Tex Murphy: Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum Bundle
If you were an active gamer through the 1990s, chances are you’re pretty familiar with the adventures of Tex Murphy. The private investigator provided a handful of great adventures, mixing film noir into a dystopian future along with healthy amounts of sarcasm and humor. Through the ongoing wonder of Good Old Games, the entire Tex Murphy saga is now being made available once more. The first two in the series, Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum, are being sold in a single bundle, with subsequent titles being released and sold individually.
Set in a post-nuclear 2033, Mean Streets casts you in the worn-down, alcohol-soaked shoes of Tex Murphy, a cynical private investigator who’s been hired to uncover the truth behind the apparent suicide of a prominent scientist. As you follow the various leads across the irradiated California landscape, you begin to uncover what the man had been working on, and of course the grand conspiracy whispering beneath the surface of it all. As a PI very much in the vein of Sam Spade, you’ll encounter shady dames, uncooperative low-life snitches, false clues and red herrings, and no small amount of gunfire. It’s got all the right elements for a solid detective game, and in many ways, it succeeds wonderfully.
The game is broken up into four distinct gameplay elements, each of which follow fairly naturally from one another. You start the game in your flying car which, after punching in your four-digit destination code, you can manually fly or simply activate the autopilot mode. With next to no scenery to look at beyond indistinct colored land, you’re better off letting the computer do the work, particularly as your travels will take you to dozens upon dozens of different locations as you investigate the case.
Besides, the investigation is the real meat of the game, part of which involves conversations with suspects, informants and other helpful types. Typing in keywords or names may or may not elicit a relevant response, leading you to more keywords, names or destination codes you can use to further the story and your own detective work. The game starts you out with a handful of leads, and from there you can work your way into the heart of the matter in a very non-linear fashion, using certain trails to figure out who next to talk to, or perhaps using cash earned from pawning items to bribe sources. This semi-freeform approach is a satisfying one, and makes you feel as though you’re doing actual detective work rather than trying to sniff out the next lever that will unlock the next part of the game. While such levers certainly do exist in the game’s structure, you’re given a fairly broad number of options to work around them. In fact, by the very nature of the game, you’re given such a long list of names, topics and destination codes that note-taking is absolutely mandatory—again, appropriate for the genre, and it helps to reinforce the game’s already strong atmosphere.
Many of these crucial clues are uncovered during the more standard adventure portion of the game, where you use the keyboard to manually move Tex around certain areas—laboratories, offices, apartments, and so on. The lack of mouse support is a bit jarring, but isn’t a deal-breaker by any stretch, though having to use the arrow keys to work through nested commands such as “Look -> desk -> desk drawer -> box” is a bit tiresome. Having these commands become usable only when you’re near an area that can be interacted with is helpful, however, and mitigates some of the interface issues. Still, Tex moves like molasses, which can be a pain, and there are some hilariously useless commands, such as Taste, whose only real purpose is to kill you when you dare to “Taste battery” and other obviously foolish moves.
Death comes just as easily from the occasional gunplay segment, which grow much more frequent the closer you get to the bottom of the case. It’s a fairly straightforward bit, requiring you to move from the left side of the screen to right while ducking and popping up just long enough to take out the endless waves of thugs trying to kill you. It’s not a major component of the game by any stretch, and although clumsy, it definitely helps to break up the proceedings.
It should be pointed out that death is not only possible in Mean Streets, but highly probable. Damn near everything can and likely will kill you, whether it’s flipping a switch that releases a murderous creature, pissing off an unexpectedly violent suspect, or taking one too many bullets to the chest. It’s appropriate for the detective angle, of course, but still requires you to save the game each and every time you step out of your vehicle.
Despite looking its age, Mean Streets remains surprisingly playable and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s non-linear enough to make you feel as though you’re actually investigating and not stepping through some pre-determined hoops, and it’s atmospheric enough to pull off the whole film noir feel. It’s definitely worth playing, even now, all these years later.
Sadly, not the same thing can be said for Martian Memorandum, which takes place after the events of the first game. This time, you’ve been hired to help find a rich industrialist’s daughter, who’s apparently been kidnapped by one of the many foes he’s made on his way to the top. The game uses much the same structure as the first, with exploration of various locations through look/move/open style commands and interrogation of suspects, and the film noir feel remains, though the many changes that have come with it have not necessarily been for the better.
Mouse support arrived with Martian Memorandum, which sped up snail-speed Tex and also did away with the flying car segments, all of which are marked improvements. The graphics have taken a step up as well, and the occasional audio clips and animated talking heads from the first have increased in number and quality this time out. What’s more, you no longer need to keep notes of topics or destinations as the game will handle that for you. Conversations are slightly more interactive, allowing you to choose from among several options, but this is actually where the game begins to stumble, and stumble badly.
In fact, Martian Memorandum is incredibly linear, requiring you to find just the right clue or answer before you can progress to the next chunk of story. This wouldn’t be too problematic if it weren’t for the fact that conversations can be long—in itself, not a bad thing—and requiring you to choose precisely the right combination of answers to uncover a clue you didn’t know you’d find, or even would be able to expect from the random choices that had to be made. As such, you’re forced to attempt nearly every possible combination of conversational options with every possible character in the hopes that they may contain the clue you need to move forward. It’s not fun in the slightest, and represents tedium of the worst kind. Compounding the problem is the fact that you can also use inventory items you’ve collected with people you speak with, though this too is only effective if done at precisely the right moment, which is also often less than obvious.
The writing for Martian Memorandum is still very Tex Murphy, full of sarcasm and film noir tropes, all wrapped in a dystopian future. It’s arguably worth playing, even if it takes some significant steps backwards from Mean Streets. In fact, with a pair of games that are still worth playing today, even 20 years after they were released, it’s hard not to find the Mean Streets + Martian Memorandum Bundle to be a worthwhile buy. It’s a good way to take a peek at the beginnings of good ol’ Tex Murphy, and it’s a great prelude to the truly definitive 3D adventures he’d later embark upon.
Title provided by Good Old Games (GOG.com).