The Tex Murphy series is one I’ve long wanted to try, which is why I have all 6 of them in my backlog.
I’ve now played the first two, 1989’s Mean Streets and 1991’s Martian Memorandum. And so far they’re interesting games filled with odd contradictions. It’s an adventure game, with a driving sim in it. It’s a point and click, but there’s no mouse interface. It’s got FMV, but it’s not utterly crap.
Ultimately, do I recommend them? No and Yes. On balance I don’t recommend Mean Streets, there’s too much waiting around. But I do recommend Martian Memorandum.
Both Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum (and probably the remaining 4 games in the series) are sci-fi noir. You play a hard-boiled PI who’s taking a job for a dame with a case…also your car flies. It’s equal parts Blade Runner and Mike Hammer.
The first game, Mean Streets, is the less focused of the two. The game’s mechanics are basically:
- Speak to a witness. They will give you the names of other witnesses, some key words to ask them, and some locations that you should go to. As this is a 1989 game, you have to write down the names/keywords/etc on a piece of paper.
- You then hop into your flying car and call your office support staff. Repeat any interesting names or key words to her, and she may send you more names/keywords/locations. If you’re stuck, you can call an informant, but you’ll have to pay them.
- Input the next “location code” into your flying car. You can then play an awful and pointless 90s flying car sim, or you can press “autopilot” and read a book while the slowly game plays itself (another game fond of masturbation).
- When your car arrives at the new location, there’s either a witness there (so repeat steps 1 to 3 above) or you’ll phsycially investigate the area. This involves you walking around a single room looking for items, solving puzzles and disarming traps in a clunky proto-point-and-click with no mouse.
- Sometimes when you get out at a location you’ll be jumped by thugs. The game then turns into a late 80s side-scrolling action game, where you advance left to right while shooting an endless stream of thugs.
There’s two ways you can fail in Mean Streets. First, you can die – usually by failing to solve a puzzle but also by getting shot in the action-sequences. Second, you run out of money. You’ll spend money on ammunition (without which you’ll die in the action sequences) and on bribing witnesses or your informant.
The bulk of the game is writing down a list of names and location codes, then methodically working your way through them. The puzzle sequences are of sufficient frequency that the game is definately not a “visual novel”, and they’re quite fun, if a little prone to suddenly killing you in what I’m going to call Sierra-death.
Overall the game works quite well. It creates a good atmosphere, you’ll feel like a real investigator as you work through your list of leads and the unfolding plot is quite interesting (although, of course, very hackneyed). There’s so few sci-fi-noir games that the central conceit works quite well.
The reason I don’t recommend it is flying car sequences.
It’s not just that they’re bad, it’s that they’re incessant. You have to fly this stupid car every time you go to a new location. I’m guessing that it’s there because someone had made half a flying-car-racing sim and they figured they may as well stitch it into this game. It’s surprisingly detailed – complete with a consistent map and buildings, altitutde controls; especially for 1989 it’s visually quite advanced. Except it’s utterly pointless and dull as ditchwater. Imagine that you’re playing Monkey Island, but before every new location (or back to an old location) you had to watch 5 minute clip of a man in a taxi. It’s infuriating.
I should add that for 1989 the graphics in Mean Streets were nothing short of astounding (they were obviously going for that “games as cinema” fad at the time). But in 2018, I can’t recommend it. It’s not horrible, and fortunately it’s not too long, so if you’re keen to try it out you won’t hate the experience. But there are better adventure games.
Speaking of better adventure games, the sequel, Martian Memorandum, came out in 1991.
It made a lot of changes to the original, although the central idea is much the same. Talk to witness, get information, go to location, solve puzzles in a proto-point-and-click. But there’s a few significant changes:
- Some of the witness interactions are considerably more complex, even featuring glorious 90s FMV. Sometimes witnesses won’t help you unless you give them certain items, and sometimes they won’t help you until you convince them by navigating a conversation tree.
- The game now keeps a list of all your keywords and locatioons, so you don’t have to write them down yourself.
- The physical locations are fleshed out so that many of them are locations rather than puzzle rooms (e.g. alleyways that lead to the place a witness might be waiting). This makes the game world feel more fleshed out.
- There’s an in-game hint list. Which is way better than the internet because it doesn’t just give you the answer.
- The hover car is cut. Thank God.
- The action game sequences are also cut, although they worked in one “skateboard around the lasers” sequence that does not fit the flow. I feel like there was this one guy in the dev team who really wanted to make a NES game, and he keeps sneqking sequences in when no-one’s looking.
The big change was really the witnesses. FMV was obviously a big deal in 1991, and the idea of navigating the conversations trees is quite clever; you need to guess what the best approach is based on their body language, what you know about them, etc. It is an improvement on Mean Streets, although sometimes the way in which you’re supposed to convince people is utterly nonsensical, and if you get it wrong you’ve got to reload and sit through the whole damn sequence again. One sequence in particular drove me up the wall, because it turns out this game designer had some pretty weird ideas about how to chat up girls.
Your date asked “do you like my dress?”. The correct answer is to compliment her tits. Smooth.
There were a few times that I had to look up the net to figure out how to convince a witness to help. I could have done it by trial and error, but seriously, why should I? Speaking of trial and error, there’s not too much of it in there, but there’s enough to be annoying. Some of the witness conversation sequences were like that, and one unforgiveable part where you have to navigate a series of identical stepping stones, some of which kill you. Because by God we love this picture of Tex drowning and we’re determined to show it as much as we can.
I hated this sequence so much.
There’s also a few spots where you can unwittingly “zombie” your game by failing to pick up an item and leaving the area. I almost had to restart the entire game half-way through for this reason, and searched around for hours looking for the answer before I finally snapped, checked the internet, and learned I was stuck. Fortunately, that can only appen in about two or three spots.
But overall? Yes, it’s quite enjoyable. It’s not a terribly good puzzle game, but what it lacks in puzzle complexity it makes up in narrative and style. Looking forward to the next one in the series – 1994’s Under a Killing Moon.
Release date: 1989 and 1991
Purchase date: 22 November 2014
Complete date: Mean Streets – approx July 2016, Martian Memorandum – July 2018
Platform: PC (via GOG)
Time spent: Approx 8 hours each
Lead creatives: Bruce Carver is listed as “director” for Mean Streets, and Chris Jones and Brent Erickson are listed as “designers” for Martian Memorandum.
Developer: Access Software
Publisher: Access Software (mostly)
Recommended if: The comic to the right makes you smile –>
Not recommended if: You don’t enjoy retro-camp.
* The fifth game is apparently an updated version of the first game, so you could arguably discount it.