For the better part of the ’80s, Infocom was the go-to company for interactive fiction but as technology advanced up through the decade the company failed to adapt to an ever-evolving market and was soon overtaken by the competition whose graphic adventures catered to a much broader public.
Steve Meretzky had joined Infocom in 1981 as a game tester but it wouldn’t be long before he became a full-time writer on the company’s eighth title, Planetfall, which saw release in 1983. People noticed how similar Meretzky’s writing was to English author and Screenwriter Douglas Adam’s and his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In 1984 Meretzky collaborates with Adams over a three-month period to create a computer adventure game based upon Adam’s book. Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guides to the Galaxy becomes one of the best-selling games of the time with 350.000 copies sold.
Over the next years, Meretzky writes Leather Goddesses of Phobos, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and the 1988 title Zork Zero. With the company’s success on the decline alongside the traditional text adventure game in general, Zork Zero becomes Meretzky’s last title before leaving Infocom the same year.
A lineup of Steve Meretzky’s Infocom titles.
From left to right: Planetfall, 1983 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1984 – A Mind Forever Voyaging, 1985 – Leather of Goddesses of Phobos, 1986 and his last title while at Infocom, Zork Zero from 1988
By 1989 Activision, which had acquired Infocom in 1986, moved Infocom development to California, and the company became nothing more than a publishing label.
Former Infocom employees Bob Bates and Mike Verdu, with the ambition of keep developing and publishing games, go on to found Legend Entertainment, with a plan to take adventures where their former company never managed to take them. To keep a certain momentum the new startup hires Meretzky on a contractual basis.
The Company’s first two games, Bates’ TimeQuest and Meretzky’s Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All The Girls, both text adventures accompanied by 16 color EGA graphics, had strong sales and helped to establish Legend as a contender in the market. Meretzky adds two more titles to his Spellcasting series and while a fourth title was planned it never materialized – in the latter part of 1992, the series was running on fumes and everybody, both gamers, and developers needed something new.
Steve Meretzky’s three titles in his Spellcasting series, his first games after being contracted by Legend Entertainment. The three titles was released in 1990, 1991, and 1992
After the third and last title in his Spellcasting series, Spring Break, Meretzky uses the next year and a half to complete and fine-tune, the hybrid adventure roleplaying game Superhero League of Hoboken, an old shelved concept from his Infocom days. At this point, Legend finally had taken the step and moved on from their illustrated text-adventure games with the release of the 1993 graphic adventure game Companions of Xanth, based on Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels. The new adventure engine utilized a point-and-click interface, 256 color VGA graphics, and, the possibilities to take advantage of the emerging CD-ROM technology. The engine would be used in a series of upcoming adventure titles among those Meretzky’s Superhero League of Hoboken.
Superhero League of Hoboken was released on both floppies and CD-ROM in 1994 by Legend Entertainment.
The floppy release (left) came with great and wacky cover art that fitted the goofy game very well, the CD-ROM release (right) was more subtle and was ruined by numerous awards stickers and review quotes
While Meretzky had been writing adventure games for a decade, the addition of roleplaying elements and mechanics was brand-new and untested ground. For some time he had been keen on mixing the roleplaying game genre with the story framework of adventure games. Meretzky had been an avid player of ’80s roleplaying games and had an idea what to mix but the technology behind the company’s adventure game engine had to compass this new hybrid. It would take Meretzky and his team 18 months to complete Superheroes of Hoboken, longer than any other title.
Throughout the last six months of development Meretzky thought about founding his own independent game studio, he was working remotely and really wanted his own studio, developing his own games and not games for someone else across the country.
When Superheroes was completed and published in the summer of 1994 Meretzky had already set up his own studio, together with two former MIT collegemates Mike Dornbrook, who he also had worked with at Infocom, and Leo DaCosta, under the name of Boffo Games.
When Superhero League of Hoboken reached reviewers it was praised for Meretzky’s comedic dialog and wacky imagination. The game was full of entertaining and unique characters and goofy missions. It was nominated for Computer Gaming World’s 1994 Role-Playing Game of the Year award.
Its hybrid nature meant adventure gamers weren’t too keen on the RPG aspects and hardcore RPG lovers were missing out on more distinct roleplaying mechanics. Nonetheless, if you were into over-top wacky and crazy humor that often satirized real-world society and challenges (many of which are more current than ever), you would have a great time with it.
While released late in the VGA cycle and just around when everything went SVGA, Superhero League of Hoboken looked fantastic, I really like this style of VGA, free of the hideous VGA gradient everybody used.
The game still feel fresh and unique to this day and while its pretty out there it does have some seriously funny characters, dialoques, and puzzles. I just recorded around 10 minuntes of gameplay to show a bit of the different aspects of the game
Legend did its best to find its place in the adventure game market, their first endeavors proved successful but the company and its products never quite managed to shake neither Sierra On-Line nor LucasArts, two companies dominating the genre for the better part of the ’90s. Superheroes League of Hoboken, disappointingly, only managed to sell somewhere between 20-25.000 copies. While the competition was stiff the genre, in general, was facing challenges with a market slowly moving away from adventure games. Even some of the best adventure games written and the short-lived but impressive Full-Motion Video games couldn’t save the genre.
In the mid-’90s. Legend Entertainment had secured investment from book publisher Random House and developed the book adaptations, Death Gate and Shannara. But with the technological advancement came rising costs and without equal growth in sales, Random House left the game industry entirely. With the new challenges in the last part of the decade the company went on to focus exclusively on the development and commenced other publishers to take over the marketing and distribution. This allowed Legend to experiment with more action-oriented titles and developed a first-person shooter based on Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.
In 1998 the company had been acquired by GT Interactive. A year later, GT Interactive had been purchased outright by Infogrames, who later acquired and rebranded themselves as Atari. On Friday, January the 16th, 2004, Legend Entertainment was shut down. A brief press release from Atari cites that it was purely a business decision and that Legend had recently completed its only current project and had no new projects in the pipeline.
Meretzky’s entertaining and imaginative writing made him one of the first interactive fiction writers admitted to the Science Fiction Writers of America. In 1999, PC Gamer magazine named him as one of their twenty-five Game Gods, those who have made an indelible mark on the history of computer gaming.