In an interview with G4’s X-Play, the director of Wreck-It-Ralph, Rich Moore, was asked what game he would like to be in and he asked if Leisure Suit Larry was still around.
It is in spirit if not as a solid franchise after the debacle of 2009’s critically eviscerated Box Office Bust. But I remember when the game first arrived on shelves, snubbing family friendly shooters and adventure games for something aimed right at adult gamers.
Al Lowe didn’t begin his career as a programmer — he was a musician and a teacher who taught himself how to program when he saw how fun games were and wanted to try something new. As he said in an interview over at Adventure Classic Gaming:
“My training was zero. I bought an Apple II in the very early days, about 1978-9. I just messed around with it, using it to further my work as a music teacher. I had no classes in programming because there were no classes in PC programming. Sure, there were classes in Fortran and Cobol, but nobody taught how to write games or entertainment software or software to do your job. So, my class work and my formal training was zilch. But I had a lot of desire. I read a lot of books, studied and practiced a lot. I began with small steps and eventually got to the point where I thought I could create a game.
And that’s what I did. While working fulltime, I wrote 3 games in 3 months. Of course, back then, games were small. Because my college degrees were in education, my first game was an educational game for children, written for my son who was then 4 years old. He and I played it together because I was trying to teach him to read. And that’s my pre-Sierra background as a programmer.”
Sierra’s Ken and Roberta Williams saw his games, and the rest would become history. Joining up with Sierra would expose this former music teacher to some of the smartest and creative people in the industry as he worked on a number of the most iconic games the venerable adventure house would be known for such as King’s Quest.
After purchasing his Apple II, “one of the first games” that Al had was an adult text adventure called Softporn Adventures which was published in 1981 by then-named On-Line Systems (who would later go on to become Sierra On-Line). Surprisingly, Al likened Softporn to being the “Halo” of the time because of how well it sold against how many Apple II PCs were out at the time stating that “At the time when there were only 100,000 Apple II computers on Earth, Sierra had sold 25,000 copies of Softporn — and everybody I knew had a pirated version!”.
Several years (and Disney games) later, the idea to do a remake of Softporn Adventures set the seed for what would become Leisure Suit Larry. Looking back on the game, however, Al knew he couldn’t simply redo it — it had to be stripped down and rebuilt not as a serious game but more as a “spoof” of what it was. And that game would arrive as Leisure Suit Larry: In the Land of the Lounge Lizards in 1987.
Much like how Earthbound in 1994 made a splash for poking fun at American culture and taking a tangent away from the swords and sorcery dominating the JRPG genre, Larry took players into the fictional funny pages of Larry Laffer’s mid-life crisis to lose his virginity and find the perfect woman in the city of Lost Wages.
As chauvenistic as it might sound, it wasn’t the case — the women in the game were far from simply being objects of Larry’s clumsy affection. As Al has said in an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun:
“How do you take a chauvinistic arsehole of a guy and make him likeable? I solved it by making him think he was cool and on top of things, but then to make him lose. The women in the games always came out on top. I can’t tell you how many times a woman has said to me, “Oh, you’re that Al Lowe. I hate your games! You wrote that chauvinistic Larry game.” But invariably, another woman would come to my defence, saying, “Have ever played his games? If you had, you’d know better…”
This approach turned out to make the game’s spoof of Softporn’s seriousness a comedic goldmine poking fun at social insecurities, stereotypes, and adult situations. Lowe had always had a love for entertaining his students and those around him, and it came through putting Leisure Suit Larry together, especially when the narration snarkily jabbed at Larry’s efforts.
The game itself was an innovative title in many daring ways that censors today would probably cry ESRB tears over. Though it came off as a standard adventure title, it was as far removed from King’s Quest as Police Quest was. For one thing, it wasn’t shy about killing the player off, something that was something of a staple in older adventure games back in the day. But it was in how the game delivered the Reaper that the game set itself apart as adult humor.
For example, one of the first characters that Larry would meet was a prostitute from whom he could catch an STD…and then die from it later unless he used a condom. The game was also timed. If Larry didn’t luck out and convince someone that he’s not a total loser, he commits suicide. However, there was also a way to knock out the time limit within the game if the player was clever enough.
The copy protection was also geared towards adults with multiple choice questions such as asking what the result of Watergate was to what you would do if Bo Derek was in the room. There’s even a question on O. J. Simpson with one of the answers almost prophetic in saying “under indictment”.
The game initially didn’t sell well, but over the next few months after its release, snowballed into a phenomenal game that offended, inspired, and entertained thousands upon thousands of fans who appreciated the humorous adult jabs the game delivered with every innuendo. Sierra had a hit on their hands and Al would remain with the series on through six major chapters (the fourth one being scrapped and jokingly referred to by fans as “The Case of the Missing Floppies”.
Unfortunately, the adventure game market began petering out by the time Leisure Suit Larry 7 arrived in 1996 despite being a successful title. Eventually, Lowe left Sierra On-Line — now without Ken or Roberta Williams — in 1999.
Al was never consulted for the last two games to bear the Leisure Suit Larry moniker — Magna Cum Laude and Box Office Bust — both of which were critically panned. Humor is hard, but Lowe and the crew around him had the kind of passion and panache for that kind of thing that their games and few others exemplified.
Even today, finding a truly “funny” game can be a tough thing to do in much the same way as finding a truly scary one. But it’s not impossible. Games such as Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time or Planet Moon Studios’ Armed and Dangerous show that integrating humor within gameplay can work out. But how about adult humor? How about another Leisure Suit Larry?
A passionate group of fans at Replay Games have succeeded in their Kickstarter drive to remake the original PC series with help from the original team including Al Lowe. If you can’t wait for them to finish, you can always take a stab at the originals thanks to the Windows collections that you can snag at places like Amazon.
As for Lowe, he’s still out and about having a great time sharing stories from the trenches along with a few jokes. You can catch up with his latest over at his site which has a wealth of links to interviews and everything Leisure Suit Larry — and a few of this other, non-adult projects such as Torin — that you would ever want.
When people talk about milestones in adventure gaming, Leisure Suit Larry’s raunchy humor and adult trappings are almost always a part of the conversation. It’s still considered ahead of its time for its explicit humor and for being adult oriented, something that clearly contrasts with big publishers today that worry over ESRB ratings affecting market penetration. Back then, priorities seemed to be focused more on simply making a good game. And in Al Lowe’s case, a funny one that no one had ever seen before.
Larry Laffer in the ad above stands forlorn in his leisure suit and receding hairline outside the door to Lefty’s, symbolic in a way of how the adventure genre has fallen back from its glory days in the 80s and the 90s. But he should take heart in knowing that it’s thanks to him, and those like him, that the gutsy lessons they had left designers are still with us today. And that they can still scare the censors.