Romp on the wild side. (Freddy Pharkas computer game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Paul C. Schuytema
Become a Wild West pharmacist in Al Lowe and Josh Mandel's latest zany world.
First, grind up a portion of Bimthylquinoline crystals; then add just a touch of Metyraphosphate. Dispense as a powder, and presto! Birth control for the radical woman of the 1880s. This and other exciting recipes can be yours to concoct in Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist, the latest adventure from the twisted minds of Al Lowe and Josh Mandel.
Freddy Pharkas is the first truly fresh idea for an adventure game that I've seen for quite some time. The game takes place in Coarsegold, California, in 1888--just a few years after the gold rush. Our hero, Freddy, is not a gunslinger (although he once was); he's a pharmacist who also runs a soda fountain on the side.
I spoke with designer Al Lowe about the game, and I was particularly interested in how he came up with the idea of Wild West pharmacology. It seems that the team at Sierra On-Line had already committed to doing a comedy Western game, since it was a hitherto untapped niche in the adventure market. Lowe, along with Mandel (the adventure's producer and writer) and Roberta Williams (of Laura Bow fame) were sitting around, brainstorming, looking for a central character. Lowe somehow got his tongue twisted as he attempted to say "farmer" and "rancher" at the same time, and "pharmacist" came out. Within minutes, the three of them were laughing so hard that they were rolling on the floor. The idea of a frontier pharmacist was one of those ingenious mistakes, and it was perfect.
Freddy is a Dudley DoRight sort of guy. He has a diploma and is struggling to keep his village from becoming just another ghost town.
A few things really stand out in this adventure. First is the feeling of a true environment: Coarsegold seems to be living and breathing even when Freddy isn't there. The town is a side-scrolling work of art. It was first created as a six-foot-long painting, and then it was digitized into the computer. (The original is now hanging at the Sierra offices in modern-day Coarsegold.)
Beyond just looking gorgeous, the town is a closed system that allows Freddy to wander, explore, and interact with the characters in a very convincing way.
The game's puzzles are also outstanding. Face it: Any good adventure game is simply a good story braided with a series of player-solvable puzzles. But all too often, the puzzles fit a routine formula or are so obtuse that people in their right minds can't begin to solve them.
In Freddy Pharkas, the puzzles are difficult yet solvable, and there's more player involvement. But what makes them so interesting is that each one is unique and crazy; they really stretched my creative-problem-solving acumen. Freddy must analyze, mix, build, and perform all sorts of gyrations as he moves from puzzle to puzzle, making players work very hard for rewards.
I've deliberately avoided talking about the game as a comedy because, for me, gameplay is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Freddy Pharkas, though, is a comedy, first and foremost. Lowe saw it as an opportunity to pay homage to the rather seedy genre of the Western film, and he took nearly every cliche he could find and warped it to fit this zany world.
Some characters, like Freddy's faithful Indian sidekick, Srini Bagdnish (the animist from India), play with the stereotypes. Other gags pay homage to certain movies; take, for instance, the scene between Srini and Freddy, which is reminiscent of the scene in Cat Ballou in which Jane Fonda helps Lee Marvin dress for a gunfight.
Lowe worked long and hard on the story line for Freddy Pharkas, attempting to create the richest and most believable tale possible for his sense of humor. He even took a workshop in plot and story development from Roger McKee to help with his story. Then he turned to Mandel for his magic pen. Mandel wrote the text of the gags and dialogue, and he created a wonderfully absurd handbook, The Modern-Day Book of Health and Hygiene: 1881 Edition, which comes with the game.
When I asked Lowe what difficulties he encountered when working on Freddy Pharkas, he was silent for a moment. Then he shrugged (over the phone) and said, "Actually, I'm getting pretty good at this." You'll agree with him when you play the game.
He's very appreciative to all those who've helped him create the game, especially Clint Eastwood, whose movie Unforgiven is one of Lowe's favorites. And Lowe says that he certainly appreciates Clint's winning and Oscar just to promote Freddy Pharkas.
Freddy Pharkas breaks new ground and refines Lowe's comic storytelling ability. But most important, it's extremely challenging and entertaining. Like any good B Western that comes with a tub of popcorn, Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist is well worth the price of admission. Indeed, taking a romp on the range with this Wild West pharmacist is time well spent.