Space Quest 5 remains a guilty pleasure of cheap gags and wish fulfilment

"BABY BORN WITH ONLY ONE HEAD!” screams the cover of the Galactic Enquirer. Fascinating. And it must be true! If you can't trust the parody newspaper from a comedy sci-fi game, what can you trust?

I really miss the tchotchkes that used to come with games. The random crap you get in overpriced suckers editions today can never be as fun as something thrown in for no better reason than because the creators could, or wanted to make a big cardboard box rattle seductively when you picked it up in the shop. Novellas, cloth maps, replica Zorkmids: if the tchotchke sucked, it didn't matter. When it was good, it was a nice surprise—like the first time you learned how to spell the word “tchotchke.” (You're welcome.)

Galactic Enquirer was one of those: a 22-page introduction to Space Quest V's story, universe, and characters that quickly set the tone of the adventure ahead. You get wacky pet pix of shaved Tribbles, spaced-out horoscopes, and best of all, there were zany transporter bloopers. The comedy didn't come from the gags themselves, but imagining the awkward day some unsuspecting Sierra employee was thrown a pair of cheap plastic buttocks and told, “Put these on your face, you're now the Rear Admiral.”

Yes, we're in official guilty pleasure territory with Space Quest V, and yes, most of the jokes are, in themselves, pretty damn weak. Most work by being so geeky that you smile because you're in on the gag, they're being delivered so shamelessly that they break through the crap barrier at warp factor 10. The villain is Captain Raemes T. Quirke. The love interest? Ambassador Beatrice Wankmeister.

But that's OK. They're cheap gags, and they don't pretend to be anything else. Space Quest was always Sierra's “throw-it-in” series, where you'd find the Blues Brothers on one screen and a Toys R Us parody next door, and usually getting away with it despite never being that great. SQ4 had some inspired bits, especially its central "time travel by visiting fake Space Quest sequels" gimmick, but the rest were better enjoyed for the idea of wacky space adventures than the actual adventuring.

Except Space Quest V. The plot remains simple—illegal toxic waste dumping leads to evil mutant Pukoids threatening the galaxy—but it's executed with surprising finesse. The puzzles don't rely too much on obscure solutions, the action is spread over multiple worlds (all tiny, but that's okay), and for the first time, SQ bothered with a bit of actual character development to link it together. One of the early puzzles involves defeating a ruthless fembot assassin called W-D40 on the planet Kiz Urazgubi (say it out loud) by ramming a banana up her exhaust pipe. In Space Quest, normally that would be it, puzzle over, move on. Here, she gets reprogrammed to be a little less psychotic and sticks around until the end as an essential ally.

The most important change, though, was that while previous games had occasionally given you a ship to get from point A to point B, Space Quest V finally promoted its long-suffering janitor hero Roger Wilco to Captain (of a garbage scow, of course) complete with a crew, a mission, and a bright-red shirt to hide his inevitable bloody injuries. Sierra designers always did love their comedy death scenes.

Having a ship made the game for me. When it comes to space RPGs, Elite bores me about as much as trading fictional goods for fictional gold should bore anyone. I've always loved more narrative-heavy games like Privateer; with intrigue, characters, and freedom to explore. Here, it's a weak illusion: if you go to places in the wrong order, you're just told to go away; there's absolutely no discovering of strange new worlds or teaching sexy aliens of this thing we humans call kissing anywhere to be found. Somehow though, it doesn't matter as much as it might. Just having the option of pointlessly raising the shields, going to warp, and activating the self-destruct on a whim makes you feel far more in command than you actually are.

Really, most of SQ5's enjoyment is from wish fulfillment. Every nerd wants their own spaceship, but most of us admit we'd be an awful captain. Roger is in exactly the same boat—he's in charge only because a rat chewed the wrong computer cable at Starcon Academy, and he gets about as much respect as Wesley Crusher. Yet he still wins the love of his crew, gets the girl, and saves the universe. He never becomes a great captain; but through luck and determination, and more luck, at least he ends up an adequate one.

I'd be okay with that. Just as long as I still get to sit in the big chair.

On the next page: More Space Quest V screenshots from our archive