Tex Murphy, futuristic retro noir private detective, returns from his adventures of Mean Streets. Disillusioned about the post nuclear world as he is, he nevertheless needs a new assignment, being broke and all. Luckily for him, the daughter of a stinking rich industrialist has been kidnapped. Not just that, the wrongdoers also stole “something else”, which is apparently so secret that even his employer – only seen in shadows and speaking in an ominously evil voice – won't disclose what it is. Ooooh, mysterious…
Of course, everybody and their dog remember Tex Murphy from his later outings featuring even more digitized video nowadays, though even Martian Memorandum already advertised itself as “full motion video”. As last time around, some dialogue will be spoken out loud through the speakers. Plus, characters are digitized real people who, during conversations, will even appear in two second long moving video snippets. Wow, did this drop our jaws in 1989 and 1991 respectively!
Unfortunately, it is also the side of the game which probably has aged worst. The graphics have this extremely washed out look, making it hard to make out details. Even the sprites are now digitized actors, moving in awfully choppy frames through hand-pixelled backgrounds. Those two styles blend in not too well. On the sound side, the main observations sticking to a modern player's mind are the annoying tick-tack “walking sounds” and the usual white noise accompanying each speech sample, as common at the time.
With yesterday's sales pitch gone, player's are thrown back to gameplay and plot. Unlike its predecessor, the game plays as a pure adventure game without major action/simulation aspects (one small sequence of avoiding laser beams and another one wading through quicksand notwithstanding).
Tex's activities therefore revolve around basic sleuthing. Searching the scene of crime (and other locations), where the lack of sharp graphics unfortunately shows its ugly head repeatedly. A particularly bright moment involves some spying through windows across the street in Rear Window style. Interviewing suspects, witnesses or informers takes most of the play time once again, however.
This is, and it may be me, where things tend to become really tedious, unfortunately. I'm just not at all into these wordy adventure games anymore. Two things make matters worse in this regard. First, information as a detective's currency, making people disclose more than they intend to, trading it for other bits elsewhere and piecing all these tiny bits together, does not really occur here. Instead, many of the dialogue scenes are simply standalone conversation mazes, i.e. you have to try and find the one correct branch which will move things forward with very little indication what may work. The game will not lock up if you took the wrong one, you can try again as often as you like. Though this hardly helps immersion, on the other hand, as it essentially means characters have no memory.
Speaking of immersion, or the lack thereof, the sheer goofiness of the ultra-clichéd people you meet are borderline hard to stand. A Frenchman wearing a beret not nearly being the bottom of the barrel here. Hammy facial expressions and voice acting could almost be considered appropriate in this respect, yet doesn't get less distracting because of it.
It all makes some sense the further you progress into the plot. At the end, you will have the supervillain literally explaining his big plan, giving you time to escape your predicament. As in the previous game, this is not actually hard-boiled noir, but it simply takes the tropes of this genre as a foundation to have some silly fun. It's not much of a satire, either, however. Rather, it seems to follow the strategy of throwing random stuff and hoping that something, anything, will stick. In this vein, it is not surprising that the final part of the game takes Tex to Mars, where then everything revolves around corporate exploitation of natural resources, given that Total Recall had been the summer blockbuster of 1990. Cheap, but probably effective at the time in marketing terms. Leaving more than a bitter aftertaste, however, feeling a little icky.
Martian Memorandum feels like a piece of slightly cynical non-art. Like nobody was really in it with all their heart. It plays sort of alright, but remains too mechanical throughout. The long pixel hunting and trial & error sections destroy any storytelling pacing it may otherwise have had. In spite of being conceived as a “multimedia” dazzler at the time, the narration actually works best in the purely textual parts, i.e. either in long-ish chapter intros or in the optional dry remarks Tex has while examining his surroundings. Quite ironic for a game which was on the forefront of technology in its own day. Though it does teach us something, doesn't it? Scratch away all the bling-bling, and the timeless parts remain: drama and storytelling. Get those right and you have a game which will stand the test of time.
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