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Our Leisure Suit Larry HD hands-on impressions, and a chat with the men behind it

There’s a special sort of satisfaction if you’re a gamer who is old enough to remember the heyday of Sierra Entertainment, which was responsible for some of the earliest narrative-driven interactive adventures that feature full-color graphics. The studio’s Quest series’ of games need no introduction for most; even those who haven never explored Daventry or failed at picking up space women as Roger Wilco know titles like King’s Quest and Space Quest.

Beyond all of those Quests, there’s a special fondness, particularly among thirty-somethings, for Al Lowe’s series of Leisure Suit Larry adventures. Where most Sierra games were content to explore the joy and humor in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, Lowe’s lovable leisure suit-wearing loser was more built for lowest common denominator comedy. It was softcore porn without the porn, an adult-themed series of games that dropped players into Larry’s sex-crazed/sex-starved world of constant strikeouts.

Last year, Paul Trowe and Replay Games announced plans to publish an HD remake of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, released in 1987 as the first game in the series. Development of the newly enhanced point-and-click controls and hand-drawn graphics is being handled by the Israeli studio Adventure Mob. I sat down with Trowe and Adventure Mob’s CEO/founder Oded Sharon at GDC 2012 for a brief early look at the game and a chat about what’s to come.

First, some impressions. I was given the opportunity to go hands-on with a single-room demo set right outside Lefty’s bar, the scene that the game (both the original and this remake) opens on. While Adventure Mob is using the original game’s point-and-click remake as a baseline, everything looks significantly different with the new hand-drawn visuals. Larry is a cartoon character, puffy in all the wrong places, goofy smile, exaggerated receding hairline, gold pendant dangling around his neck.

Lefty’s might be a run-down dump of a dive bar, but it’s also looking significantly better than it ever has before. Like Larry himself, there’s an exaggerated look to the scene. The “Y” in the bar’s neon sign flickers faintly as track lights positioned above the door — one of which is naturally burned out — shine the way inside. A tiny dog occasionally trots into the scene and happily relieves itself, same as it ever was. Step too far out into the street you’ll see Larry turned into a puddle of goo by a speeding cab. Sierra vets will immediately recognize the spirit of the original in this opening sequence, though it looks closer now to what we all saw in our mind’s eye back in the 1980s.

My hands-on time was spent with an iPad, so I got a firsthand look at the updated game’s new touchscreen controls. It’s a “tap to interact” interface of course, but with a twist. Press and hold your finger down in one spot to call up a radial menu from which you can choose a variety of standard actions: feet for walking, eyes for looking, hands for interacting, a speech bubble for talking and so on. Once you’ve selected an action, subsequent taps on the screen repeat that action.

So if you select the eye, you can tap the lamppost, the bar, the broken sign, the parking meter– wait a sec. There was no parking meter in the original. While Larry’s adventure is largely unchanged, you’ll encounter little things like that as you go along. Your reward for stumbling onto one of these thing is humor; in the case of the parking meter, the game makes a crack about it not being there before.

The admittedly small demo room left me with a good feel for the game’s controls. Adventure Mob is clearly thinking on its feet with regards to porting age-old adventure game conceits like the point-and-click action menu into a more modern-day context. The radial menu-style interface works very well from a purely functional standpoint. We’ll see how it feels in the context of the full game soon enough.

The dawn of Larry‘s rebirth is a fascinating story on its own. Trowe, who started out as business degree-toting a game tester at Sierra, quickly worked his way up and into bigger roles. He remained with the company until it was sold in 1996 and then went off to work for a few other publishers. Being a company man didn’t sit well, however, and Trowe eventually directed his attention elsewhere.

“I started trying to research who has the rights to these [classic Sierra] games,” Trowe told me. “The rights literally went from Sierra to CUC to Cendant to HFS to Havas and then to Vivendi, and then from Vivendi to Activision. I was trying to track down the franchises because I wanted to remake them, first for mobile and then for iPhone.”

“Just last year [in 2011], I found out that Codemasters had the rights to Leisure Suit Larry,” Trowe continued, a fact that he learned after pitching Activision on similar HD remakes of the other Sierra classics in its library. Trowe ran into Codemasters’ CEO at E3 last June and pitched his idea. It turned out to be an easy sell; Larry is a back catalog property for Codies, and the publisher willingly handed the reins over to Trowe in exchange for “final approval rights on every single milestone,” while Replay retains the exclusive worldwide for all platforms.

For this initial HD remake, Adventure Mob gets a leg up in the form of Sierra’s VGA remake of the game. Sharon told me that the studio is staying “very, very faithful” to that remake with this first effort; subsequent remakes of the later Larry games will tread a similar path, but they’ll require much more backend work with regards to updating the look and feel of things. Trowe also added that Lowe and Josh Mandel, a Sierra On-Line vet and Larry investor, will be lending their voices to the upcoming game.

“We definitely want to remain faithful to the fact that [Lounge Lizards] was a game that was set in the ’80s but it’s done in 2012,” Sharon said of the ongoing work on the first remake. “There are new jokes… we really want to touch on that nostalgic feeling that us guys have for those games from years ago when we’re replaying them now.”

According to Trowe, Adventure Mob is uniquely equipped to take on this task. There’s a lot of love for classic adventure games in those offices. “Adventure games are the games I personally played the most, and influenced my life the most as a game developer,” Sharon said. He’s got such a strong love for these sorts of games that he actually launched a donation website a few years back that was built around the idea of buying a car for Ron Gilbert.

“The idea was to have people donate money and then use this money, give it to Ron Gilbert to help him make a new adventure game. We raised $400. I ended up buying him a toy car and I gave it to him at GDC a few years ago. He was really embarrassed by it. And now every year I see Ron Gilbert and I say when I’m saying goodbye, ‘See you again next year, I hope to embarrass you again next year.'”

It’s funny to hear that story now, with Gilbert currently working alongside Tim Schafer on Double Fine Adventure, the upcoming Double Fine adventure game revival that turned out to be so enormously successful on Kickstarter. The same concept of crowd-sourced funding that Sharon took at crack a generating less than a decade ago for a Gilbert-developed adventure game is now very much a reality.

Getting back to Larry, fans can expect a faithful re-creation, but with some definite tweaks. Players will still be greeted by a series of age-specific questions when they fire up the game, though the questions will be newly updated for a more modern audience. Sharon also promises that there will be a cheat code that allows players to bypass the faux-age gate if they so choose, but the particulars of what it will be are still being worked out.

And what about the password inside Lefty’s bar? Is it still “Ken sent me”? I asked Trowe.

“I can’t talk about that,” he said, laughing.

The plan as it stands right now for Replay is to re-release all of the original Sierra Larry games, all the way up through Love For Sail! There’s no timetable in place yet — right now, the focus is entirely on getting that first one out — but you can expect to see Lounge Lizards on every platform imaginable when it does finally arrive. Mobile devices (iOS and Android), PC (Steam and GOG), Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network… the intent is for Larry to come back strong.

Right now, Trowe is in daily contact with both Lowe and Adventure Mob in bringing this ambitious walk down memory lane together. “It’s our job to stay ground and to stay humble,” he told me. “We’ve all seen egos get inflated and then the next game comes crashing down. I think as long as we remain grateful and humble, we’re going to do okay.”