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Wot I Think: Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded

Al Lowe, Al Lowe, what's all this then?

Featured post Note to Americans - it's pronounced 'leisure'. Stop with this 'leeesure' silliness at once.

So, to recap… Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded is a 2013 remake of a 1991 game based on a 1987 game based on a text adventure from 1981 about a guy with his head in the 1970s. Yow. Ordinarily, that would lead to the question “Why?” This time though, the answer is simple: “14,081 Kickstarter backers donated over $650,000 to make it happen, so shut up.”

There’s no arguing with that, really. But are the final results worth the faith?

In the unlikely event that you’ve never heard of this series, here’s a quick primer. Leisure Suit Larry is basically gaming’s Citizen Kane, in every sense except that creator Al Lowe was never reduced to shilling for frozen peas to pay the bills. Now, I know that sounds a tiny bit unlikely given its reputation, but work with me. It controversially broke from industry tradition to do brave new things with the medium, launched to massive distribution problems as a result of political pressures, took ages to be recognised as something notable, and has long been referenced and decisively judged by people who’ve never actually checked it out for themselves. Sure, on the surface it seems to be a series about a 40 year old virgin trying to get laid, and its equivalent of the Rosebud scene is probably a really cheap joke about boobies. Even so, the parallels are nigh perfect. Really, all that’s missing is some connection to the peas, see, and-

GAAAAAAAAAAASP!

Spooky. Anyway, despite this connection to the official second greatest movie ever (the greatest of course being Gremlins 2), Larry has never had much respect. Where people go wrong is to think of his adventures as sex games rather than comedies about sex, and even that makes them sound raunchier than they actually are. These are adventures where even nudity gets saved for Easter Eggs, actual sex was only ever implied or happened behind a big CENSORED box, and Larry’s quest was typically (at least in the original trilogy, admittedly less so later) about finding his One True Love rather than just scoring a casual shag from whoever.

That’s certainly the case here, where you can get him laid with a hooker with relatively little trouble in the very first location, but the adventure still continues through the streets of Las Vegas alike town Lost Wages until Larry finds someone who lifts his heart as well as lowers his zipper. The humour is naughty and the ladies bouncy, but the action is harmless and the humour usually good natured and properly contextualised rather than feeling like The New Adventures Of Captain Creepy. Hell, next to most modern comedies, it’s quaintly innocent fare.

If you didn't know this game was crowdfunded by Kickstarter before, no way will you not by the time it ends...

Judging this remake specifically is a little tricky (and honestly, it doesn’t really feel like $650,000 worth of game, especially given the original titles that other Kickstarter pitches are currently pulling off with much, much less), but let’s start with the easy bits. Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded looks fantastic, with mostly excellent new versions of the game’s environments that largely build on the VGA version but certainly aren’t tied to it. The casino area for instance has the same spiral elevator, but instead of simply being “Casino”, is now themed up as the groanworthy “Caesar’s Phallus”. Go through the back door at Lefty’s Bar in the original VGA remake, and you’ll find a few boxes scattered to fill the space. Reloaded fills that room with lovingly drawn crap, all of which can be poked and prodded for free jokes and cheap puns.

Audio-wise, it’s equally splendid. The whole game is voiced, aside from inventory interactions, with the highlights being Jan Rabson returning as the voice of Larry, and his new narrator, who unfortunately isn’t Neil Ross this time, but does a good job of serving up both regular sardonic enthusiasm and the regular back-and-forth conversations of the last couple of proper Larry games. Also worth a shout is Austin Wintory’s great soundtrack, both for fitting the mood beautifully, and for being performed by an actual band rather than just an uppity synth. It really boosts the experience, weaving the classic Larry theme in and around brand new compositions a world away from the original game’s catchy but primitive bleeps and bloops.

In the name of Science, I did some calculations. There were 6 original Leisure Suit Larry games, in which Larry attempts to seduce approximately 33 women, succeeding with 7 for an average hit rate of Christ I need a girlfriend.

Behind these modern trappings though still sits a game from 1987, and while Larry Reloaded is able to polish it in many ways, it neither manages to hide its age, nor really tries to rework it that much. More often, it’s proud of it, with the game still set in the 80s and leaving in things like both the (still frustratingly America-centric) age-verification quiz at the start, and the cheat code to skip past it. Can’t be bothered? Just press CTRL-ALT-X. You’re welcome. There’s also no hint system, or any guidance whatsoever. Get ready to spend a lot of time staring at the taxi screen if you don’t already know what you’re doing – and a fair amount even if you do.

Puzzle design also remains as it was, rooted in the 80s, with a few details changed, but only very slightly. Originally, a password needed to get to the hooker in Lefty’s Bar was hidden in toilet graffiti, now it’s written on a mirror in the same room. There are a couple of similar moments, but none make anything particularly more complicated, or even really seize the chance to throw in new jokes. Why bother then? No idea at all. The new ending is dreadful too – abrupt and somehow even less satisfying than the original’s spluttering climax.

There are plenty of cool extras though, like a smoky cabaret song about Kickstarter, and some very welcome mechanics fixes. Death sequences for instance have been completely reworked. They’re still there, but now you’re just put back where you were, and all the game’s dead ends have been fixed. The worst thing that can happen is running out of money, but even then, it’s only because playing slot machines is so dull. End up broke, and you can just walk out onto the street. A passing bum will always be there to take pity on Larry and flip him a few bucks to get back on his feet. Perfect. Unlike the pointless puzzle edits, that both sorts one of the game’s problems, and adds a funny humiliation to Larry’s ever growing list of shame.

There should be a mini-game just for old-school Sierra watchers. Every pun that comes along, hit a key to guess whether it was written by Al Lowe or Josh Mandel. For Al Lowe'd Ground, press X. If it's Just Joshing, press M.

The biggest individual addition is a new girl, perfume loving diver Jasmine. Unfortunately, she’s also one of the weakest, featuring sloppy design and not many laughs. The item with the key needed to reach her is annoyingly hidden and doesn’t (at least in the review code) produce it until you’re supposed to have it – an official adventure game design crime. The rest of her puzzles are just dull, don’t even properly justify why Larry would risk getting in trouble to go see her in the first place, and the whole segment feels exactly as bolted on as it is.

Honestly, while it’s good to have at least a few minutes of the game that players haven’t seen before, this feels like a waste. If we were going to get a new girl, I’d much rather it had been something like a sarcastic blackjack dealer to replace the casino’s boring slot machines and make the mandatory gambling bits of the game a little more interesting than the usual save-scumming. As with a few things, the machines were a cool novelty back in in 1987. Now though, just throwing up a mini-game feels like a cop-out – especially after more character driven experiences like Telltale’s Poker Night and Larry 7’s own Strip Liars’ Dice sequence.

I've never actually played any card games outside of old adventures, but I assume the same tactics work as effectively in the real world as leaving important keys in their locks to avoid losing them and protecting your stuff with the Towers of Hanoi puzzle. Never tried them though. Figured it was too risky after that time I got home to find all my stuff stolen from behind my newly kicked in door and blowtorched open safe.

In a similar vein, while it would have been a hefty challenge, it’s a shame that the city of Lost Wages itself couldn’t have been made more like the Las Vegas town it’s supposed to be. By 1987 standards, a casino, a corner store, a bar and a couple of other areas were enough to feel like a real place – I’ve even praised it for that. Now though, both the number of rooms and a world map that highlights just how little there is to visit makes it feel cramped, and there aren’t the smoke and mirrors to make it feel like there’s more to this town than meets the eye.

(As an example of how the map could perhaps have helped, it would have been good to see the Lost Wages Strip that’s only talked about in a couple of object descriptions, even if Larry would only have been able to go to Caesar’s Phallus. As a bonus, that provides some free riffs, like him turning down a trip to Men-To-Lay Bay, reject the Hairy Palms Last Resort, and not have the stamina for a whole night in Coitus Coitus. Other potential lawsuits/chances to be buried in the desert by Big Sal are also available. Luxor puns are banned though. Too easy.)

Sin City. No, not the one with always-on DRM. This place has SOME standards.

Luckily, while there aren’t that many screens to explore, they’re absolutely stuffed with new items and characters and jokes to poke and prod at, with just about every pixel having a gag or five. As ever, it’s tough to know exactly who to credit for specific bits, but this level of environment density has long been the design calling card of co-writer Josh Mandel (the wonderful Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon being his magnum opus) and he, Lowe and co certainly don’t disappoint here. These additions are great, with the tweaks even covering up a few problems in the original game, like Larry just stealing the hooker’s chocolates in Lefty’s Bar (she now calls him on it, but lets him have them) and his final conquest Eve being aware of who he is, rather than calmly letting a stranger who just broke into her penthouse join her for naked hot tub action.

There are also a lot more characters simply standing around to interact with, including digital versions of big Kickstarter backers, with Larry’s attempted conquests fleshed out with full dialogue trees rather than being limited to a few lines. None of this make Larry Reloaded feel remotely like a new game, but there’s more than enough to once again bother mining the environment for jokes instead of rushing to finish faster than Larry in a cheap lubber.

And you absolutely, definitely wouldn't turn off my modesty bubbles. I can see it in your eyes. Mine are up here by the way.

So, verdict time – in which I sigh in gratitude that I don’t have to encapsulate everything into a number at the end. First of all, nobody who backed this Kickstarter should be disappointed. Larry Reloaded is everything that was promised, from the full graphics/audio overhaul to the extra jokes and content. A lot of work has gone into this; much more than simply reaching for the last remake and redrawing the backgrounds in higher resolution. The changes to the game itself aren’t that deep, but the anti-frustration updates are very welcome and the new stuff makes for an enjoyable evening whether or not you know it backwards from previous incarnations.

If you’ve never played the original game though, should you give it a shot? It’s as good a time as any in the last decade or so, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s an ancient adventure with a fresh coat of paint, which shows its age in puzzle design and now standard techniques like actually pushing you towards objectives rather than leaving you to your own devices. Larry may feel like it’s non-linear, but it absolutely is not. Essentially, even with all the improvements, this is firmly retrogaming. It’s just retrogaming where you can’t count individual pixels, and a game whose continued notoriety comes from largely unwarranted infamy rather than being all that special as an actual adventure – something that was true even for the 1991 remake.

In short, this is indeed Larry 1 at its best, a fine remake and an entertaining few hours of comedy adventure. Given its age, surprisingly so. If the idea of replaying it appeals, cool. You’re going to enjoy it. Don’t expect to be blown away though, and if you lack that all-important nostalgic connection, you’re really better off snagging the best game in the series, Love For Sail. This remake’s price also feels a little high – $20 for a 25 year old game that raised its money via crowdfunding. Your mileage may vary on that point though; I am quite cheap.

Could be worse, Josh. At least you're not standing in front of Cedric and wishing King's Quest was able to rock an extreme violence rating.

The official plan is to move on from Larry 1 to do the rest of the series, though that feels like it would be a mistake at this point. The second game is insane and will need a hell of a lot more redesigning, with Larry 3 the only other game that vaguely seems worth doing. Even then, we’re in the land of diminishing returns. By Larry 6, you may as well just play the originals in DOSBox – and that would be Larry 5 if there was any reason not to skip right over it in any form.

Honestly though, it’s no secret that much of this remake’s hype was built on the possibility of Larry’s current masters letting Lowe and co create a brand new game, and that seems the thing to shoot for now. The passion is visibly there, this engine is fine, and the audience has money to throw. Nostalgia only lasts so long though, and it would be a real shame to see Larry forever remain as trapped in the past as his wardrobe instead of finally getting to hunt for new conquests… even if he is, obviously, doomed to mostly just find new humiliation.

Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded is out today on Steam and directly from Replay Games. The complete series (aside from the final atrocity, Box Office Bust) is also available on GOG.COM, though be warned, its version of the non-Al Lowe designed Magna Cum Laude ships without its best feature: not being compatible with Windows 7. Harrumph.

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Richard Cobbett

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