From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. Here, he spends a quiet evening investigating an army of ladies who want more than just your planet. People of Earth: Phobos needs talcum powder!
Let's be honest, the main reason anyone remembers Leather Goddesses of Phobos is because it's called Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Here's a list of game names from 1986. Alex Higgins' World Snooker. Chessmaster 2000. Karateka. Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter. Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Tank Wars. Be honest. Which of those would have jumped out at you on a games shelf?
It definitely wouldn't have hurt that it was written by Infocom, then-princes of the text adventure genre, or was written by the main guy behind both the Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy game (which was awful, incidentally, no matter how rose-tinted your glasses) and A Mind Forever Voyaging (which was utterly brilliant, and we'll be looking at in this column at some point). This was pre-Leisure Suit Larry too, when the mere idea of a game including (*whisper*) sex seemed daring and new. For many people, the Leather Goddesses of Phobos would be their first time... at least with a computer.
PLEASE NOTE: You must be 18 or over to read this week's Crapshoot. Don't you dare read on if you're not! Your young mind is not ready for the thrilling sexy adventures that await you!
(Yeah, right. Like that's ever worked...)
Let's talk about sex. More specifically, about whether sex sells PC games. Let's face it, it doesn't. If it did, Evony would be the new World of Warcraft, Lara Croft would long-since have hung up her bra in favour of some newcomer like FAKK2, and no Fox News staff would have had a mental breakdown at glimpsing a pair of blue buttocks in Mass Effect. As a general rule, gamers are pretty conservative about this stuff, instantly assuming that anything that tries to play the sex card is doing so because it has nothing else to offer. Usually, that's pretty true. Sometimes though, it's not, and perfectly decent games like The Witcher or Playboy: The Mansion find themselves condemned without so much as a fair trial.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos had an obvious advantage here: it was text-based, and complaining about mucky writing aimed at adults went out of fashion with Lady Chatterley's Lover. Unlike Softporn Adventure, it didn't have naked women on the cover, and it was primarily sold as comedy—a genre where you can get away with far, far more.
In practice, it didn't. It was just a silly sci-fi adventure with a bit of sex in it, pastiching old adventure serials. It was so mild, magazines gave it away as a subscriber gift. Its commitment to maturity included packing in a Scratch-and-Sniff card. Finally, if you did buy it and were promptly horrified to discover that a game called Leather Goddesses of Phobos was a bit mucky, you could turn off all the adult content and play in either Tame or Suggestive mode like a great big wuss.
I'll be honest, I don't like this game much. I've played a lot of text adventures, but this one I found a confused mess both back in the day and replaying it just now. The premise is that you're just a regular guy or girl heading to a bar (brilliantly, you choose by going into either the Gents or the Ladies at the start of the game when you need to pee) who gets abducted by the titular and named-in-the-title Leather Goddesses of Phobos, who promptly stick you in a metal bikini/skimpy loincloth and throw you into prison.
You immediately escape by simply opening the door, join forces with another prisoner called Trent/Tiffany who Has A Plan, and then bop your way around Mars, Venus and Cleveland on a pretty standard Shopping List Quest. Gather eight basically random items, trying to get into the mindset of a designer who'd have you get a blender by kissing a magic frog, find a way to the endgame location, win.
The humour itself is very Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, with a bit more punning. Much of the exploration of Mars takes place via canals, where you'll end up putting in at Donald Dock and Wattz-Upp Dock. At one point you meet a princess who's been turned into an angle by King Midas. She starts off acute, and ends up a cutie.
Probably the most original gag though is that while Leather Goddesses of Phobos isn't too sadistic by the standards of the time (although you can very, very easily end up in unwinnable situations), Trent/Tiffany can't keep their heads on their bodies for more than five minutes. Almost every major new location features them getting annihilated or facing death in some way, their demise always met with the same ponderous speech about how you "hang your head in sorrow for a moment to honor your brave, loyal companion who gave his/her life that humanity might be safe from the terrible scourge of the Leather Goddesses of Phobos."
Then they return from the dead and just cheerfully get on with the quest.
In similarly disconnected style, here's Leather Goddesses of Phobos' funniest joke.
My main problem with Leather Goddesses of Phobos though has little to do with the original text adventure, and everything to do with the sequel. You see, Infocom made some brilliant games. Border Zone brought real-time puzzle solving to interactive fiction. A Mind Forever Voyaging was an astoundingly good piece of sci-fi, in which you played a sentient computer able to step through simulations of the future. Suspended completely changed how you interacted with the game, forcing you to free yourself using robots that each only had limited senses.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos had a Scratch-And-Sniff card and the unfulfilled promise of 'examine boobies'-ing. Which of them got an all-out graphical sequel? Guess.
Even ignoring this completely justified petulance , Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet The Pulsating Inconvenience From Planet X is horrible. Just horrible. How horrible? Really horrible. So horrible that not only is it blatantly unfinished, it apparently (unfortunately I don't have a copy here) included a bit in the manual about how evil forces steal games and release them prematurely. In the interests of generosity, I'm going to assume it's true, because... well... damn. At least it's some excuse.
To avoid confusion, I will now list everything good about Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet The Pulsating Inconvenience From Planet X. It's short . I have now listed everything good about Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet The Pulsating Inconvenience From Planet X.
The inaction picks up about 20 years after the original game, as a mysterious alien ship crashlands just outside the small Nevada town of Atom City. You get to play as Zeke (a gas-station attendant who only hires braless, big-breasted mechanics from some porn dimension), a girl called Lydia, or the tentacled alien himself, Barth. Since the game's so short, let's run through the whole thing!
Choosing to be Zeke, you start at the gas station, where you can win the Boss of the Year award by immediately jumping at each member of your staff. Since they're from the porn dimension, they not only don't mind, their only complaint is that you didn't try it on earlier. You can kiss them all, which makes a sound like velcro being ripped off suppurating ham, or just make a beeline for Zoe and make with some sweet, sweet stock footage. Having watched a rocket taking off, you're presumably no longer in the mood for sex, and instead start asking about the green alien monster that apparently showed up before the game starts. Everyone's seen it, but nobody has the time to care about making first contact with an alien species when there's cars to be fixed and genital warts to be passed on to the boss.
(And yes. That means that the Gas Pump Girls meeting the Pulsating Inconvenience From Planet X actually happens off-screen, and even they don't really care about it. Get used to this, because it's how most of the big moments in the game end up taking place, one way or another.)
Heading into town, you quickly discover Atom City is either an interdimensional rift in space-time that renders all direction meaningless, or one of the worst first-person locations ever created in any game ever. The tiny, tiny hotspots and limited camera angles mean that just figuring out a way into the building across the street is often tougher than the puzzle you're trying to solve by going in. Not only is it a pain to navigate, there are roughly a billion locations and camera angles to fight your way through in search of the items you need. Most rooms and characters serve absolutely no purpose, and the ones that do are generally only there for you to nip in once, grab an object lying around, and never return to again.
It's at this point you'll start suspecting that Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet The Pulsating Inconvenience From Planet X wasn't so much a game project as a punishment for misbehaving developers. Schoolkids have to write out "I will not spit in class" a hundred times. Maybe naughty Activision artists had to draw... oh... let's say 20 pointless locations. (In fairness, a few more are used if you pick Barth, who has a different quest to complete in town, but not even close to warranting this much padding. It's bad when you can see how unfinished a game is within five screens of its starting area...)
Anyway! Despite having no particular reason to care, you take it upon yourself to track down the missing alien by... pretty much randomly doing stuff until he shows up. A kid casually mentions that he's used Science to work out that the alien, last seen stealing an iron, can be cured with radioactive isotopes, and since you have nothing better to do but go around ripping more velcro off ham and trying to stock footage anything in a skirt, you promptly decide to break into the local military base and steal some. Unfortunately, the safe where they're kept is protected by a code. Fortunately, Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet The Pulsating Inconvenience From Planet X's priorities are more focused on prostitutes than puzzles. You break into first his office and then his house by cleverly 'just opening the unlocked doors', get the file you need without much greater effort, and the isotopes are yours.
This is about about an hour into the game at most. How far in do you think we are?
Hold that thought.
With the isotopes in hand, the next job is to make some rubber to heal the alien—a puzzle chain that's only difficult because of how hard it is to navigate the map. Bowl of glop in hand, and never mind that you haven't even seen the alien yet, let alone been asked to do any of this nonsense, you meet back up with Lydia. If you want, you can rip some velcro with her, but get interrupted before you can get down to some serious stock footage. It turns out the Earth is being contacted by a friendly group of ladies called the Leather Goddesses of Phobos, warning of an imminent invasion by the evil aliens of Planet X! What a twist! Luckily, they're willing to help us out, if we'll only lower our defences and tell them where to land.
Psychically deciding that this is, as the great Stephen Hawking would say, "utter bollocks", Zeke and Lydia continue their quest to find Barth, who's hiding out... a bit further down the street. He explains that he's actually a nice slobbering tentacle alien, and that Planet X was merely the Leather Goddesses' last target. This means that, yes, the entire game so far has been spent catching up to the back of the box.
Barth flies Zeke and Lydia to Planet X to meet with the High Council. Planet X consists of about five screens and no puzzles. You get out of Barth's ship to go see the High Council, pausing only in an empty room that looks like it probably had a purpose when it was drawn, but now exists solely to pad the game out by a crucial few seconds. From there, you go straight into first the High Council's chamber, and then (if you wish) into a High Councellor's chamber to launch a fresh monochrome rocket to Planet O.
Since Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet The Pulsating Inconvenience From Planet X would hate to lower itself to having 'an actual puzzle' at this point, the now satisfied High Council simply hand over everything you need for the rest of the game: an invisibility belt and a magic record that records any conversations you might find useful. With that done, and your ship repaired off-screen, it's off to Mars to finally face the Leather Goddesses of Phobos themselves! If you feel like having a soft-boiled egg to celebrate your victory, now would be a good time to put it on the stove.
Crash-landing on Phobos due to an off-screen attack from the Leather Goddesses' defense grid that the game has to describe instead of actually showing you, you quickly head for the Leather Goddesses' castle on the grounds that it's the only place you can go. As with the General's house, you get inside using the one method they never thought to defend against: just walking through the front door.
Pausing only to free a couple of sex slaves from the equally unlocked dungeon, and apparently unlocked manacles they just never bothered trying to wriggle out of, you switch on the invisibility belt and go spy on the Leather Goddesses doing what Leather Goddesses do: standing around in their pants, loudly telling each other about how clever they are to have tricked the puny humans into believing their lies. You grab a copy of the conversation with the magic record and... just leave. Yes, really.
With the sex slaves causing an off-screen distraction, the Leather Goddesses' invasion fleet is completely unguarded. You, Lydia and Barth climb on board and heroically... go stand in the broom closet for several long, tedious, non-interactive minutes while the Leather Goddesses fly to Earth. Again, no puzzles. How long did you spend on Phobos? About 10 minutes, at most. It might be slightly longer if you're too stupid to switch on the invisibility device near the Leather Goddesses' boudoir, but that only results in being put in the dungeon and immediately rescued by Lydia. Wouldn't want any drama now, would we?
There are funeral processions with better pacing than this game.
Arriving back on Earth, you find yourself in the middle of a mob whipped up by the Leather Goddesses, who point Barth out as the invader and are instantly believed due to having large breasts and a willingness to let horny Earthmen see them. You escape by just walking away because having to solve an actual a puzzle at this point would just be unseemly.
Luckily, the mob isn't blocking the way to the local radio station, where you broadcast the Leather Goddesses' plans to the world. Being too stupid to realise that they've already landed the invasion fleet, were planning to attack almost immediately anyway, and have in fact completely won, they retreat back to Phobos to plot revenge in the sequel that thankfully never happened.
As for our main leads, Zeke and Lydia finally consummate the love that can't be bothered to speak its name. It's such a tender, romantic moment, there isn't even any stock footage. Either that, or Zeke has to admit to completely emptying his film library earlier, and Lydia leaves him to find a man who can keep it in the projector for more than five femtoseconds. Who cares? The game's over, and even it barely cared about the story. Just sit back and enjoy that soft-boiled egg. It is what all true heroes strive for.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet The Pulsating Inconvenience From Planet X is a dreadful, dreadful game, with no real redeeming features. It wasn't the only Infocom game that was pencilled in for a graphical update, but it was one of the few that made it to the shelves—if barely. Zork had three: Return To Zork (awful), Zork Nemesis (decent) and Zork: Grand Inquisitor (superb). Another Infocom fan favourite, Planetfall, was also due to get one, but only a few shots ever emerged of that one.
There is of course the chance, the slightest chance, that with more time, this might have been a solid, funny, game, in much the same way that you might, just might, wake up in a parallel universe where it rains gumdrops. The script is dire, the story couldn't be flatter, and if there's one thing it fails at more than being than being an adventure, it's failing to be a sexy adventure. There's a stigma attached to that, but there doesn't necessarily have to be—if a game takes its job seriously and actually wants to do it well, it can. The real problem is that in cases like this, it's not only completely unsexy, its attempts are simply insulting, from the porn-movie character interaction to the inevitable wimping out later on.
That's a pretty standard thing with the genre of course, from well-known games like Leisure Suit Larry to other more obscure mature-as-in-teenage-boys adventures like Fascination, Les Manley: Lost in LA and Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender, or even more recent stuff like 7 Sins, in which even the most rapacious sociopath will still take showers in his swimming trunks to avoid offending the censors. It's no coincidence that most of these games are, at least in theory, comedies. That way, almost anything can be brushed off as just a joke, and not something worth getting up in arms about. If people buy them hoping to get off, the joke's simply on them for expecting anything more than a little fan-service.
Ideal? Probably not. But let's face it, the alternatives could easily be much, much worse.