Sierra On-Line had a pretty great thing going in the ’80s, but it was also a pretty specific thing. Game series like King’s Quest, Police Quest, Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Quest for Glory and one-offs like Gold Rush! and Codename: Iceman had really distinct worlds, characters, and storylines but all followed the same template as far as interface, puzzle-solving, and gameplay mechanics went. You knew when you were playing a Sierra game; the look and feel of the experience was remarkably similar across all of the different series, as was the punishing difficulty. You had to save your game a LOT, lest you be left high and dry in the final stages of the game because you neglected to do some small task hours before. Save early, save often.
So it was weird in 1988 when this game Manhunter: New York came out that was a lot of things Sierra was NOT known for. It was a gritty sci-fi story with a changing perspective, arcade-style mini-games, and lots of gore. There’s a reason it didn’t fit the Sierra mold: it wasn’t really a true Sierra game. Manhunter: New York was not developed internally but rather by Evryware Games, who had made the hit game “The Ancient Art of War”. There were a few other titles produced by other studios and published through Sierra, so this wasn’t a completely unique thing, but Manhunter: New York and its sequel Manhunter: San Francisco have a charm that brings it closer to the Sierra family than most of these other outliers. Let’s take a look.
The game opens on an invaded Earth; a race of flying eyeballs known as the Orbs arrived two years prior, in 2002(!), and wiped out all of mankind’s developments. The Orbs are in control and, seemingly, don’t care much about the well-being of humans. The cities are in ruins and its inhabitants, while not sought out and exterminated, aren’t encouraged to live happy, healthy lives. Instead they’re forbidden to gather, or even communicate with each other, and everyone’s forced to wear brown robes and cover their faces. The Orbs are hard at work on something, and their efforts are evident in the stink of the air and the red tint of the sky.
The player has just been appointed by the Orbs as a Manhunter, a sort of half-cop-half-minion for the Orbs. Manhunters are visited each day by the Orbs and given an assignment that must be carried out. You track these jobs through the Manhunter Assignment Device, a sort of portable computer that one can place on ones lap. On the top of ones lap, even!
Your assignment starts as an investigation of an explosion which then turns into an effort to track down the humans behind it. Unsurprisingly, the humans behind it are part of an Orb resistance. Also unsurprisingly it is revealed that the Orbs are pretty bad dudes after all, and that their plans involve turning humans into food. Bummer! So the Manhunter flips and joins the resistance. Everything converges around a rogue Manhunter named Phil, a psychotic killer who has some slightly loyalty to the Orbs but is mostly a loose cannon with Orb technology. The Manhunter steals an Orb ship, destroys a few significant Orb outposts, Phil escapes New York in another Orb ship, and the game ends on a cliffhanger.
Not exactly the family-friendly zone that Sierra was known for. The grim tone is pretty well realized in the graphics, though. New York in ruins beneath a chemical sky really pops, even if it’s only in 16 colors.
The inhabitants of this wasteland are appropriately grotesque, but in a fun way.
Past the visuals, the gameplay is uneven at best and brutally unfair at worst. The arcade mini-games are frequently unpolished, inconvenient, and sometimes brutal.
Still, there’s something special here, even if it’s not fully realized. For a hopeless dystopian world, there’s a lot of humor. The numerous, creative ways to die are consistent with Sierra’s other titles. New York is accurately depicted, a feat that’s more noteworthy for 1988 than it might seem. I can’t say it’s worth a play, but it’s at least worth a watch.
And the manual is beautiful. Here are some sample pages.