Thursday, 26 May 2016

Remembering… Sierra On-Line games

Remembering… Sierra On-Line games

We recall a ground-breaking, but often risqué developer from the early PC

Hands up those of you old enough to remember King’s Quest? What about Space Quest? Or the Leisure Suit Larry games? These three game series for the early PC are some of the most iconic. Show a screenshot to anyone who’s 40 years old or more, and they’ll be able to tell you the difference between Police Quest and Space Quest, and how rubbing berries on yourself is a good thing to avoid being eaten by a swamp monster.

The Sierra On-Line graphical adventure games were way ahead of their time, in terms of both the number of locations, graphical content, interaction with the player and quite often, risqué content, especially in the form of Leisure Suit Larry.

Basically put, if you owned a PC in the 80s, then there’s a pretty good chance you had at least one of the Sierra On-Line titles, stuffed in the drawer of your computer desk. They were games that created a generation of digital adventurers. Where once gamers worked with static images and countless commands to enter on their 8-bit adventures, Sierra On-Line brought a level of interaction and complexity that hadn’t yet been seen. It was quite an incredible achievement.

Fast forward some years later, and Sierra On-Line pushed the boundaries again, both in graphics, interaction and content, with the release of the full-motion video point-and-click game Phantasmagoria. With scenes of violence and even a rape scene, Phantasmagoria certainly brought with it a hefty amount of controversy – enough to shock several groups into actively banning it. But that only encouraged sales of the game.

For me, the best Sierra On-Line game was Space Quest 2: Vohaul’s Revenge. With a perfectly pitched level of comedy and a great graphical puzzle to work out, it’s the one game in the entire Sierra library that really stood out for me (also, I was never allowed to play Leisure Suit Larry at home).

Its History

Although the name Sierra On-Line started in 1982, the company dates back to 1979, when the company was known as On-Line Systems.

It was founded by husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams, who started out programming graphical adventures for the Apple II, with the company’s first game Mystery House.

The success of early titles such as Mystery House, Wizard and Princess and even a Pac-Man clone called Jawbreaker, saw the company enjoying an influx of cash. Never one to shy away from controversy, the company also released a game called Softporn Adventure, with a decidedly risqué cover involving a hot-tub and some of the female members of the company.

By the mid-90s, Sierra On-Line was one of the successful companies in PC gaming and valued at over $15 million dollars. By 1990, the most successful game from the Sierra On-Line stable was released, King’s Quest V, which sold more than 500,000 copies – a record that wasn’t beaten for years.

Phantasmagoria, though, became the best selling game of the company, in 1995. Grossing over $12 million and selling 300,000 copies in the first weekend, it was only beaten by Windows 95 and Microsoft Plus!

The Good

Great point-and-click games, with cheeky humour, superb graphics and mind-bending puzzles.

The Bad

The content was often quite unnecessary, and in the case of Phantasmagoria it was a little too much for most gamers.


Despite the controversial content, Sierra On-Line games made an important mark on PC gaming history. While looking very dated nowadays, they still bring back some fond memories.

Did You Know?

• The hot-tub image women are (from left to right): Diane Siegel, On-Line’s production manager; Susan Davis, the company bookkeeper; Rick Chapman, a waiter from a local restaurant, and Roberta Williams.

• CompUSA, a retailer, refused to stock Phantasmagoria when it was released.

• Mystery House is considered the first graphical adventure game.

• Police Quest is based on the experiences of real-life highway patrol officer Jim Walls.