From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. Here he meets Leisure Suit Larry's even-more-punchable cousin.
It would be unfair—a little unfair—to say that adventure games of the 80s and 90s tended to be 'a bit obscure' with their puzzles in the name of selling hint books and premium-rate tips lines, but not that the companies involved were shy about turning down the extra revenue such things provided. More than a few times you'd be politely reminded that you could take advantage of them whenever you died, or would get a card right in the box with all the details you needed.
Of course, you wouldn't ever dream of using such a thing... or at least, not admitting to it when brushing off how obvious it was to try and wear a dog so that it would be magically transformed into a pair of Hush Puppies to sneak past a guard. (Yes, that's a real puzzle, from Simon the Sorcerer). Hints were for other people. Pathetic people. Weak people. Failures, in adventure games, as in life. Oh yes.
Which brings us to Les Manley. You didn't need to be psychic to win this sadistic little game, but by god, it would have helped. It fought dirty, and if you complained it gave you the finger. Let's play, shall we?
Les Manley is a nerd's nerd, working for a failing TV station in New York, with the sole job of manually rewinding video tapes. He's almost as in love with his boss' assistant, busty blonde Stella Hart, as the artist drawing her, and that's all the personality he's really given for the whole game. His socially awkward lack of love and success is no doubt meant to be relatable to the kind of people who play bad adventure games, and for that... well... OK Accolade, you win this round.
This game has exactly three moments of generosity, and the first two are right here. Generous moment the first: It does at least tell you what your goal is. At least, partly. The TV station is running a big competition, with one million dollars of actual money going to anyone who can find THE KING. It's always capitalised, and about as subtle a way of saying Elvis as "Elvis".
Despite having heard his bosses openly describe the contest as brilliant because there's no way anyone can actually win, Les feels lucky, and decides to go look for Elvis on his lunch break. This is indeed the point of the game.
The second generous moment is that the opening rooms are actually explained in the manual, both getting you started, and either introducing you to the psychic world in which the designers hope you live or pointing out that yes, you really are going to want that hint book (sold separately, please allow 28 days for delivery).
Search For THE KING uses a parser-based control system—in other words, you type what you want Les to do rather than clicking on icons—and boy does it love to use that to obscure things. Unless you type exactly the correct word, you won't progress.
This means you can't simply sweep the mouse and click on everything to find hotspots, an old adventure gaming trick usually known as "pixelbitching", and are therefore about as much at the designer's mercy as if he'd handcuffed you naked to a bed and produced a really big feather to tickle you to death. Only without as many laughs, obviously.
Les' office sets the tone. The first thing you see is Stella through a hole in the wall, but if you type Look, you're just told "You may be able to see Stella, but Les can't!", immediately setting up the psychic/game interaction that will soon come to define most of the puzzles.
Searching carefully, you'll find Les' lunch in his desk drawer (a jar of peanut butter and a thermos flask), an empty filing cabinet, a radio that tells you that somebody, somewhere in New York claims to have seen THE KING, and a calendar that tells you that Les just finished a two-year probationary period at the station. Somehow, this is the game's way of giving you a clue that you need to head down the corridor to the boss' office, demand a raise so that Stella brings in the paperwork, and then swipe a set of keys you have no particular reason to think you need from his desk while he's distracted by her shapely low-resolution curves.
Why do you do this? Because the manual tells you to. Do you do every stupid thing a little booklet tells you to do? Then you'll be done with this game in an hour, most likely. If not, good luck. Finish it without cheating but with your sanity intact and you are a true adventurer indeed.
Doing every stupid thing the hint-line tells you is also acceptable.
New York turns out to be pretty quiet. There's the TV station, a house whose occupant cryptically tells you to go away if you're not "who I'm waiting for", a bus station, and a fairground, none of which exactly scream Elv—sorry—THE KING.
The fairground easily looks like the most fun, but unfortunately there's a catch: Les has no money, and being an adventure game character, no chance whatsoever that this will be solved by just going to an ATM. All his worldly resources are in his pocket, and peanut butter probably won't cut it.
Oddly though, the circus seems to be based on the honour system, as Les can just walk right through the front gate and in fact to every single available exhibit without a ticket. Actually try to interact with any though, and you're told you might be able to see more with a ticket, implying that he's wandering around with his eyes shut until he's paid his voluntary dues to the god of Capitalism. What a guy.
The solution to this one is a good introduction to the psychic powers you'll need later, requiring such a low midichlorian count that you might actually stumble onto it by chance. Hidden out of sight on the left of the map are a load of caravans, and one of them belongs to the circus owner, Bob. Your introduction to Bob takes time to mention the hint book. This is not a Good Sign in an old adventure game.
Fortunately, he's willing to let you into the circus, but only if you shovel some elephant shit for him in exchange for a ticket. Or so you're told. Actually, you don't have to do any manual labour at all. Pick up the shovel and immediately drop it, and it counts as done. If you don't realise this, the game will happily let you sit there, watching Les ferry shovelfuls of elephant poo for hours and hours and hours without bothering to tell you that your job is done and you can go back to working on the slightly less pooey story for a bit.
With a ticket, you can finally explore the circus properly. It's a depressing place. Its available acts are the Big Top, where Les manages to walk right into the middle of the show and get eaten by lions, The World's Strongest Man being too depressed to actually perform, The World's Smallest Man being too depressed to perform, and Madame Zarmooska, the gypsy fortune teller offering "Ball Reading and Palm Jobs", because this is apparently Funny. Asking her about the future gets you the following incredible help:
"You'll be going on a long journey. I see a search. I see a King. I see a violent ending. Peace and tranquility. But it ain't over till it's over. The rest is up to you, Les."
As useless as this both sounds and is, it's actually pretty accurate, in much the same way that "you will meet a tall, dark stranger" is accurate—technically, but not helpfully. Leaving her behind, and with no real pointer towards anything you're actually meant to do, it's time to move on. Not by heading back to the bus station, of course. No, that would be silly. No, to reach the next part of the game, you...
Well, you do this. Obviously.
That, right there, is the third and final generous act that the game ever does. There are three parts of this game, set in New York, Las Vegas, and finally The Kingdom—THE KING's house and surroundings—and it will tell you if you arrive without everything you need. Of course, it compensates in other ways.
Las Vegas turns out to be a single hotel, which claims to have a casino as well... but doesn't. Presumably that would have been one Leisure Suit Larry rip-off too many. Instead of fun Blackjack mini-games and sexy adventures with bar-flies, Les gets to visit... a dry cleaners, and the side of a pool, and with the exception of a few hotel rooms upstairs, that's about it.
As with New York, there are a few mentions of The King, but nothing that gives you any real hint as to what you're supposed to be doing, what puzzles need to be solved, or where to go next. There almost is, at the pool, where a celebrity called Mr. Fabulous is hanging out with a sexy lady called Lyla Libido, but when you finally get rid of him without his goon killing you by ripping off your head and spitting down your neck, the only thing you get from it is a bad piece of pin-up art and the chance to steal a pair of sunglasses. Helpful? Not right now!
Heading out from the casino takes you into the desert, where you promptly die of dehydration. Technically, it's not death, but you'll never escape unless you have some water to break out of the maze, so you'll need to restart the game.
This is where Search For THE KING really starts showing its true colours. You think you're safe because you found the thermos flask back in New York? No. It was empty! Unless you bothered to check that, and subsequently fill it up at a water fountain in the TV studio corridor, you're now just as dead as if you'd never found it at all.
What makes this even crueller is that there's absolutely nothing important in the desert. Nothing. The only reasons it exists are to do a "Viva Lost Manley" joke, and to shamelessly shoe-horn in a random pin-up picture of Stella. To save you wondering:
Two out of three locations down, and still with no clue as to what the hell you're meant to be doing, it's time to head for The Kingdom. Of course, you don't know this, and there's only the slightest hint that you need to hitch-hike your way there hidden in the casino exterior's description when you type 'Look', but let's just assume your magic antennae clued you into that and got you where you need to be.
The Kingdom is tiny, consisting of exactly two locations: outside THE KING's house, and a bar in town. This will turn out to be the penultimate screen in the entire game, so cleverly, it's only now that it decides to tell you what you should have been doing: collecting pieces of a THE KING costume to enter a Look-Alike contest. Of course! It's so obvious! Who needs hint books or anything?
Restarting the game, since there's no way of going back to old locations, it's time to try again, this time with a Plan. Or at least, a slightly better idea of what the game wants. Take lunch. Fill flask. Ask for raise. Steal keys. This time, use the keys to unlock a door elsewhere in the building. Take reporter ID because it's there and therefore probably important. Go to circus. Shovel poo. Stop shovelling poo. Game on!
This is where the game starts playing dirty. All this stuff? This was just a warm-up for the actual puzzles. There are adventure games with worse puzzles, but not many that are so obnoxiously evil about them, or go out of their way to break the holy covenant between player and designer.
For starters, let's look at what you're meant to do in the game. You're meant to win a look-alike contest, which involves dressing as a character you've never seen. Now, yes, obviously everyone has some idea of what Elvis looks like, but would you necessarily know that you don't simply need a suit and shades, but a separate scarf and a cape to go along with them? You're told if you miss something, but not precisely what .
The sunglasses are easy to get hold of. Actually, the sunglasses are one of the better puzzles in the game. Try to talk to Mr. Fabulous and he tells you that he's waiting for a call from his agent. Have the front desk page him, and you're sorted. It's a good use of available resources. It makes sense. Hurrah.
The cape is... not quite so good. You find it at the circus in New York by wandering into the Big Top, which leaves you actually standing in the ring, surrounded by lions. Luckily, you can distract these predatory carnivores hungry for flesh by throwing them popcorn, because that's how lions work. From there, you accidentally kill a nervous high-rise artist by giving him rosin for his sweaty palms, stand by as he falls to his death in front of your face, pick up his discarded cape, and saunter off out of the circus with the kind of sociopathic disregard that makes so many adventure game characters likeable people.
The scarf is your first proper psychic test. You need to not only know that you have to get into an anonymous building in New York, but that a stolen reporter's ID will get you through. Impressively, the game only tells you that this is what the woman behind the door wants to see after you've shown it to her. Inside, the scarf is in a protective cabinet, and a cage falls down and kills you if you try to take it. Of course, at this point of the game, you have no reason to know you need it, nor any moral reason to try and steal it, but that doesn't matter. The woman who owns it is quite happy to show it to you if you magically project your imagination to the designers' brain sufficiently to specifically ask for a soda. Otherwise, she just insists she needs to get to know you better. Why do you need the soda there? Because otherwise you wouldn't be able to spill it on her prize possession and steal from her washing line, you thieving little bastard. Wesley Crusher would kick Les Manley in the balls for crimes against geekdom.
And speaking of crimes, Les never actually wears the scarf anyway. Even at the end of the game, when he has to wipe a bit of sweat off himself, he uses the cape. Cruel and pointless? Puzzle gold!
The suit itself is easy to find - it's at the dry-cleaners in Las Vegas. From there, it's a piffling matter to realise that all you need to do to get it is to persuade the world's smallest man to let you tie floss around his waist and lower him in to a plug-hole in a hotel bathroom to retrieve the decades old ticket from under a jacuzzi. Who needs proper hints for that? What kind of idiot wouldn't immediately jump to those conclusions? It goes without saying that you persuade him to come along with you by stealing a security guard's pornographic dream and handing it to him as a pick-me-up, then actively mailing him to Las Vegas—a place you have no in-game reason to know you're going—to avoid him burning up on re-entry.
I mean: pfffft. This isn't Mixed Up Mother Goose or something! Why, if it wasn't for scenes like this, there'd be no challenge at all. When adventure developers gather, sometimes they talk about insult swordfighting, or the Babel Fish puzzle. But when the candle is gone, and only the hardest core-remain, guaranteed, talk will move to this puzzle, in which you have to close a door you can't see, flip a Do Not Disturb sign you have no reason to think is there, all to make the maid head into a clearly vacant room, just to can steal the keys from her cart that let you into another room, which just happens to have something you need in it. As soon as you solve this puzzle, it is your sworn duty to reach for a lottery ticket and become a millionaire. If you don't, you only have yourself to blame for your lack of a houseboat built of solid platinum.
(In a final screw-you for this puzzle, you have to specifically retrieve the dental floss from the drain, otherwise you won't be able to use it to repair a guitar later on—an act that the game itself admits is silly since it not only wouldn't work, Les doesn't know how to play anyway.)
With the Elv—sorry—THE KING costume pieces all assembled, it's back to the end of the game. Changing in a phonebooth, Les bravely heads out on stage, still with no actual reason to do so, of course, and promptly stinks up the joint like a flatulent skunk. Instead of walking away the winner, he's handed the booby prize, which disappointingly for everyone waiting for this to actually become Leisure Suit Larry, does not in fact involve boobies.
Instead, it's free, completely unsupervised access to THE KING's whole house, which would be handy if THE KING was actually there, but no such luck. Instead, it's just an excuse to perfect Les' costume, despite the fact that the contest is over and no time passes between now and when he re-enters it.
The process involves stealing a guitar and mike, fattening up by... making a single sandwich (and if you don't have the peanut butter, it's quite literally right back to the start of the game for you!) and most bizarrely of all, visiting THE KING's bedroom because the game demands you slide down a fireman's pole into his kitchen instead of simply opening the unlocked door.
Anyway, now a hulking fatty with a couple more props, you finally get to achieve your lifelong dream of being an unconvincing Elvis impersonator in a free talent contest. Suddenly, Larry's quest for love doesn't seem so bad, does it? This time however, things go better. In fact, Les is so convincing that the audience actually mistakes him for THE KING returned, and trample him to death right on stage.
Wait, what? You die? You put in all that work, and this is your hero's reward?
No, of course not. You just fell for the designer's cruellest joke, and now face the final test of your psychic powers. It's too late now though. You have to start the whole game again, collect the four costume pieces again, and go through all the same mean-spirited traps designed to hobble you for forgetting something. This time though, you have to solve... drum roll, please, this moment demands it...
...THE MOST RIDICULOUS PUZZLE IN ADVENTURE GAME HISTORY!
Yes, to survive being trampled to death in a talent show at the other end of the country while dressed in the world's best Elvis suit, you have to go to... the fortune telling gypsy at the circus. Back in New York. And assault her, by either touching or kissing her. That's not it though, not at all! When you do this, she vanishes with the message "Too bad I'm only a dream", leaving you free to pet the stuffed lizard on her desk. Why do you want to pet the stuffed lizard in a gypsy caravan at the other end of the country? Because when you do, out of its little stuffed mouth comes... a resurrection card.
A. Resurrection. Card.
A RESURRECTION CARD!
This does absolutely nothing for the whole game, until that very last screen when you get trampled to death. Without it, you just die. With it, you ascend to Heaven, where THE KING awaits and lets you take a photo. This is still in your hand when you return to Earth, letting Les win the contest, take over the TV station in exchange for the million dollars they don't actually have, and turn it into a profitable business.
A profitable business that isn't remotely relevant in the sequel, Les Manley: Lost In LA, which is about as enjoyable as coughing up dead babies in a crowded mall, but considerably easier to finish without psychic powers.
Incidentally, here's a bonus. When I first played Les Manley, it wasn't with these beautiful graphics. I had a CGA graphics card, which technically stands for Colour Graphics Adaptor, but really meant 'Crap Graphics Always'. It offered artists a grand total of four colours to play with, with the only real choice being whether those four colours included cyan and magenta or green and brown.
This meant that most games ended up looking like moss on a stone, or a seedy winter wonderland. Here's a pic for nostalgia purposes, or just to be glad you weren't into games when they looked like this.