The Space Bar
In these days when violent action games seem to be dominating the best-seller charts, it is indeed refreshing to see an old-fashioned thought-provoking adventure game with an offbeat theme and outlandish humor emerge on the scene. Directed by Steve Meretzky of Infocom fame, The Space Bar breaks out of the mold of recent game releases and creates quite an absorbing and fun experience.
The story in The Space Bar is a relatively conventional detective "whodunit," but the execution is highly creative and original. You assume the role of Alias Node, a human detective on the planet Armpit VI. You work for a company, Amalgamated Vacuum, as a member of a security force charged with keeping order on the planet. Your assignment is to catch a shifty alien criminal wanted for grand theft and murder before he escapes the planet. The central site for finding clues is a seedy spaceport bar called "The Thirsty Tentacle" populated by the most diverse set of aliens imaginable. The character design is done by Ron Cobb, the conceptual designer of the aliens in the famous Star Wars cantina scene, and he did a superb job in creating a fascinating assortment of odd-looking creatures.
The gameplay in The Space Bar is quite intuitive, a snap to pick up for people used to games of this type. A simple point-and-click interface allows you to use the mouse to navigate around looking for clues and talking to suspects. At the bottom of the screen is a well-designed Personal Digital Assistant that allows you to view messages, see where you are on a map, look at your stash of items and store or retrieve items from it, zoom in to see features of the PDA more clearly, save or restore games, and view important data in your log. You greet, ask about, order, or chat with the characters in the game in order to gain information on who did the dirty deed. You may solve hundreds of puzzles to conclude the case, and these pose a real challenge even to experienced game players, but it is very nice that they are all fully integrated into the game's plot rather than being grafted on artificially as in many other games. There are cases where the action becomes tedious, such as when an incredibly dense alien named Thud needs to pick up both a cranky creature named Fleebix and a bus token in order to board a bus, but the frustrations are generally few and far between. The gameplay is totally non-linear, as you can check things out in any order you wish and are not led to conduct the investigation in any particular sequence, and this is a real asset of the game. However, the reality that you are working under a tight time limit reduces your incentive just to have fun exploring all of the neat environments portrayed in the game, and the most troublesome result of the non-linearity is that one finds oneself constantly putting CDs in and out of the CD-ROM drive (the game comes on 3 CDs).
Some key innovations stand out here. First, there are smooth-motion 360 degree views of the alien environments, in which you can pan around effortlessly to see what surrounds you in any room. While this is not a unique feature among adventure games, it is nicely executed. Second, and more unusually, you can rotate objects you pick up so as to examine them from all angles. Most importantly, though, is the implementation of a truly revolutionary system for assuming the perspective of certain creatures through "Empathy Telepathy" flashbacks, in which you can view memories of the aliens through their own eyes: this feature is wonderfully done, introduces a wide range of differing environments, and really gives you unique insight into a character's personality.
The graphics in this game are really high-quality and appealing. As a lover of bizarre creatures in computer games, I have not had this much fun since Virgin Interactive released Creature Shock a few years ago. The aliens are depicted in great detail, and their animations help a great deal with their character development. The backgrounds are not intricately detailed but are nicely colored and shaded -- using the full potential of 16-bit color -- and never unintentionally garish. There is a visual atmosphere throughout that is hip, cute, and somewhat enchanting. While nobody would confuse the graphics quality with the incredible innovative beauty of SegaSoft's earlier product Obsidian or of the latest MMX-enhanced and 3Dfx-enhanced games like Ubi Soft's POD, The Space Bar more than holds its own graphically in comparison to most other adventure games.
The audio in the game is uniformly excellent. Each of the aliens in the game has a really distinctive voice, and these vocal effects are delivered in a clear and convincing manner so that you are actually drawn into the realism of the character portrayed. The mood music nicely complements the game itself -- pleasant but not too intrusive, and considerably more relaxed (promoting a sense of mystery and exploration) than the pulsating background music in many of today's popular action games. The sound effects are well-chosen and add a lot to the gameplay.
System Requirements and Comments
This game is one of the few these days that includes a separate set of disks for use with Windows 95 and the Macintosh.
Windows 95: Pentium 75 CPU, 16 MB RAM, 16-bit SVGA graphics card capable of displaying 640 by 460 pixels with 65,000 colors, 50 MB hard disk space, 8-bit Windows 95 DirectX-compatible sound card, 4X CD-ROM drive, mouse
Macintosh: PowerPC 6100 CPU, 16 MB RAM, System 7.0, 4X CD-ROM drive, color monitor.
By current standards these requirements are about average, so while the game cannot be run on a really old system it does not require the latest state-of-the-art technology.
The Space Bar is truly a well-conceived game, and the overall experience of playing it is really fun. The humor, gameplay, and enticing atmosphere work together to keep most adventure game players highly entertained for days. Although it does not dramatically advance the state of the genre, it somehow harkens back to the depth and complexity of the old games that put more emphasis on plot than on multimedia pizzazz, and so I highly recommend it for lovers of adventure games and unusual creatures