51: Mean Streets

Publisher: Access Software
Developer: Access Software
Year: 1989
Platform: DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64

Review: The first of five games starring private detective Tex Murphy, Mean Streets broke ground where adventure games had yet not traveled. The true definition of a hybrid game, Access Software took several chances with the design. Combining inventory puzzles, interrogations, arcade sequences, and even a flight simulator, the developers threw in everything but the kitchen sink.  Either the game would appeal to a wide market, or alienate everyone. Not every experiment proved successful, but everything is held together by the game’s personality.

Tex Murphy frequently tops lists of greatest adventure game characters. While most of those amorous feelings toward Tex likely rest with the final three games of the series (where Tex is in his full-motion video glory), the springboard is Mean Streets. Moving to San Francisco in the near post-apocalyptic future, Tex accepts $10,000 from bombshell Sylvia Linsky, who’s looking for answers regarding her father’s suspicious suicide. Tex, obviously a film noir buff, plays the part to the hilt. His arrogant, calculating demeanor is offset by his charm and good looks. He employs, predictably, a cute and innocent secretary, who obviously has a crush on him. He also has an exotic, sultry informant, just one videophone call away. He also has a quid pro quo relationship with one of the local detectives. In short, he’s a well-done cliché.

But it’s not just Tex that has personality.  The entire game oozes cool. The future is as bleak as every good 60’s bomb-fearing prophet would have you believe. San Francisco is divided, the fallout mutants segregated into the bad neighborhoods. The politics in the city are practically militant. Corruption is commonplace. Nobody trusts anyone, including Tex. And everybody has a fucking gun.

The gameplay itself is average at best. With no mouse support, the interface is clumsy. Basically, play goes like this: travel to residence of witness/informant, interrogate said witness on a limited set of topics, bribe or threaten as necessary, get new information, and repeat ad nauseam. Interludes include arcade sequences where you must duck under bullets–they’re slow bullets–and shoot the endless bad guys. Occasionally, you must raid someone’s home or office, steal their valuables (hey, someone’s got to pay for Tex’s ammunition and bribe money), disable alarms, and find more clues.

The arcade sequences are all exactly the same, with background swaps. They’re incredibly easy, and ultimately boring. Further, they’re entirely silly, detracting from the atmosphere. The flight simulator is clunky and also pointless. Nothing happens in your hovercraft other than going from one location to the next, so after the first couple of trips, flying becomes a chore.  Thankfully, there’s an autopilot option available, so whenever you need to go somewhere else, you can simply set the course, head to the fridge, and come back a couple minutes later when the craft finally lands.

The entertaining parts are the typical adventure game fare. Searching residences is rather easy, as you simply select actions and objects from a menu while walking around. But there’s so much to see in every room, and by the time you’re through investigating, you have a pretty good picture of the occupant. The hit man’s got cigarette butts, a blow-up doll, and a briefcase with a tag that threatens the life of whomever touches it. One suspect’s beach home has lingerie and handcuffs lying about, evidence of an affair with another suspect. Try to taste the lingerie? The game responds with disgust at your impure thoughts. Try to eat the two-day old pizza? The game lets you do so and tells you how lovely it was. Swallow the contents of the mysterious bottle? Meet the grim reaper. In fact, there are many entertaining ways to off yourself, a part I always yearn for. And there are also several hilarious pop culture references, my favorite poking jabs at Lost in Space.

Meanwhile, interrogation is even easier, but fun nevertheless. The various personalities you run into are a blast, but besides that, Mean Streets broke a lot of new ground here. Digitized graphics were almost unheard of in 1989, and the actors all pose for their parts well. This was also the first major game to have 256-color VGA graphics and have digitized sound from the PC speaker! The speech is minimal, but what’s there adds more flavor to the game.

The game is fairly non-linear, with clues obtainable via many sources. Having enough money for bribes should never be an issue as long as you steal enough from the various homes you enter. Ultimately, Mean Streets is one heluva easy game (with a fairly predictable plot), unnecessarily padded with the non-adventure elements. But it contains enough great dialogue, characterizations, and atmosphere to warrant at least one playthrough by fans of the series. It’s certainly easy to see why a sequel was soon forthcoming.

Remember, the only good freak is a dead freak.

Contemporary RatingLow.  The confusing and time-consuming flight simulator along with the keyboard only controls date the game terribly.

Cruelty Rating:  Tough.  You could run out of money if you’re extremely careless.  There are puzzles that have local time limits, but they’re apparent.

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