Just who were Sierra Online?
Way back in 1979, Sierra Online was founded as a business tech start up by Ken and Roberta Williams. Never being ones to sit idly by and let an opportunity slip past, the husband and wife couple found interest in adventure games. At the time, adventure games were very simple; text based black and white screens in a dungeons and dragons style. By utilising their combined skill (and an Apple II), Mystery House was created: Sierra Online had transitioned to video games.
The earliest Sierra Online titles were centered around the adventure game genre. Simple puzzle games mixed with exploration elements that drew gamers into a story. Effectively, they changed the industry when they added graphics to their adventures and this gave them the edge over the competition.
Sierra Online had a long history in the video game industry that spanned generations. From the earliest days of the video game crash in 1983 to the release of the eighth generation of consoles, Sierra Online had seen it all. But which of their games have stood the test of time? And of course, where can you play them today?
Caesar II (1995)
Caesar II is a cross between RTS and city build’em up and is a classic for many reasons. The unforgiving computer barbarians, the land value that shifts from high to low in seconds with no reason and also the classic phrase “Plebs are needed!”.
But if you give it a chance, Caesar II will suck you in and not let you out. There is a real balance to how you are expected to balance your cities needs versus the province at large. Expanding your domain is fraught with danger and your city will need to be properly defended before you do anything.
Caesar II was one of the finest strategy game released up to this time and has since been regarded as a classic. Is it any wonder that the year Caesar II was released was also the year in which Sierra Online was the market leader in the PC gaming industry? 1995 was a great year for Sierra Online.
Caesar II is available to play now via an emulator on playclassic.games and also available on steam.
Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel (1987 and re-released in 1992)
Police Quest was one of the longest running series of Sierra Onlines library of franchises. Spanning 1987 to 2008, this series has been around nearly as long as Super Mario! Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel is the first entry in the series, and arguably one of the best.
Playing as Sonny Bonds, a veteran cop in Lytton California (not to be confused with the very real Lytton Canada), the player has to complete typical day to day tasks of the regular frontline officer. From securing crime scenes to recovering evidence, it was supposedly used as a training tool for the police at one point!
The game featured stunning graphics for its day and a tonne of pop culture references. It was firmly planted in its setting and is one of the most enjoyable point and click adventures I have ever played.
Police Quest: In pursuit of the Death Angel is available to play now on playclassic.games
One of the wilder entries in this list is the brilliant Phantasmagoria. Of all the retro games in existence, those with full motion capture gameplay have definitely aged the worst. But that just adds to their charm (at least I hope it does). Phantasmagoria was released in 1995 during the height of its genres popularity.
Classed as a point and click horror game, Phantasmagoria absolutely blew its budget on impressive cinematography and came on a whopping 7 CD-roms. Incredibly, the game was a commercial success and had a gross sales of $12,000,000 in its first weekend alone.
Phantasmagoria was also one of the goriest games released up until 1995. Far away from the campy horror of games like Night Trap and Dracula Unleashed. Phantasmagoria broke the mould for declaring itself a game for adults and being produly uncompromising.
Kings Quest VII: The Princeless Bride (1994)
Kings Quest is a series I was never able to get into as a child. By the time I was playing point and click adventure games, I’d been drawn to the Monkey Island series. Kings Quest had the look and feel of a Disney film and that simply turned me away.
Regrettably it took me another 16 years before I would give the game a chance and it really took my breath away. Kings Quest VII: The Princeless Bride is a graphical masterpiece with wonderful voice acting and an endearing cast of characters. Usually the series followed the adventures of the titular King Graham in the Kingdom of Daventry, instead we have two heroines in a first for the series.
The humour and script of this entry of Kings Quest is as good as it had ever been. Reviewers praised the graphic overhaul though it’s cartoonish upgrade may have contributed to the series’ slow downfall as it changed direction from the high fantasy its fans had come to expect.
Half Life (1998)
One of, if not, THE most well known first person shooter in history. Unbelievably Valve struggled to find a publisher to pick up Half Life. Valve had only just been formed and already decided to change the industry. It wouldn’t be until Sierra Online became involved that Valve would have a publisher that believed in their vision and allowed them to make the game that would change everything.
Half Life features the tale of one Gordon Freeman, MIT scientist, who gets caught up in a resonance cascade during a standard insertion procedure. All heck breaks loose as creatures from another dimension flood into the Black Mesa facility and it’s up to our Freeman to fix it all.
The misadventures of everyone’s favourite crowbar wielding scientist has now drawn nearly 30 million physical sales for the series. Not to mention digital sales and we all wait with bated breath for Half Life 3. Don’t we?
Half Life is available to play now on Steam
What happened to Sierra Online?
Sierra Online was an absolute powerhouse of the nineties. In 1996, one of the greatest developers and publishers, was targeted for purchase by a large corporation named CUC International. The acquisition was worth $1.5 billion, an incredible amount for a simple video game company.
Initially, things continued with Ken Williams remaining to lead the software division of CUC. Growing disillusioned with the direction of the company and their lack of understanding for Sierras back catalogue of riskier games like Phantasmagoria, Ken left the company in 1998, followed by his wife Roberta Williams later that same year.
With the founders of Sierra now gone, the downfall had begun. Massive fraud on the part of CUC had been discovered and they were forced to sell Sierra to Havas Interactive in 1999. Homeworld and Caesar IV were notable highlights during this period of decline and eventually after yet another acquisition by Vivendi, the video game giant was finally closed. Sierra met its end being absorbed by Activision Blizzard in 2008.
Thus ends the tale of Sierra Online. Or does it? Sierra exists now as a brand within Activision, occasionally rolled out for a remake or classic release. More importantly, it exists in the memories of all the retro gamers who enjoyed their many titles.