Mean Streets is the first of the Tex Murphy series that adventure gamers will probably know better from Access Software’s later FMV titles Under A Killing Moon and Pandora Directive. My own introduction to the world of San Francisco’s jaded, futuristic P.I. was actually Overseer back when it was released in 1998, and well before I was doing this site. Overseer is a remake of this game, so I needed some time to forget the plot. Nine years was apparently the magic number. Look for a review of Overseer in 2016.
Mean Streets takes place in the irradiated future of 2033. Backstory is not explicitly given in this title, but there has been a third world war and nuclear fallout is a lingering threat. Most humans fled Earth (which will become more apparent in the sequel, Martian Memorandium), while some were affected and bore mutated offspring. Somehow, society manages to tick steadily on, and future San Francisco isn’t much different from life now (aside from an ever-present sunset, enhanced technology, and the occasional disfigured character).
You play as Tex Murphy, fresh-faced private investigator for hire. You’re less bumbling and a bit more Bogey in this version, but direct comparisons are probably unfair. Tex isn’t a fully-developed character yet and comes off a bit more… generic (the help screens even instruct you to move “the man” around the screen). It’s nobody’s fault, and the game truly doesn’t suffer for it, but Mean Streets is the least in tune with the later Tex games – based solely on the fact that it’s the first in a series of games that probably never expected to be a series of games.
You’ll need to check the manual for the fully fleshed-out introduction, written in a nice Dashiell Hammett style. You’re accepting a $10,000 suicide investigation for dame in distress Sylvia Linsky. Her father, a university professor, leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge for no apparent reason. The police see no use in investigating further, despite Sylvia’s insistence that this act is totally out of character for her otherwise healthy dad. You agree to start looking into his recent activities and contacts. Your investigation starts out tame enough, with a short list of suspects and a million dollar insurance policy on the deceased that’s starting to sound like the real reason behind Linsky’s death. But like any good detective story, you quickly find yourself in the middle of something else that is quite A Big Damn Deal indeed.
Mean Streets differs from other investigative games as it is mostly a “social adventure.” Instead of looking for items, the most valuable lead you can discover is another name and the address where you can find them. Your questions will always be limited to asking about character names or corporations and their projects; never about objects, never about places, never about plot elements. You can’t ask about “Linsky’s suicide” or “Linsky’s suicide note” for example, only about “Linsky” himself. You will still get the info you need simply by asking the right person about the right name, but it’s a system limited in ways you might not be expecting. You can’t even show items in your possession to other characters, or ask about them. If you find, say, an incriminating love letter, you don’t need to pick it up and bring it along as proof. Simply dropping the sender’s name will be sufficient.
You do get limited opportunities to scour houses and labs for clues, using standard adventure game “look,” “open,” “move” commands. There aren’t a lot of these though, and each address is limited to one room with most of its secrets hidden inside. There’s a specific number of objects you have to acquire from all over California to complete the game, and frequently there’s an item in one of these places that you need to use in another, strictly to acquire one of these game goals. But as for locked doors, safes, cabinets, secret panels, and hungry piranhas, the keys you seek are almost always hidden in the very same room. I say this to encourage you to search diligently instead of expecting to find the solution elsewhere and return, as you would in a more item/puzzle based adventure (a mistake I made when I started playing).
These search sections require you to move Murphy around the room with the arrow keys and hit Enter when you are near an area you can interact with. Generally the room is broken into sections, with a large grouping of objects covered under one Murphy placement. Enter will list the items you can interact with, which break into subcategories you can navigate with the up and down keys. Left and right determine the action you wish to take. As a general rule, move and open everything. And make sure you move the dresser before you move the cursor down into the dresser door subcategory. The game considers these different objects.
Hidden items your manipulations uncover will appear as new selections. You can take just about anything, except that all objects rarely serve a purpose in your inventory. You can never use an item on another item – if you have it in your inventory it will be used automatically when you try to perform the action. You will never need an item to talk about it to another character. You will never need to give an item to another character. You’ll just be looking for a name about every time.
So you’ve found a new name connected to the case. What now? When you’re not in conversation screens or searching rooms, your investigation will take place in your speeder. It acts as both your office and your conveyance throughout the entire game. There’s a videophone in the cockpit, and two sources of information are just a button press away. Your secretary Vanessa (who looks like a young Nancy Allen) should be your first stop, and has access to all sorts of public records. Think of calling Vanessa as searching Google or the phone directory. What she cannot find, your informant Lee can, for a price. A simple barter system occurs where you keep adding to your offer until Lee is satisfied – don’t worry, you can start low and she’ll never be insulted or cut you off. Be careful though, because she will gladly charge you for information Vanessa or another name on your list could provide you for free.
If they can help, either lady will send over a fax with some information on your requested person and a navigation code, if available. Nav codes are the four-digit addresses of the Mean Streets world, and can be typed directly into your speeder’s computer. Appropriate headings and indicators change to point out your new destination, and then it’s time to hit the friendly skies. Yes, taking a page from Police Quest, you’ll have to fly to every location and suspect to question them. The videophone can only call your two informants, so everything else is legwork.
The speeder is a basic flight simulator with a hovering craft that cannot crash, no traffic to worry about, and easy heading indicators to follow. A “warp drive” option kicks your unquantified speed up to something that will travel from San Fran to Los Angeles in about two minutes, and the driving isn’t as tedious or dangerous as it was in Police Quest. You will need to slow down, frame, and then drop onto a rather small landing pad at each location, which requires 30 seconds to a minute to do right, but the fact that you can’t crash keeps this from being the oversensitive deathtrap driving in PQ was.
Personally, I like it as it gives me time to think about case connections or work on my notes. But I’m also a sucker for a flying car, and this is the first game that let me directly control one. If you’re not feeling up to manual control, you can input the nav code and engage a 100% trustworthy autopilot to take off, travel, and land while you attend to something else like a beverage or email break. You will have to fly everywhere and that cannot be avoided. The autopilot also steadfastly insists on climbing to 11,000 feet for everything, which takes extra time and means that you’ll probably want to handle short trips yourself. But every effort has been made to make these sections as painless as possible. Gimmick? Sure, but I actually like what it adds to the show.
Arriving at your destination and exiting the speeder puts you usually at a search zone or an interview sequence. Interviews always have a large window of San Francisco and the character, and a small window of introductory text setting up the scene. You type the full name and exact spelling of the person or company you wish to know about, and get your reply. You also have the option to bribe or threaten an uncooperative person for the subject you just inquired about. Bribing works exactly like getting info from Lee. Threatening generally ends the conversation, unless it’s your last resort. Ask, bribe, and then threaten when bribing won’t do.
Your final possibility upon exiting the speeder is a shooting game where you are jumped by goons. The backgrounds change, but every minigame is exactly the same – you move Murphy left to right across two screens, ducking bullets, shooting goons to make a break in the bullets, quickly walking ahead, ducking again, and repeat until the end is reached. These sections offer a little necessary action and tension to an otherwise safe investigation, but cannot be skipped, and can block your game if you can’t get the timing right. Still, like the speeder travel, they’re about as unobtrusive as they can be while still being required. Goons only come in pairs, and the breaks between their arrivals are long enough to make significant progress down the screen. They also stop arriving once you’re two-thirds of the way to the end, meaning you won’t have to deal with close-range machine gun fire. I hate arcade sections in adventure games, but I found these passable enough not to warrant a serious complaint.
The only other consideration you have is finding the money you will need for all this bribing. You’ll bleed out your starting funds pretty quickly, especially if you pay for unnecessary questions. Characters who require bribes require money for all their answers, and not just the important one that they alone know. So it becomes unwise, unhelpful, and expensive to treat them like regular interrogatees and ask them about anything whilst throwing G-notes like ticker tape.
Still, even if you’re frugal, you’re gonna need some more dough. Your primary source is in selling valuable items you pick up from the search sections. A pawn screen directly in your speeder lets you sell off your inventory easily. Every searchable area has hidden money or a specific rare item worth thousands of dollars. These usually require tripping an alarm and resetting it in a limited amount of time to make off with the goods. You can also manually fly to bounty hunter zones, marked by black landing pads visible on the horizon, and play through tougher shooting stages for $1500 a pop.
There is, of course, another devious option. Like Neuromancer, Mean Streets is almost entirely a quest for information. While it’s true that you must have all of a certain number of items to beat the game, which will require legwork and backtracking to get, the meat of the game is names and nav codes you could get from unscrupulous walkthroughs. You can even start a new game and go right to the final battle with the proper nav code (though you can’t win without the items). Point being, no in-game limit is placed on how you got your knowledge, no flags check that you’ve been where you’re supposed to go. You can save your game, pay off an informant with bribes, and then reload with the required information in your notes, a refilled wallet, and no consequences.
Graphically, Mean Streets is a impressive effort for 1989. The game uses digitized characters and character photos before they were all the rage, and the detail comes across nicely. Searchable locations are hand-drawn, but look pretty damn good. I wish you could see more of the city during your investigation, since the places you search are generally enclosed areas and single rooms, but that’s more a request than a complaint. The 3D flight engine doesn’t look great, and is naturally low on detail and landmarks. Major buildings can be spotted, like the TransAmerica Pyramid and Candlestick Park (Mean Streets hails from the glory days before corporations started buying arenas up like trophies), but there’s little to see between cities, and not much to see in them either. Las Vegas in particular is just an amusing section of hot pink surrounded by unshaded green ground polys. But it works, and the stills and characters you meet properly get the mood of a future-noir adventure across.
Sound was a real point of contention. Access Software had created RealSound as a method to play PCM audio through any standard computer speaker; the idea being that soundcards were still specialty hardware too expensive and rare to get for simple computer games. This way, digital samples, music, and speech could be played with no additional equipment. The catch is that it apparently didn’t work on every speaker, and compatibility issues could cause the game not to run at all until sound was disabled. Fortunately, DosBox chews this up with no problem and replicates the sound in probably a better format than the 3″ PC speaker could.
Some lines of dialogue are spoken in semi-garbled voices, gunshots and engine noises sound scratchy but pretty solid, music is limited to a short but mildly-catchy little ditty that makes frequent appearances. When it’s working as intended (which it will in a modern-day playthrough) you understand why Access correctly believed they were on to something cool with this technology, and why Mean Streets supports it exclusively. Audio written for a true sound card will sound better than this, obviously, but this is still a nice effort for the time.
Of course, it all comes down the story and the writing. The plot is engaging, if a bit tired. The bad guys are fairly predictable, and what they’re up to quickly becomes apparent. The connections are fresh though, as is the desire to make sure you’re correct. You can hunch your way through the plot as a good detective should, but that don’t make it the truth until you have the proof. The writers do seem a little restricted by the technology, in that characters only have the space assigned to “speak” about a paragraph’s worth of text for each question. This results in the plot coming at you in bite-sized chunks and straightforward dialogue. Perhaps this is most clear in the difference between the in-game text and the intro story in the manual.
Some comedy is present as well. It’s not a chuckle-a-minute Sierra game, but there’s some subtle wit in the descriptions. In one area, your character groans that he “couldn’t reach that with a 9-foot pole.” You defeat the puzzle by finding a 10-foot pole. Movie references also appear; far too many to try and list here. My favorites are President Michael J. Fox, and how Big Jim Slade from Kentucky Fried Movie has now become a killer for hire entwined with the plot of the game.
So what’s my summary? I buckled down and beat Mean Streets in one long day, because the smooth adventuring, just-interesting-enough detective story plot, and my love for futuristic urban settings made for a combination I couldn’t put down. If you’re interested in the idea of casual future private investigating, Mean Streets is worth a play. Bring your notepad. If you’re not so sure, or want more of the FMV Tex you’ve already come to love, Overseer revisits this story with greater skill and technology.
Looks great, sounds pretty good. Enjoyable future-noir detective story.
“Alternative content” (a flight sim and shooting sequences) are quick but still forced. Not the same Tex he will become in later games.