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.”)
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!
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 Cauldron, Donald 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 Keep were two of them) and sold them to the fledgling Sierra On-Line company, and stayed with them for 16 years.
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.
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).
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 Game of 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.
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.
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).
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.)
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!
Opening credits and Tandy DAC music for Leisure Suit Larry (1987)
Filed under: Game of the Week, PC Games, Retro Gaming Tagged: | Al Lowe, ken williams, Leisure Suit Larry, magisterrex game of the week, retrogaming, roberta williams, sierra on-line, Softporn Adventure