When trying to figure out what adventure game I wanted to play next I noticed a similar premise between two on my to-play list.
Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist and Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman’s Mine are both western-themed adventure games. With that connection in mind I decided to play both at the same time.
Being a huge fan of Sierra On-Line adventure games, Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist (released in 1993) was a bit of a surprise for me as I had never heard of it until recently. After tracking down a copy I quickly realized why. Freddy Pharkas embodies just about everything that is wrong about certain adventure games of that era. Its main problem is a copy-protection mechanic that is interesting at first but quickly grows tiresome.
As the town’s pharmacist, Freddy fills its citizens’ prescriptions. A large part of the game’s action takes place from Freddy’s pharmacy’s workbench where, after consulting the game’s extensive manual, you must add ingredients in the correct measures, in the correct order, and using the right delivery method – via pills, bottles, etc – to create medicine. You do this many, many times. So much so that the plot of the game goes on hold for quite a while as you brew remedy after remedy. Having to spend a large chuck of the game looking at recipes in the manual took me out of the experience – I just wanted to play the game.
Also, Freddy Pharkas suffers from some major pixel-hunting requirements. After many frustrating hours spread over several days of being stuck I accidentally found my answer. I needed to take a key out of the church door. Mind you, using the hand icon on the door itself wouldn’t work, nor on the knob. Only by looking at the knob do you then see there’s a key you need. Really? I was supposed to be looking at the town’s doorknobs? The game is full of poor design choices.
It’s too bad that there are these drawbacks since Freddy Pharkas’ story is interesting and the game includes signature Sierra On-Line details. The game is full of bad jokes, puns, and the humor typical of the company at that time; all of which are pluses for me. I’ve played their other games so often it was fun to play one where I hadn’t heard the jokes for the hundredth time. However, after getting seriously stuck for the third time, and running into yet another prescription-filling session, the few good feelings I had for the game quickly vanished.
Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman’s Mine was released by Himalaya Studios in 2006. I came across the game after playing AGD Interactive’s freeware Sierra On-Line remakes of King’s Quest 1 and 2 and Quest for Glory 2. Himalaya Studios is AGDI’s commercial brand. I came into the game with high hopes since I really enjoy AGDI’s remakes and gladly paid for their commercial game.
I’m very conflicted about my experience with Al Emmo. My main gripe about the game is its characters. First, the voice of the main character, Al, is extremely grating. The purpose of giving him such a squeaky voice is to emphasize that he’s a loser but it’s so annoying that he never grew on me. You need to root for him and I never found myself doing so. Also, the game’s narrator emotes in a wry, bombastic style which is simply too much in certain situations. There’s an option to have the game’s dialogue displayed as captions instead of being voiced and unfortunately I felt it necessary to use that selection.
There are some interesting characters in the game but many are bad caricatures of dated pop-culture icons such as Pamela Anderson, Hugh Hefner, and Antonio Banderas. Creating a curvy, ditzy lifeguard named Pammy Sanderson, a sleazy whore house proprietor named Lou Heifer, and a suave Spaniard named Antonio Bandana is lazy. Plus it’s strange to have such irrelevant references in such a recent game. Sadly much of Al Emmo’s humor falls short in similar fashion. There is a lot of “breaking the fourth wall” and asides from the characters that aren’t as witty as the writers may have intended.
My next complaint is that the game is really unfocused. Its plot felt taped together and disjointed. It was odd to find that the actual Dutchman’s mine or any reference to it doesn’t show up until very far in the game. The opening movie is entirely about this fabled mine and a doomed expedition, but then it’s not mentioned in the slightest for several chapters. The game is centered on Al trying to woo and impress a beautiful woman in town. Finding the mine’s treasure is just a device to help him do so and not the center of an epic quest as I thought it might be.
While I think my above criticisms of Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman’s Mine are what ultimately sink the game, my conflicted feelings for it stem from what it does right. The game’s interface was clearly designed by people who’ve played adventure games. The small details make a difference, like being able to have Al run instead of walk. There are never any timed puzzles or anything that requires speed but it was very nice to not have to sit there while your character strolls across several screens. Even better, hit the “Esc” key while Al is walking and he will instantly move there. I can’t tell you how awesome that is. Much of playing adventure games is spent walking back and forth, from screen to screen, while you’re trying to figure out what to do next. You also have a map which allows you to zoom to major areas, making travel that much easier. The game world isn’t very big but it’s a nice way to keep the game moving.
While these may seem like minor things, they were enough to keep me in the game when the plot wasn’t.
The technical aspects of Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman’s Mine are pretty good for an indie release. The game has pretty hand-drawn backgrounds, nice character animations, and good sound design. But, in the end I just didn’t like it. That said, I will definitely buy any other games released by Himalaya Studios as I think there’s a lot of potential in their work.
So, at best, I had a mediocre experience with both games. The “western-themed” connection was a little reaching but I got to cross two games off my list. It was neat however to see a bit of progression from one adventure game era to the next. Thirteen years after Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist, Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman’s Mine shows some evolution in its mechanics even if the story and characters weren’t there.