For anyone into their text adventures, the name Steve Meretzky means a lot. He was the lead designer on many classic Infocom games including Planetfall, A Mind Forever Voyaging and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - each one an absolute gem. The Space Bar, a 1997 graphic adventure developed by his co-founded company Boffo Games, was to be his last major game...
The Space Bar was to be Boffo Games second title after their well-received 1994 release Hodj & Podj. After three years in development, it was released amid little fanfare by SegaSoft. Consequently, it became a financial failure despite some solid reviews which lead to the company's unfortunate demise. Meretzky would continue working in the industry at WorldWinner but it appears their entire catalogue consists of nothing but shovelware.
The Space Bar has since grown a little in stature, being revered by adventure enthusiasts and even appearing in Just Adventure's top 100 games of all time. That being said, I've never really got on with this game. I first played it sometime in the late 90s at a time when I was in awe with CGI creations and flocked to any game that featured them. The pre-rendered graphics weren't exactly groundbreaking in 1997 but it had a style that I just loved. I installed the game and was excited by the intro but I couldn't get to grips with the actual game.
You begin the game in a nefarious bar tasked with solving a murder, but everything is open to you. You can talk to anyone and everyone and even enter their memories for a bit, but there's a strict time limit which means you've little time to explore or experiment - a design flaw that kills the game for me. After a short amount of time not really getting anywhere, I gave up and uninstalled it from my 1 gigabyte hard drive (it sounded like so much back then!).
Years later, after spending so much time getting the damn thing working again, I was determined to give it more of a chance. The longer I played, the more I began to appreciate what Metezky does so well - writing. The script is often hilarious with some fascinating characters, each with quirky personalities and interesting motivations. Where once I was impatient, wishing they would shut up so I could continue the actual game, I now relish these conversations. Then I realised the game was not so directionless as I thought.
You are Alias Node, a human police officer on the planet fittingly known as Armpit VI. On patrol one night you and your alien partner named Maksh withness a fellow cop's murder by a shapeshifting criminal. Your superior officer sends you both undercover to a space bar named The Thirsty Tentacle, a local establishment known for playing host to some dodgy patrons. If you talk to any one character for long enough, you will be able to use your Empathy Telepathy Training and enter their memories to gather more clues and find out which one is your culprit. These memories, which are the crux of the game, are like little adventure games in themselves. It's a brilliant concept that makes me want to truly explore the minds of each individual were it not for that pesky time limit demanding that I shouldn't. Time doesn't advance like a clock or timer but instead progresses with each click of the mouse. I suppose a click-limit would be a more accurate way to describe it. It's existence is to give the world a sense of reality by simulating agency within all characters, not just your own. They're not just sitting there waiting for you to talk to them but seemingly have their own preoccupations. Or they do when you reach a certain number of clicks.
The memories you inhabit are each unique and filled with invention. Whether you are an immovable sentient tree or a an insectoid with multi-vision, each point of view has been treated with a lot of care and attention. So too are the aliens themselves. They're created by Ron Cobb, a creature designer best known for the cantina scene in Star Wars. While the animation now looks a bit jerky due to the game's age and budget, they each have a believability in the crazy world in which they exist.
While playing, you can tell Meretzky has a background in the text adventure. There's a lot of well-written dialogue in an interestingly offbeat environment. The tone reminds me of his earlier games with some devious puzzles that almost reach moon logic proportions. But like his best of adventures, there is a logic to them and it's fun trying to figure out what it is.
I found almost everthing in this game to be of high qualit filled with entertainingly quirky moments. The only thing that lets it down - and it does so in a major way - is the time limit. For a game that invites you to see all that the crazy sights have to offer, it actively punishes you for wanting to do so. It's a badly implemented mechanic that ruins an otherwise excellent, well written game.
To download the game, follow the link below. This exclusive installer uses the DOSBox Daum build of DOSBox 0.74 running Windows '95. Manual included. Tested on Windows 7 and Windows 10.
IMPORTANT - Remember to shut down the emulated version of Windows before exiting DOSBox. This could potentially result in errors, lost saves and corrupt data. Press Ctrl-F9 when it is safe to do so.
The Space Bar is © Boffo Games / SegaSoftReview, Cover Design and Installer created by me