Scrolling Pixels: Let’s play a load of free point-and-click games

3 Aug 2015

A scene from Beneath A Steel Sky

Scrolling Pixels is Dean Van Nguyen’s monthly retro gaming column.

If you were a prolific PC gamer in the mid-’90s, your collection was no doubt packed full of point-and-click titles. They were big hits on DOS back in the day, and the huge amount of absolute must-plays in the genre helped make desktop machines essential gaming platforms as these were experiences not easily replicated on the era’s consoles. Point-and-click titles, you see, worked best with a PC or Amiga’s mouse. Gamers would move their character around the screen by clicking where they wanted to walk to, using their cursor to interact with objects on the screen (left click to ‘walk’, right click to ‘pick up’, ‘use’ or ‘talk to’ was a common formula). Plus, most point-and-click games were designed for hefty CD-ROMs that could hold tons of great audio and video, giving them better surface-level production values than cartridge-held games.

While CD-ROMs often boasted pristine music and professionally-recorded movie clips, PC just wasn’t as powerful a gaming platform as the Super Nintendo or Sega Megadrive. Point-and-click games were actually deceptively simple, built on a pretty straightforward puzzle-solving formula. The player would generally be given a task – finding objects, for example –which would need to be completed to push the story forward. Get stuck, and gameplay would usually devolve into you trying to randomly interact with people or objects until something worked. Sometimes you’d be left conversing with the supporting cast, working your way through all the multiple-choice dialogue until you finally asked the right question.

But what the best titles in genre did boast was deep characters, gorgeous artwork, funny gags and great storytelling. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, George Lucas’s LucasArts went hard on point-and-clickers, releasing classics like the genre-creating Maniac Mansion (1987) and it’s sequel Day of the Tentacle (1993). LucasArts was the studio behind one of my favourite PC games ever, the Mark Hamill-starring Full Throttle (1995) and even released two Indiana Jones point-and-click titles, while the Christopher Lloyd-starring Toonstruck (1996), released by Burst Studios, and Sierra’s Police Quest: Open Season (1993) were other genre highpoints.

But we’re not here to talk about those classics. Many are tough to track down now, and even if you do manage to find copies, they’re not always compatible with modern computers (your laptop probably doesn’t have a CD-ROM drive, like). Where you can find some great point-and-click titles though is, a distribution service and publisher for PC Games that boasts tons of retro titles and a downloadable interface to play them all on. There are loads more available on the popular Steam, but if you don’t use GOG already I highly recommend it. Most of the older games are super cheap. Some, in fact, are free.

Running a few searches and doing a bit of cross-referencing, I found five free old point-and-click games to download for no charge whatsoever via GOG, none of which I’d ever played before. So in an attempt to rekindle my love for the glorious charm of the point-and-click adventure, I snatched them all from the site and delved right in. Whether you’re a fan of the genre or someone just curious as to what’s this all about, there’s free gold to be claimed.

Before we get started, you should know that I’m still making my way through some of these. The amount of time I’ve spent on each game has somewhat depended on how much I’ve been enjoying it. There’s a couple in here I haven’t finished and have no intention of revisiting again soon. If you’re really interested, I’d suggest looking up more in-depth reviews too. Okay, now let’s get go.

Beneath A Steel Sky (1994)

From the off, it’s pretty easy to see why Beneath A Steel Sky is considered a classic of the genre. A collaboration between game director Charles Cecil and comic book artist Dave Gibbons, best known for his work on Watchmen, the gorgeous artwork helps create a fully-functioning dystopian future in the vein of sci-fi overlord Philip K. Dick and the movies based on his books, like Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. It’s a universe that demands exploration, while Cecil’s dense plot and slick gameplay do Gibbons’ work justice.

Set at an unknown point in future Australia, players take control of Robert Foster, who as an orphaned child was adopted by a group of local Aboriginals who live away from the harsh, overpopulated, industrial metropolis of Union City. Having grown up peacefully, the story begins as armed security officers arrive to take Robert back ‘home’. But he soon escapes and, along with his robot sidekick Joey, embarks on an adventure to discover the corruption that plagues this new-age society.

Though a standard point-and-clicker, Beneath A Steel Sky is challenging. While many games in the genre require players to essentially go on a scavenger hunt to find the objects necessary to complete each section, tasks here are not always so obvious, meaning each area needs to be fully explored to be unlocked. The controls are responsive and I came across no real bugs or other frustrations. And while the games themes of political corruption and critiques on capitalism seem weighty, there’s plenty of wry humour and great voice work to keep things light. Joey, for example, is ripped straight out of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, while there’s some nice nods to Dr Who and other sci-fi hits too.

Where the game really excels, though, is in its presentation. More than 100 locations were designed and art directed by Gibbons, and the artist litters every scene with individually-crafted buildings, machines, robots and vehicles, creating a futuristic world that rings with a tough beauty. World building at its pixelated finest, moving Beneath A Steel Sky forward so you can drive deeper and deeper into his imagination is genuinely thrilling.

Teenagent (1995)

Created by Polish developer Metropolis Software House, Teenagent was released a year after Beneath A Steel Sky, but appears miles behind in terms of artwork, depth and audio. For one, there’s no voices, just text on screen for dialogue that plays over some dinky, sometimes grating 8-bit blips. The graphics are colourful but never thrilling, and the control system is stripped to its barest.

But while the budget wasn’t nearly as big as the expansive Beneath A Steel Sky, it does somewhat make up for the lack of depth with a kind of goofy charm and ridiculous slapstick humour. Teenagent is entirely playing for laughs – the plot sees a government agency recruit a teenager, of all people, to investigate a series of gold heists – and the running time is pretty short (you could complete it in 90 minutes if you’re fully focused), making it a worthwhile little time waster for hardcore genre fans.

Despite its lack of scale, the game has its fans. In fact, Polish musician Radek Szamrej was even moved to release his own version of the game’s soundtrack in 2010.

Lure of the Temptress (1992)

The point-and-click control system evolved from the very primitive interactive-fiction style, where players would input actions by typing them out. Games way back in the day didn’t always feature graphics, and players would instead read what was happening and allow their imagination to do the rest. That eventually progressed to graphic adventure games that utilised a similar text input system.

Despite dropping in 1992, a full five years after Maniac Mansion basically invented the point-and-click game, Lure of the Temptress, Revolution Software’s debut title, feels more like a hangover from the text input generation. The two-mouse click controls are a little sticky (on my Mac anyway), and the game is slow and word heavy. Though a critical success upon its 1992 release, playing it today, the game is very obviously lacking the polish of later titles.

Still, seeing as it’s the Game of Thrones off-season, I was really up for getting immersed in a fantasy epic, and Lure of the Temptress just about delivered. While the sound effects are pretty primitive (no voices, just all that text) and the game is frickin’ tough-as-hell from the start, it has got a nicely conceived plot that follows a young peasant named Diermot who takes on the evil sorceress Selena. Built with the Virtual Theatre engine that Revolution would later use to create Beneath A Steel Sky, the visuals pack a good amount of detail for the day, and there’s plenty of amusement to be derived from the colourful characters you’ll interact with throughout.

Flight of The Amazon Queen (1995)

Of the four games I played, this was my favourite. Though developed by Renegade Software, Flight of The Amazon Queen boasts all the idiosyncrasies of a classic LucasArts point-and-clicker. It’s bright, it’s daft, and it’s totally fun to play. The game has some fun with the standard scavenger hunt point-and-click framework (fake comedy breasts are required to complete an early puzzle), while still boasting some fairly tricky segments that will stretch even seasoned gamers

Though not created by LucasArts, the game shamelessly lifts a huge amount from the Indiana Jones movies. Set in 1949, it draws from the same adventure serials and pulp magazines of the era that Steven Spielberg took from when creating the character. Lead character Joe King (I see what they did there) even has a fear of snakes, and the game’s light, globe-trotting entertainment hits all the same notes when King, a pilot of hire, crash lands in the Amazon jungle where he discovers a mad scientist who has concocted a dastardly plot to turn people into Dinosaur warriors.

It sounds totally silly, and it is. But Flight of The Amazon Queen is completely self aware. The dialogue is always amusing, delivered by droll, in-on-the-joke voice actors, while the game has no problem with dropping in pop culture references that make no sense for the time period (“Oil be back,” says Joe after taking out some goons with a drum of the black stuff). These are hallmarks of the very best point-and-click games, like Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle, which Flight of The Amazon Queen comfortably sits beside. Go and get this one first.

Dragonsphere (1994)

Like Lure of the Temptress, MicroProse’s Dragonsphere is a text-heavy fantasy game. But while Temptress‘s large amount of reading was a bit of chore, this crazy thing boasts prose so dense that you can’t help but take it all in with a bit of a smirk. The writer was clearly grappling with some Tolkien notions here. Sample text: “Your teacher of etiquette always said, ‘do nothing in the clothes in which you sleep, except sleep’. Despite the few exceptions you’ve discovered as you’ve grew older, you’ve found it to be pretty sound advice. Now, dressed in your travelling clothes, you feel ready to do anything.” And that’s just when you command your character, King Callash, to get dressed.

Dragonsphere is pretty funny, and not in the self-aware way that Flight of the Amazon Queen is funny. The voice acting is dreadful – annoying, even – and the music is uninspired. The graphics haven’t aged particularly well (the visuals seemingly pull influence from old-fashioned oil paintings), though, to its credit, the animations are nice and smooth. The universe, meanwhile, is kind of baffling. In one sequence, you – the King, remember – attempt to bribe your own guards to allow you access to a section of your own land.

I found this one hard to get into, which is a shame since the game – known as a bit of cult classic these days – boasts a huge universe to explore and old-fashioned fantasy ethos that would appeal to fans of that style of literature. Recommended only to gamers with high levels of patience.

Dean Van Nguyen was a contributor to Silicon Republic