Page to Pixel: The Martian Chronicles

Last week, I covered a great game based on the work of an author I’m not a huge fan of. This week, the tables turn.

The Martian Chronicles is essentially a re-edited collection of early Ray Bradbury stories concerning the colonization of the red planet, arranged into a solid continuity. The book begins with “Rocket Summer”, the Earth’s atmosphere creating a false season as numerous chemical rockets leave the planet for Mars. The book continues into a series of expeditions from several perspectives, including a few from the soon-to-be-extinct Martians. The book covers the conquest and colonization of Mars in addition to the gradual emptying of Earth, predominately due to protracted nuclear war. Considering its publication date of 1950, it was ahead of both the sci fi and nuclear paranoia curves.

I first read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in the 3rd grade. I thought it was pretty interesting, portraying humans as alien invaders who had destroyed their own homeworld with atomic weapons. Up until this point, I had always seen science fiction with largely human heroes. Star Wars, Star Trek, and at worst the then-recent Independence Day. There are good people, there are bad people, but all are protagonists. The fact that it was essentially a collection of short stories made it easy to digest, and set me on a journey of discovering tons of other science fiction.

Ray Bradbury, by the way, is one of the most celebrated speculative fiction writers of the 20th century. Although perhaps most at home in the short story, he has also put out several novels over the years, from the dystopian Fahrenheit 451 to the nostalgic look back at his childhood, Dandelion Wine, to his dark fantasy magnum opus, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is one of my personal favorite novels of all time. He’s written the full spectrum from horror to space opera to pulp detective stories, and has earned a major place in the public literary consciousness.

So cue my birthday one year. While my parents had the good sense to buy me a Sierra game (Lords of the Realm 2), one of my alleged friends decided to give me a copy of The Martian Chronicles, developed by Byron Preiss Multimedia. Never heard of them? There’s a good reason you’ve never heard of them. While you might say, “Gee, Chad, you could be a little nicer – after all, he did have the presence of mind to give you a game based on one of your favorite novels, and it’s the thought that counts,” that argument doesn’t hold much water because he left the price tag on. The Electronics Botique clearance sticker was still on the box. Let that marked-down-to-$2.50 sticker set the tone for the rest of the article.

Argh…Where do I begin?

This is about as pretty as the game gets.

The game is essentially a first-person point and click adventure game, not unlike Myst or 7th Guest. However, both of those games were released in 1993, while the Martian Chronicles was released in 1995 and, true to Byron Preiss Multimedia’s other titles (such as Westworld 2000), the game’s graphics don’t hold a candle to games released years previous. Now, I’m the first to admit in most cases that graphics don’t make a game. In most cases. But with the pretty-picture-point-and-clicks, they are a very important aspect of the game. Let’s face it, if Myst and 7th Guest weren’t beautiful and atmospheric, would they have made the impact that they had?

They must have done their store titles in MS Works. Not Word. Works.

Let’s face it, Martian Chronicles could have quietly passed as mediocre if it was just a Myst clone with poor graphics. Unfortunately, the game has to go beyond that with annoying play mechanics. For one, your mission to the red planet is timed, which on its own might not be bad. Then you add in tools. Which have a certain battery life. If you run out of batteries, you have to slog it back to your ship to recharge. This takes up one of your precious twelve hours, and, being a kid at the time, I ended up never getting very far as my tools never made it very far. Would a portable proton pack be too much to ask?

As for the puzzle design itself: imagine a designer that’s as sadistic as Roberta Williams, as incoherent as Hideo Kojima, and lacking the talent of either of them. That guy designed the puzzles in the Martian Chronicles. The Martians are mentioned to be a highly advanced race; I suppose with high tech comes great insanity. The solve-the-soup-cans puzzles in this game make Resident Evil’s crests look like good ideas by comparison.

So I guess they’ve got Triforces in stock again.

As far as storyline goes…don’t expect much. The game’s story concerns an expedition not mentioned in the book, where you’re searching Martian ruins for clues about their civilizations. But didn’t humans wipe out all the Martians? There are several just wandering around, running shops. Complete global saturation by humans, what’s that? The game lacks any of the ingenuity or cleverness of Ray Bradbury’s writing.

Also, I don’t think there was a quicksave function. That adds to the frustration.

The only redeeming feature the game really has is a few interviews and readings with Ray Bradbury in gloriously grainy QuickTime windows. When the highlight of a game is a non-interactive sequence that has nothing to do with the gameplay, you know something is seriously wrong.

So what’s my final verdict here? By all means, read the book if you haven’t. There’s never a bad reason to pick up a Bradbury book. The game on the other hand…leave it in the red dust of obscurity where it belongs. If you want a good adventure game set on Mars, give Cydonia: The First Manned Mission a shot. It’s a lot better than anything Byron Preiss Multimedia ever put out.

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