventure game to have graphics.

The couple sold Mystery House in 1980 in Los Angeles computer stores and via mail order for $24.99. The packaging consisted of a Ziploc baggie containing a 5 1/4" floppy disk and a photocopied instruction manual. Surprisingly, the game became a blockbuster, selling 10,000 copies, a phenomenal amount at the time. So, under Ken's existing business name, On-Line Systems, the couple started creating more games for what they called the Hi-Res Adventure series.

Between 1980 and 1983, the company created six Hi-Res Adventures, including The Wizard and the Princess, the first computer game with color graphics, and their first licensed game based on Jim Henson’s film, The Dark Crystal. However, their most ambitious project was 1982’s Time Zone, consisting of 1,500 areas to explore, spanning over six double-sided floppy disks. Considering most games at the time didn’t even fill a single-sided floppy, Time Zone was a massive game; however, at $99, it wasn’t a massive success. The strong sales of the other Hi-Res games more than made up for it, though.

King’s Quest

As their business grew, Ken and Roberta moved in 1982 from L.A. to Oakhurst, California, near Yosemite National Park. They also changed the company’s name to Sierra On-Line to reflect their new base of operations near the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

That same year, Sierra entered into a partnership with IBM, who wanted a game that would show off the capabilities of their forthcoming home computer. Inspired by her love of childhood fairy tales, Roberta wrote King’s Quest, which told the story of Sir Graham, a young knight who must go in search of three treasures that will save the kingdom of Daventry from destruction.

Although they could have used the same graphic-and-text formula of the Hi-Res series, Sierra went above and beyond and instead developed a semi-3-D graphic environment. Players moved the star of the game around the screen using the keyboard arrow keys, and then interacted with the environment with the same verb-noun commands used in text-based games.

Although the idea was revolutionary, it almost went by unnoticed. King’s Quest was written for the IBM PCjr, a computer that TIME called, “one of the biggest flops in the history of computing.” For a variety of reasons, including a high price, poor expandability, and an uncomfortable keyboard, it’s estimated that only 500,000 models were ever sold. And as the computer sunk, it threatened to take King’s Quest down with it. Thankfully, Sierra maintained the rights to the game and scrambled to port it to other systems, like Tandy, Apple II, Atari ST, Amiga, and Commodore, where it found a large and enthusiastic audience.

In all, there were seven sequels to King’s Quest, making it the longest-running and most-successful of Sierra’s game series.

Space Quest

After King’s Quest, Sierra created many “edutainment” games for kids, as well as a video game version of the new Disney animated fairy tale, The Black Cauldron. As they finished development on Black Cauldron, employees Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe wanted to get away from fantasy settings for a change, so they pitched the idea of a sci-fi spoof akin to The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy. The collaboration of the self-dubbed “Two Guys From Andromeda” became 1986’s Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter.

Space Quest follows Roger Wilco, a janitor aboard an interstellar spaceship (his name is borrowed from the abbreviation of the radio communication, “Roger, Will Comply”). When Roger stumbles out of the broom closet where he’d been napping, he discovers he’s the only surviving member of the crew – the rest were killed by the evil aliens, the Sariens. Now it’s up to him to prevent the destruction of his home planet of Xenon at the hands of Sarien leader, Sludge Vohaul.

The game was filled with humor, including sly references to famous sci-fi franchises, most of the puzzles had funny solutions, and even dying in the game was good for a laugh. Unfortunately, not everyone got the joke. For example, Sierra was sued by Toys R Us because a store in the game was called Droids R Us. Even the sharp dressed men of ZZ Top didn’t appreciate their pixelated likenesses as the house band at a saloon (the other band in the bar, the Blues Brothers, apparently didn’t mind). When Sierra remade Space Quest in 1991 with updated sound and graphics, they changed the store name to Droids B Us. However, despite the suit, ZZ Top was still in early versions of the remake, though they were later replaced with an alien band.

Space Quest became a huge hit, selling over 100,000 copies, and spawned five sequels. If you were one of the many who loved the series, you might be interested to know that The Two Guys have recently reunited and are working on another spoof sci-fi adventure game together.

Leisure Suit Larry

The comedy in Space Quest was clearly influenced by films like Blazing Saddles and Airplane!, but it never had any of the more adult humor that peppered those satires. That kind of crude-but-not-too-crude humor was reserved for 1987’s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. The game starred loveable loser Larry Laffer, and the whole point of the game – and its five official sequels – was to help Larry get lucky.

For many people at the time, the idea of a video game for grown-ups was quite novel. However, LSL was actually inspired by an earlier Sierra game from 1981 called Softporn Adventure. The text-only game put the player on a similar quest as Larry and featured much of the same bathroom humor and none-too-subtle double-entendres. In fact, some of Softporn’s jokes and scenarios were recycled for LSL by series creator Al Lowe.

Sierra released Leisure Suit Larry in 1987 without fanfare in an effort to avoid any bad publicity. Still, many retailers refused to carry the game because of its subject matter. But thanks to good word of mouth, the game sold over 250,000 copies in its first year, and was named one of the best games of 1988 by the Software Publishers Association. Sierra noticed a strange anomaly in its sales figures – they’d sold more hint books for the game than they had copies of the game. This led Larry to receive the unofficial title of the Most Pirated Game Ever.

Proving you can’t keep a good man down, Larry is making a comeback thanks to Kickstarter. Al Lowe has teamed up with Replay Games to bring you Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards Reloaded, a remake of the original game for PC, Mac, and tablets.

Other Games

Police Quest debuted in 1987 and spawned two direct sequels. Created by former police officer Jim Walls, the game was a realistic crime drama with many puzzles that could only be solved if the player used proper police procedures. This reportedly led to the game’s use as a training tool in some police departments. The series later morphed into Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT after the former LAPD Chief signed on as a consultant, and moved away from puzzles to more action-oriented gameplay.

Author Jane Jensen cut her teeth on King’s Quest VI before taking the reins on Gabriel Knight. The game followed Knight, a demon hunter, investigating a series of murders in New Orleans with a paranormal element. The game won quite a few Best Of awards in 1994 and continued with two sequels in 1995 and 1999. Jensen has since started her own game studio and is very close to having a successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a new series of adventure games in the same vein as Gabriel Knight.

Roberta Williams ventured into Gothic horror with 1995’s Phantasmagoria. The game used real actors performing over computer generated backgrounds, and included video cutscenes, some of which featured controversial moments of graphic violence and an implied rape. As a result, many retailers refused to sell the game and it was actually banned in Australia. Despite this, it sold over 1 million copies, making it the best-selling Sierra game ever, and inspired a sequel, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh. Roberta has also called it the game she is most proud of in her career.

Quest for Glory was a five-game series that added role-playing elements to the signature Sierra adventure game, to offer clever takes on the tropes of the fantasy genre. The series gave the player the choice to be any one of three characters, whose style of play would have an impact on the final outcome of the game.

End of an Era

After 15 years creating influential games, Sierra On-Line was purchased by CUC International in 1996 for a reported $1.6 billion. By 1999, they were no longer creating games, but simply published them for small, independent studios. For about the next decade, the company would be bought and sold many times before finally landing with Activision, which shuttered Sierra in 2008, bringing an end to a truly remarkable era in computer games.
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Did you have a favorite Sierra On-Line game back in the day?

Google Street View Now Lets You Explore the International Space Station

Google Street View covers some amazing locations (Antarctica, the Grand Canyon, and Stonehenge, to name a few), but it’s taken until now for the tool to venture into the final frontier. As TechCrunch reports, you can now use Street View to explore the inside of the International Space Station.

The scenes, photographed by astronauts living on the ISS, include all 15 modules of the massive satellite. Viewers will be treated to true 360-degree views of the rooms and equipment onboard. Through the windows, you can see Earth from an astronaut's perspective and a SpaceX Dragon craft delivering supplies to the crew.

Because the imagery was captured in zero gravity, it’s easy to lose sense of your bearings. Get a taste of what ISS residents experience on a daily basis here.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.


59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.


116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.


74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.


111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.


430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.


327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.


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