Get your ass to Mars!

After watching Blade Runner 2049, I was in the mood for some more neo-noir, so I decided to give Martian Memorandum another go. This is the second in the Tex Murphy series of point-and-click adventure games, originally released in 1991. It is one of many old school games that have been revived by and can be played on modern computers. I was even able to play it on my Mac, using Boxer/DOS Box! My review (with some minor spoilers) is below.

These games were part of a trend in the late eighties/early nineties for "interactive cinema" and featured short video clips. Similar games included S.D.I. by Cinemaware in 1986, Noctropolis by Flashpoint in 1994, Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria in 1995, and the infamous Night Trap in 1992. Unlike later "full-motion video" (FMV) games, which had very little interactivity, the early Tex Murphy games were a mix of exploration and puzzle-solving with some more arcade-style action sequences. The series was recently revived, raising half a million dollars on Kickstarter to produce the 6th game, under the working title of "Project Fedora" and released as "The Tesla Effect."

I played the first game, Mean Streets, but didn't manage to make it through to the end. Didn't have the internet back then, to look up a walkthrough for the solutions! Mean Streets was very much inspired by Blade Runner, a hard-boiled detective story set in a futuristic Los Angeles, complete with flying cars. The second game takes its cues from another Phillip K. Dick adaptation, Total Recall. This isn't to say that these games approach any of the deeper psychological themes of that source material. "Just the facts, Ma'am."

Stylistically, they do attempt to convey a similar atmosphere. Martian Memorandum was VGA only, which meant that I was unable to play it on my computer at the time. Thus, the later games passed me by. These games were at the cutting edge of what was possible with the available technology, but unfortunately they don't hold up well either aurally or visually. As you might be able to tell from the trailer, the pixelated graphics and low-fi soundtrack make the game virtually unplayable for a modern audience. Only someone seriously nostalgic for the "good old days" would be able to put up with it.

As with the first game, Tex Murphy is hired to find someone's missing daughter. You travel around L.A., talking to suspects and gathering clues. However, unlike the first game, you quick-travel from place to place rather than piloting your flying car. The trail of clues eventually leads to the off-world colonies, specifically a casino on Mars. The next section of the game involves some seriously difficult action sequences, replete with sudden death due to sprite clipping, as the following "let's play" illustrates:

The titular martian memorandum reveals a conspiracy involving an alien artefact. You have to track a mad scientist to his lair, where he is keeping the kidnapped daughter of the tycoon who hired you. The game sets up an interesting dilemma of who to give the artefact to, once you have defeated the villain: the mutants who want to liberate Mars and create a haven for themselves, or the religious zealot who claims that she will keep the artefact hidden because humanity just ain't worthy of its power. Unfortunately, the ending fizzles out and you are never offered this choice. It is uncharacteristic for a film noir style of game to have such a trite conclusion. Hopefully the next game, "Under a Killing Moon," will be better...


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