Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

 

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Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

I remember very well the buzz at the gaming table about a certain balding protagonist of a now-classic Sierra adventure game.  He wasn’t your typical adventure game hero: he was a bumbler, a loser, an everyman shooting for the DD stars.  All he wanted was a piece of the action.  Well, a piece, at any rate.  With the release of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards Sierra On-Line in 1987, the 3D animated adventure game series entered a new, more (im)mature era, and a gaming icon was born.  (A little tidbit: 3D in this case meant “Dancing, Drinking, and Dames.”)

 

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Box art for Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

Poor Larry was a luckless virgin with absolutely no game.  He dressed in badly dated clothing and wore a gold chain, and by the start of the game, had come to the city of Lost Wages for one last shot at sleeping with a woman.  The game began outside a bar with Larry vowing to become an ex-virgin.  For many gamers, Leisure Suit Larry symbolized their own struggle to negotiate the turbulent waters of dealing with the opposite gender, and the game struck a nerve.  If Larry could get lucky, any of us could, darn it!

Leisure Suit Larry creator, Al Lowe
Leisure Suit Larry creator, Al Lowe

The creative force tapped to make Leisure Suit Larry a reality was a programmer at Sierra who had previously guided some of the Disney licenses, such as The Black CauldronDonald Duck’s Playground, and Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Based on that body of work, who knew that Al Lowe would have such a twisted sense of humor?  Al Lowe was an accomplished musician (complete with a degree in music), and had spent 15 years in the public school system teaching music.  He enjoyed playing games, and decided to teach himself programming to make his own, and enter a new career.  He completed a few games (Troll’s Tale and Dragon’s Keepwere two of them) and sold them to the fledgling Sierra On-Line company, and stayed with them for 16 years.

softporn adventures
Box art for Softporn Adventure by On-Line Systems

By his own admission, Al Lowe based much of Leisure Suit Larry on an old text adventure game written by Chuck Benton called Softporn Adventure.  The game revolved around the player finding various inventory items to get into the pants of several women – sound familiar?  Softporn Adventure was released for the Apple II system in 1981, selling 50,000 units for its publisher, On-Line Systems, (which eventually became Sierra On-Line).  Considering Apple had sold around 350,000 Apple II systems by 1981, Softporn Adventure was a decent sized hit.  Given that the Software Piracy Association’s estimated piracy rate was 40%, it was more likely that there were 70,000 copies floating around, which would be closer to 20% total market penetration.  (Al Lowe claims the ratio to be 100,000 Apple II PCs and 25,000 Softporn games sold, but his statement may have been a little bit of poetic license.)   Here’s a little historical tidbit for you: check out the lady on the right in the pic above…that’s Roberta Williams, in the buff.

 

Outside Lefty's bar in Leisure Suit Larry
Outside Lefty’s bar in Leisure Suit Larry

With sales like this, it’s little wonder that Ken Williams (husband of Roberta and one of the founders of Sierra) approached Al Lowe to make a new game with a similar motif.   They discussed updating Softporn Adventure to fit in the new 3-D animated adventure line-up, but as Lowe recalls telling Williams, “There’s no way I can do this as a serious game. It’s so out of it that it should be wearing a leisure suit…But if you let me mock it, I might be able to do a spoof of it.”   And so, six months of programming later, Leisure Suit Larry entered the marketplace, with a very quiet launch to avoid incurring the wrath of Sierra’s major distributors (like the unamused charcoal-gray suits in the Tandy Corporation headquarters, who were responsible for up to 40% of Sierra’s software sales).

 

Hot tub babe in Leisure Suit Larry
Hot tub babe in Leisure Suit Larry

Sales were very soft that first week, with only 4,000 copies sold; no advertising and no fanfare had its expected result.  However, word-of-mouth was as powerful in 1987 as it is today, and sales jumped to an impressive 250,000 copies sold.  The game even managed to garner the Software Publishers Association’s Best Fantasy, Role Playing or Adventure Gamof 1987. It was eventually released on several platforms, including IBM PC (MS-DOS), Apple II, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, Apple Macintosh, and the TRS-80.

 

Cover art for the VGA remake of Leisure Suit Larry
Cover art for the VGA remake of Leisure Suit Larry

With the advent of VGA technology, Sierra brought Leisure Suit Larry to a new audience in 1991.  It was relaunched with a completely redone game engine that used an icon-driven interface rather than a text-based parser, which was touted by the game packaging as an opportunity to “point-and-grope.”  The re-release used an updated SCI (Sierra Creative Interpreter) engine, which permitted 256-color VGA graphics.   This was quite the improvement upon the original 1987 game, whose highest graphics quality was 16 colors in a 300×200 screen.

 

Lefty's bar in the 1991 VGA remake of Leisure Suit Larry
Lefty’s bar in the 1991 VGA remake of Leisure Suit Larry

Another avenue that Al Lowe was able to exercise his creative spirit within Larry’s universe was putting his music roots to good use by composing the theme music for the Land of the Lounge Lizards.  The music was an integral component of Larry’s impending iconic status, using the primitive sound technology of the early PCs to create a jaunty tune that was easily identifiable as Larry’s theme.  The VGA remake also had access to better audio technology, and so the music is much richer.  There’s also much more of it, as Lowe could really only fit so much audio into a single 3.5″ or two 5.25″ floppy diskettes (what the original 1987 game came loaded on).

Musical score for Leisure Suit Larry
Musical score for Leisure Suit Larry

Al Lowe’s creation sold well enough that sequels were a highly anticipated inevitability.  Lounge Lizards was followed by 1988′s Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking For Love (in Several Wrong Places), which was followed by 1989′s Leisure Suit Larry III: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals. Typical of Lowe’s humorous approach to the series, the fourth game released in 1991 was actually entitled Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work.  Lowe followed up that game in 1993 with Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up Or Slip Out!.  Lowe’s final Larry game was 1996′s Leisure Suit Larry: Love For Sail. The dawn of true 3-D adventures was upon the gaming industry, but Sierra did not have the cash reserves to retool their flagship titles to the new standard.  Subsequently, Al Lowe was let go, ending his run as the narrator of the Leisure Suit Larry series, and ending Leisure Suit Larry‘s relevance.  Yes, more games in the series would be released, but they would be empty shells, devoid of the charm that Al Lowe captured for so many years, victims of the rise of the bean-counters in the gaming industry.  (Al Lowe is still on the Internet, and you can find him at his website: allowe.com How this creative man isn’t absolutely deluged with consultation requests from up-and-coming indie software developers amazes me.)

 

Hot tub babe from the 1991 version of Leisure Suit Larry I
Hot tub babe from the 1991 version of Leisure Suit Larry I

If you have managed to avoid playing the original Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, it’s time for that to end.  Yes, the graphics are hopelessly dated in comparison to the real-world graphic opuses that populate the gamerverse these days…but the joy of Leisure Suit Larry isn’t in the eye candy, it’s in the situational comedy coupled with Al Lowe’s scripting.  Pick up a copy – this game is worth any retrogamer’s retrogaming time!

Ten Questions: Matt Barton

Matt Barton is one of the smartest and most interesting people you can find online discussing, loving and showing off old & new games. Now, although you should preferably get to know him via his work on Matt Chat, the Amrchair Arcade and some rather impressive books, reading the following interview should be both enlightening and considered as an appetizer.
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1. Matt, care to introduce yourself to the merry retro loving lot that are the Gnomeslair.com & Obsolete Gamer readers?

I’m Matt Barton, host of Matt Chat, a weekly YouTube show dedicated to classic games. I’m also co-founder of Armchair Arcade and author of Dungeons & Desktops and Vintage Games (co-authored with my friend and colleague Bill Loguidice). I’m also an assistant (soon to be associate) professor of English at St. Cloud State University, where I teach classes in writing, rhetoric, and new media.

2. And what would you say some of your favourite games are? Any particular love for a genre or a gaming machine?

My favorite genres are adventure games, role-playing games, and strategy games. Some of my favorites include Baldur’s Gate, Pool of Radiance, World of Warcraft, Civilization, and the Nancy Drew series of adventure games. I have many consoles, but my favorite gaming device is the PC. Going further back, I will always be an Amiga and Commodore fan at heart.

3. So, Armchair Arcade, how would you describe the site and what’s the story behind it?

We were friends on a forum dedicated to Shane R. Monroe’s Retrogaming Radio show. We talked about putting together an online magazine, and eventually set it up. For awhile we focused on “issues” and tried to make it look like a retromag. We were amazed by how much attention it got, frequently mentioned on Slashdot and many other sites (even Slate and the Discovery Channel). Eventually, though, we morphed into a blog format and started selling our features to other sites (especially Gamasutra). Now we use AA as our home base for communicating to fans and fellow retrogamers, talking about our latest projects, and so on.

4. Same question on the incredibly well produced Matt Chat episodes… How did you decide to start a video show on retro games, and what would you say is this little something that makes Matt Chat unique (for, believe me, it is unique)? By the way, love that gaming wall you got in the background.

Matt Chat has come a long, long way in a short time. When I first started, it was just me and a webcam trying to hawk my books. The production quality was terrible! But I wanted to learn more about videos because Bill and I are producing a feature documentary for Lux Digital Pictures (Gameplay: The Story of the Videogame Revolution). I figured I needed more experience with videos to really handle a project like that, so I kept learning and experimenting, trying to refine my techniques. If you notice, I usually try to put in one more technique or one more refinement per episode, so I’m always learning something new.

I don’t think Matt Chat is unique. There are many, many other YouTubers out there doing similar shows. For instance, ianwilson1978 does great work on the Sega Genesis and Marlin Lee covers a variety of games. I guess one thing that makes my show special is that I feature games from all platforms, especially covering PC and computer titles that the others miss. Most other shows are dedicated to consoles, especially Nintendo classics. I figure those games already get enough love, so I try to cover ground that is not covered by the other shows–such as Dungeons of Daggorath for the Tandy CoCo, Tunnels of Doom for the TI-99/4A, or even the PLATO platform. I also feature interviews with classic developers, such as John Romero and Al Lowe. I’ll soon release my interview with Chris Avellone.

5. Really, is it tough producing something of this quality on a weekly basis?

It can be. Sometimes my editing program (Sony Vegas Platinum) crashes so much during rendering that I’m tempted to just give up. I would really love a better setup! The other big problem is capturing footage from games, especially old Windows games. Even with fraps, virtualdub, and the rest, it can be a nightmare sometimes capturing decent footage.

Other than these purely technical problems, though, it’s not hard at all. I can easily come up with things to say, and I like researching the games anyway. I also enjoy inserting inside jokes and humor, and interacting with the fans is a real joy.

6. How about your books? They are two on games and one on Wikis, correct? Do you feel gamers actually bother reading?

I think most gamers are highly intelligent; at least the ones I talk to. I know plenty of professors and graduate students who are serious gamers. But, of course, there are many who never pick up a book. That is sad, of course, since I couldn’t imagine living life without good books to read. It’s really important to read good books, not just newspapers and such. You can always tell when you’re talking to an avid reader, because he or she will be more knowledgeable on a broader range of topics–plus, I think it makes you more articulate and, frankly, intelligent. I had a friend who read War and Peace just for fun, but he told me later he felt more intelligent after reading it. Some people laugh at comics and graphic novels, but they are actually much more sophisticated now than they used to be. You could certainly learn a thing or two from Moore‘s work.

There’s really no excuse for being ignorant. So read!

7. Now, let’s focus a bit on the rather epic Dungeons and Desktops. Why CRPGs? Could you briefly describe the book? Has it sold to your expectations? Did you enjoy writing it?

It’s pretty much what it says; the history of computer role-playing games. I tried to talk about every important or even remotely influential game in the book, describing what makes them fun and how they fit into the grand history of the genre. I tried to show connections across eras and styles, so you could get a sense of the diversity. Someone may have heard of Baldur’s Gate, for instance, but be unaware of Planescape: Torment, Pool of Radiance, or Eye of the Beholder. I meet people who may know all about Zelda and Final Fantasy, but have never heard of Ultima or Lord British. That bothered me, so I thought it was time to write a book on the topic.

The book has sold well. Of course, something like this won’t be a bestseller. But I wrote this book for people like us, not the mainstream. By “us,” of course, I’m talking about people who love games like Wizardry and Fallout and enjoy nothing more than talking and thinking about them.

8. Should we expect more books from you? Maybe even a new project or collaboration?

Almost certainly, though it’s very hard to find publishers interested in game books. I have been dying to write a book on adventure games similar to D&D, but no takers so far. Bill and I have been talking about a book on the Atari 2600, and I’ve got one on virtual worlds that needs development. We will probably also write a book based on our documentary.

9. And now for something that interests me quite a bit on a personal level. How did you really manage to -effortlessly, it seems- combine an academic career with all this quality work on computer and video games?

In a sense gaming is my job. A professor is expected to research as well as teach, and game studies is an important part of new media. I’m presenting on aspects of gaming at two national conferences later this year (Computers and Writing, Rhetoric Society of America). People tend to think of “English” strictly as literature and grammar, but it’s far more than that! There are many of us studying games as well as other technologies like wikis and social networking. All of these things involve communication and rhetoric.

10. Finally, have you thought about actually creating a game yourself?

I have, though I’m not satisfied with the results! But a few years ago I taught myself C++ out of some books and made a simple adventure game, which I entered into the Interactive Fiction contest. I was shocked that it was 28th in the 12th annual interactive fiction competition. At any rate, it was fun learning C++, and I’d love to try something more ambitious one day.