Oh, The Videogames People Played Then (Part Une)

Some Early P.I. Videogames

Imagine a world without broadband or cell phones. Where fax machines were cutting edge, and nobody had heard of Apple or Microsoft or broadband or even the internet. Floppies were king.

We’re talking seriously old school here. Most of the platforms these were played on are long, long gone, but some of games are still lingering out there, in some format or another, maybe legit, maybe not, waiting…


  • Blade Runner
    (1997, Westwood Studios)
    One of the very first P.I. videogames, if you accept that Deckard was a freelance bounty hunter. You’re a bladerunner here yourself, name of McCoy and your job here is to hunt down rogue replicants. Where? Prowling the grimy, rain-soaked streets of a Los Angeles sometime in the not-so-distant future. You do get to do a lot more detecting than Deckard ever did. Quite similar (too similar?) to the film, with some pretty impressive (for the time) artwork, nailing the dark, noirish vibe of the film.
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
    (1988, Buena Vista Software)
    (1989, Rare)
    (1991, Capcom)
    Who’d a thunk it? One of the first P.I. (or at least P.I.-related) videogame franchises was based on a Disney flick whose star was a hyperactive, horny white rabbit in red overalls? Yet within a short span of time, there were three different videogames clamouring for your attention.
    First out of the chute was a single-player action game for MS-DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, Apple II, and Commodore 64, released by Buena Vista Software in 1988. The aim was to guide Roger on a madcap chase through ToonTown, to four specific locations (the Ink and Paint Club, the Acme Gag Factory), perform various tasks and collect various items.  Penguin waiters, a missing will, gorilla bouncers, gun-toting weasels, Benny the Cab, Judge Doom and Jessica Rabbit figure in the play, But where’s Eddie?
    The second, slightly tweaked version of the game was developed by Rare (a British subsidiary of Microsoft) for Nintendo, and added Eddie to the mix. Roger and he must complete basically the same tasks as in the original version, but there’s a unique twist in this one: at one point, Jessica offers clue as to where to find the missing will, and suggests a telephone number might be found in the nightclub where she’s working. If they found it, players could actually call that toll-free number (alas, now expired) and hear a recording of Jessica giving additional hints on gameplay.
    Yet another version of the game was released in 1991, this time by Capcom, and intended for Gameboy. Once again the hunt is on for a missing will, and this time Roger must regain health points by collecting carrots. As far as I can tell, though, all three of these are variations on the same game, slightly tweaked for each new edition (and platform).
  • The Tex Murphy Games
    Mean Streets (1989, Access)
    Martian Memorandum (1991, Access)
    Under a Killing Moon (1994, Access)
    The Pandora Directive (1996, Access)
    Tex Murphy: Overseer (1998, Access; revised version of Mean Streets)
    Project Fedora (2013)
    We’re talking serious old school here. A series of games, built around the adventures of hard-boiled tough guy private eye Tex Murphy as he navigates the post-apocalytic mean streets of a battered and bruised San Francisco, full of mutants, garbage and assorted scum out to destroy life as we know it, all heavily influenced by cyber punk and film noir, Blade Runner being the obvious touchstone. How old school? The first in the series, Mean Streets (1989) was written for MS-DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, and Commodore 64 only and billed as “An Interactive Detective Movie.” But this was cutting edge stuff back then. The third installement, Under a Killing Moon, set new standards for the industry, and became one of the best selling videogames of all time, and certainly one of the most influential, combining full motion video (FMV) cutscenes and 3-D virtual worlds to explore — heady stuff for 1994. It was treated as such, with the big name vocal talents of Brian Keith and Margot Kidder along for the ride. Tex’s voice, as always, was supplied by Access founder Chris Jones.
    In 2009, the original creators announced they had reacquired the rights to the series and plans to start re-releasing them for a whole new generation of gamers, and a sixth installment, Project Fedora, the first in fifteen years, was scheduled to be released in 2013.
  • Sam & Max Hit the Road
    (1993, LucasArts)
    This colorful, goofy adventure game followed “freelance detectives” Sam and Max, a dog and rabbit team, as they track down a runaway bigfoot, taking them throughout the United States. The game was a hoot, stuffed with oddball puzzles and wild leaps of logic.
  • Philip Marlowe Private Eye
    (aka “Private Eye”)
    (1996, Simon and Schuster Interactive/Byron Preiss Multimedia)
    Loosely based on Chandler’s The Little Sister, players got to live out their Marlowe fantasies in this one. Good ol’ Phil is hired to find an innocent girl’s missing brother, but it soon leads to the usual trail of greed, blackmail, revenge, deceit and murder. Meet all the usual suspects: starlets, crazed mobsters, crooked cops, etc. “Hundreds of interactive decisions are yours!” in this fully-interactive, CD-ROM, which promises “state-of-the-art 3D graphics combined with 1940s-style cel animation…rich dialogue and fully-developed chacters in the authentic Chandler style…Original jazz score recorded live.” The game was developed by Byron Preiss Multimedia, and was compatible with Windows 3.1 and Windows 95.
    NOTE: The graphics from this game were “borrowed” by Josh Buckland for his 2015  animated version of The Little Sister.
  • The Dame Was Loaded
    (1996, Beam Software)
    Not for the meek. This beat-the-clock game was an often frustrating take on the shamus game, challenging you to crack the case before certain clues and leads before, making the case all but uncrackable.
  • Noir: A Shadowy Thriller
    (1997, CyberDreams)
    In this one, billed as “a shadowy thriller,” you got to be a 1940’s LA private eye, and work on six non-linear cases that takes you through a 1940’s film noir atmosphere, complete with smoky jazz score and thousands of archival photos and location shots, all in “glorious black and white.” A beautiful looking game, aimed at film noir and crime fiction fans. Created by film veteran Jeff Blyth. A Mac version was to have been released but the company that manufactured this game — and its web site — soon vanished.
  • Duckman: The Graphic Adventures of a Private Dick
    (aka “Duckman: The Legend of the Fall”)
    (1997, Playmates Toys)
    As the cartoon gained in popularity, a point-and-click videogame for Windows XP was developed, with Duckman, now a famous detective, facing off against an imposter who just happens to be bigger, better, and infinitely smarter than he is. The goal was to help the real Duckman defeat the impostor and reclaim his rightful place. Unfortunately, the game’s publisher, PlayMates Toys, declared bankruptcy before the game could be released globally, and the game was only made available in Germany and South Korea, making it a truly rare collectible these days.
  • A Stab in the Dark
    (2001, Murder To Go Productions)
    Written and directed by David Landau, and produced by Matt Clarke, this live-action interactive DVD was a spin on the old Clue game. You got to play homicide detective, Lieutenant Chester McFreedy, and actually examine the crime scene, visit the coroner, interrogate the suspects and check out their stories, trying to crack the case of a key witness who’s bumped off while in police custody. Comes with suspect lists, maps, background files, and all sorts of cool stuff. Okay, you’re not a private eye, but it’ll keep you busy until they release Murder at the Café Noir (below).The producers of this game bill themselves as “the internationally acclaimed originator of the interactive mystery theater show.”
  • Dollars N Dibble
    A controversial board game from the U.K., developed by Neil Bradshaw. If you can imagine the film Traffic as a board game, you’ve just about nailed the concept of this one. Forget Boardwalk and Park Place, or who gets to be the milk bottle. Instead, picture yourself as a would-be drug lord, scrambling to make a name for yourself. Can you dodge the cops, rival players and too much of your own product, to become DA MAN? Like the blurb says, it’s “a world where only one thing is certain, there is nothing fair about this game!”
  • Murder at the Café Noir
    (2002, Murder To Go Productions)
    Another treat from the folks at Murder To Go. An interactive DVD feature film based on the popular and award-winning comedy mystery dinner theater play. The rough cut was an official selection of the AngiliCiti Film Festival in Los Angeles and Los Vegas in 2000. An off-beat mystery homage to the Bogart movies, it’s also a genuine mystery which breaks the “fourth wall,” taking full advantage of DVD capabilities.  Disenchanted P.I. Rick Archer is hired to find a blackmailing femme fatale, and lands on a forgotten tropical island and the mysterious Cafe Noir, a place where the dishonest can be honest about it and where everyone and everything seems to have fallen out of a 1940s movie, including the color.  It is here that he finally finds a place where he truly belongs.  Guided by a sarcastic Humphrey Bogart narrator, the viewer helps Rick by deciding where he goes and who to question.
  • Death of a Dot-Commer!
    (2002, PC187)
    The blurbs for this high-end (at the time) murder game invited you to a “heart-pounding murder investigation” that “begins in the ivory towers of downtown San Francisco, and takes you through the city’s drug infested dungeons of prostitution! Be the lead detective in a Real-Life brutal murder with all the dot-COM greed, sex, lies, and betrayal of an ENRON scandal! With the tools of the trade, money, drugs, threats of jail time, etc. you interrogate, persuade, bribe, and bully your suspects to learn the truth and nail the killer. During your investigation, you collect the necessary evidence to obtain warrants. Once you have a warrant you serve them at the actual locations.” Includes a complete cast of characters and and actual San Francisco locations are used throughout, including the District Attorney’s Office, Police Stations, Superior Court, The Embarcadero Towers, City Jail, North Beach Pizza, a real dungeon of prostitution, and many more locations.” In other words, it’s a high-tech interactive game that leaves no sleaze unturned.


Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Adam Bormann for his help with this page.

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