Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist
First posted on 17 April 2006. Last updated on 17 July 2010.
There is no question that Sierra On-Line has excelled to become the leading developer of computer adventure games in the 1980s and 1990s. A good deal of this success can be attributed to Al Lowe, most notably for his Leisure Suit Larry series. Casual fans of Lowe, however, may have missed another gem of his creation from Sierra On-Line along the way. That gem is Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist.
It is the 1880s, not too long after the California gold rush. The place is Coarsegold, California (also the home of Sierra On-Line at the time). Since the end of the gold rush, not much has happened in the town of Coarsegold. However, that is all about to change. Freddy Pharkas, formerly a crack shot with a pistol, has since hung up his spurs after a traumatic duel. Pharmacology is his new found career path, and he has moved from the old St Louie to Coarsegold to follow his new dream (5-year college degree in hand). Unfortunately, not too long after Freddy arrives, he uncovers a diabolical plot that may just leave the town in shambles. As Freddy, it is up to you to save Coarsegold and its people, using nothing except your wits and skills as a pharmacist on the frontier!
The game is co-designed by Josh Mandel, to whom Lowe has credited much of its humor. The graphics and music in this game are, simply put, superb. It is true back in 1993 when it is first released and it is still true to this day. The graphics may not contain a lot of special effects, but they convey the game's purpose in a simple and elegant manner. The music, composed by Aubrey Hodges, contributes to the game's essence in a manner that is pleasing to the ears. Unlike melodies found in other games which can grow tiresome after the first few minutes, the melodies in this game are refreshing and never seem to get old.
Like many other Sierra On-Line titles of that era, the game is released in both Floppy Disk and CD-ROM versions. The main difference between these releases is that in the Floppy Disk version the dialog appears as readable text on screen. By contrast, in the CD-ROM version the dialog is entirely spoken, with each character naturally having a distinctive voice. In a sense, the CD-ROM version is the "talkie" version (a term originally coined by LucasArts). The speech contributes a lot to the greatness of this game, and anyone who only plays the Floppy Disk version is definitely missing out much of the game's humor.
In addition, the Floppy Disk version includes several minor but distinct features of its own compared to the CD-ROM version. A notable example is seen when attempting to use an inventory item on another inventory item, particularly when such an action does not make sense or is not otherwise necessary to complete the game. In the Floppy Disk version, the player is usually greeted with a sarcastic comment or joke about the action. In the CD-ROM version, on the other hand, the player is often only greeted with an "X" and a "huh" sound effect. It may be argued that the exclusion of these jokes from the CD-ROM version is a necessary limitation due to the large storage space occupied by the speech data, but it can also be surmised that the design team may originally have wanted to reward the less privileged gamers who are playing the Floppy Disk version with a little fun to call their own.
On the whole, the gameplay is similar to that of other graphic adventure games from the same era. The game is split into 4 acts, allowing its puzzles to be grouped together in a logical manner and the end of each act to serve as an important moment for the game. Some puzzles are timed and can result in Freddy's demise when not completed in a timely fashion. Yet, the gameplay also has with its share of unique differences. Most notable is the mixing of medicines based on pharmaceutical knowledge and resources acquired by Freddy to solve the game's puzzles. In fact, many of the puzzles in the game manage to include the pharmacist's work area in some way. In keeping with the pharmaceutical theme, the game manual is actually fashioned after an old medicinal guide. It contains many remedies that may seem comical today but may well be legitimate in the 1880s. Moreover, the manual is not used for humor alone. Peppered into the long list of ailments and cures are the instructions for all the medicines that are required to complete the game. This serves as a rudimentary form of copy protection, ensuring that the player must have the manual to solve the puzzles. It also adds a degree of difficulty to the game, in that it is not always obvious which sets of instructions to follow, let alone exactly how to follow them.
Unlike most classic adventure games, it is possible for Freddy to travel throughout the majority of the playable game area, even from the beginning. While it is possible that this design may make the game less interesting, in truth it gives the gameplay a certain familiarity. This is because a player can quickly become comfortable with the entire game area after the first few puzzles and does not have to spend additional time exploring every new area in detail later on, a process than can often be tedious and distracting. In this light, it is impressive to see that the game manages to squeeze so many puzzles into the same few screens. Despite the fact that this is largely a linear game such that the puzzles follow each another in a fixed order, the lack of restriction for Freddy to go anywhere ensures that the puzzles in the later part of the game are more challenging, since the player may need to return to an earlier area once thought to have been completed in order to solve a later puzzle. Another consequence of this design is the fact that the player is constantly interacting with the same townspeople, puzzle after puzzle. This interaction ensures that the characters in the game do not remain one-dimensional, so that each character can individually contribute a lot more to the outcome of the game than otherwise may. Character interaction is a staple element of any adventure game, and developing the characters in this manner is a recipe that has made this game such a success. The characters also provide fodder for the seemingly endless array of jokes found in the game, a trait that can be expected from any title created by Lowe not to disappoint his fans.
Overall, Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist is an excellent example of the great history of Sierra On-Line in creating enduring adventure games. It succeeds by combining a unique story with excellent gameplay, music, and graphics. Although this game has never received the same amount of press attention or industry acclaim as Lowe's other works, it can still easily be ranked up there with the Leisure Suit Larry series as among best graphic adventure games of all time (if you try hard enough, you may even meet an ancestor of Larry's while playing this game). Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist is a game that has truly stood the test of time and should be enjoyed by all fans of the adventure genre, now just as well as then.