I recently had the pleasure of replaying an old favorite of mine. While it’s been somewhere between 25 and 30 years since I last played The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel, the well-written story, beautiful visuals, and approachable gameplay still, to this day, make for an absolutely delightful experience. The following write-up is mostly based on Jimmy Maher’s truly excellent The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes article.
A Study in Scarlet, the 1887 detective novel by British writer Arthur Conan Doyle marks the first appearance of detective duo Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson. While the character’s popularity over the coming years would become widespread, little did Doyle know that a century later Holmes would have been featured in more than 25.000 adaptions, making him the most portrayed literary human character in history. Original tales as well as thousands written by others have been adapted into stage and radio plays, movies, novels, short stories, and computer games making a lasting and profound effect on pop culture throughout the 20th century… and beyond.
In 1992 an adventure game tapping into the Holmesian universe was done in collaboration between Electronic Arts, one of the biggest software companies of the time, and a newly founded small Arizona-based company.
Up through the ’80s, Electronic Arts had established itself as one of the premier software companies targeting the home computer market. With a strategy of wheeling in some of the best developers in the business, heralding them as software artists, rockstars of the digital age, the company’s products achieved critical and commercial success throughout the decade. While the home computer market was ever-expanding, it was about to be dwarfed by that of the home video console market. Unlike computers, consoles were Plug’n’Play and required no literacy, targeting a much bigger audience. But betting on both computer games and video games was not a matter of course. Producing video console cartridges wasn’t cheap and the North American Video Game Crash only a handful of years earlier, still lured in the back of people’s minds. The collapse had nearly wiped out the fledgling industry and led to the bankruptcy of numerous companies. In the recession that followed, many business analysts expressed doubts about the long-term viability of video games and the financial risk involved.
When the ’80s turned into the ’90s the now revitalized video game market had an estimated $3.4 billion in sales, shattering the sales of computer games by a factor of 10. Companies rooted in home computer software needed to re-strategize their business to capitalize on the lucrative market. Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, who had deep roots in home computer software, somewhat reluctantly helmed the company in the new direction. By December of 1990 Lawrence Probst, who had joined the company as vice president of sales in 1984, succeeded Hawkins as president and six months later also assumed the position of CEO. Probst would continue to navigate the company in the direction of video games. Products didn’t have to be as elaborate and the prospect of mass-producing titles for millions without the hassle of targeting a vast array of different home computer systems, all of which enclosed heavy piracy surely was, from a financial standpoint, very enticing.
By 1992, Electronic Art’s strategy proved successful. For the first time, the company’s console titles outsold its titles released for home computers. While the company would continue to develop and publish software for home computers, it became evidently harder to pitch ideas for new products for systems where the financial prospects were deemed subpar.
Much of Electronic Arts’ early success on the new frontier came with its successful 16-bit Sega Genesis titles, overseen by producer Christopher Erhardt. Erhardt had joined Electronic Arts in 1989 after a couple of years with Infocom where he had been employed as a producer overseeing third-party developed titles. His success as a producer on the company’s Genesis titles earned him some leeway within the company and when he pitched a niche idea of a computerized board game featuring Sherlock Holmes and other characters from the Holmesian universe he was met positively by management, as long as he could keep the cost down.
Erhardt’s experience with third-party developers led him on a quest to locate a small software company that was ready to grab the opportunity to work with one of the biggest software companies of the time and do it fairly cheaply. In Arizona, Erhardt stumbled upon Mythos Software, a small and newly established studio run by James Ferguson. Ferguson had earlier been the engineering manager for the games division of ShareData, Inc., a division developing and releasing titles for many of the popoular platforms of the time. Now running his own business and with a chance to develop the company’s first title for a company like Electronic Arts was an opportunity not to be missed.
In two weeks, the small but extremely talented Mythos team created a short demo to Erhardt’s specifications. The demo impressed both Erhardt and Electronic Arts’ financial officers and managed to reach deep within the company where technical writer Eric Lindstrom noticed it and ultimately suggested turning it into an adventure game. Erhardt proved open-minded to the idea and Lindstrom outlined a story and reached out to the company’s residing Sherlock Holmes connoisseur, manual writer R.J. Berg for him to bring the story to life, true to the Holmesian universe.
When the story and design documents were approved, Mythos Software began the actual software development. Artist Scott Mavor created the beautiful and very atmospheric 256-color artwork from a moody color palette. Mavor’s distinct style led to some impressive smooth visuals depicting 1880s Victorian London and the story’s characters, some of which were originals and some portrayed from earlier works. As the game neared its release date, Mavor enlisted his mother, Elinor Mavor, to assist in designing and finalizing some of the game’s locations and characters. Elinor had earlier served as Art Director and Editor for the publication Amazing Stories, a famous national publication of fantasy & science fiction.
Rob Hubbard, a professional studio musician, who primarily had made a name for himself in 8-bit era Europe with his vast amounts of superb chiptune soundtracks, left England for the US in 1988. Hubbard joined Electronic Arts as the company’s first employee devoted entirely to sound and music. Here he composed the game’s well-fitting musical score.
While none of the teams had any prior experience with adventure game development and the whole process had required collaboration across state lines between California-based Electronic Arts and Arizona-based Mythos Software, the stars aligned and led to a highly polished final product. Exceptional well-written and beautifully executed in both its design and coherent visual style.
The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel was released for IBM/PC in relative silence in the fall of 1992.
What initially was pitched as a computerized board game evolved, in collaboration between Electronic Arts and Arizona-based Mythos Software, into an exceptionally well-written and well-designed adventure game.
The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel was released for IBM/PC in the fall of 1992
In a time where the majority of focus from both publishers and consumers was shifting from computers to consoles and from adventure games to other genres, The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Serrated Scalpel stands as a beautiful specimen of a well-written and well-designed game that still to this day is as playable as ever
While Computer Games Strategy Plus awarded The Case of the Serrated Scalpel best adventure game of 1992, most reviews at the time were less positive praising the story but criticizing the linear gameplay
While the early ’90s is considered the Golden Age of Adventure Games, the genre, that had otherwise dominated the home computer market for the last decade, was becoming a niche genre in the vastness of the rapidly evolving consumer market. Sierra On-Line, and to some extent LucasArts, still managed to herald the genre but from a grand perspective, the genre was starting to lose ground. While management had greenlighted the game, there was still skepticism within the company and only a few resources were allocated for promotion and marketing. The silent release of The Case of the Serrated Scalpel led to a rather uneventful launch followed by somewhat negligible sales figures. Yet the game managed, over time, to find its audience. Over years the title managed to sell around a hundred thousand copies, eventually paying back Electronic Arts’ investment and earning the company and its investors money.
While Hawkins remained chair of the board, he left Electronic Arts in 1991 to form The 3DO Company with the objective to create a next-generation, CD-based video game and entertainment console. In 1994, the same year as Hawkins fully resigned from the EA board, a multimedia version of The Case of the Serrated Scalpel was released for Hawkins’ 3DO console. To keep up with the competition and technological advancement, voice acting and recorded live-action footage of actors were used.
In 1996, while the original game was still selling, most of the old team got back together, to develop a sequel, The Case of the Rose Tattoo. The story and game design were yet again by R.J. Berg but to keep in line with the trends of the time real actors were filmed for the game’s characters and the voice-acting was done by professional voice actors. Hubbard also joined as the sound and music director.
The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Rose Tattoo was released to mostly positive reviews in the fall of 1996. The title would become the last title in The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes series.
In the mid’90s most of the original team from Mythos Software and Electronic Arts got back together to create the second and last title in the series.
The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Rose Tattoo was released in the fall of 1996
Sources: The Digital Antiquarian, Wikipedia, Pulp Magazine, Linkedin…