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Get to know San Francisco through Manhunter 2

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I had never been to San Francisco before I took a vacation to the West Coast in 2006, but I already knew I wanted to see Coit Tower, the Ferry Terminal and Vaillancourt Fountain at Embarcadero. I hadn’t read a travel guide or particularly researched my trip. Many years earlier I’d played a gruesome future-noir detective game released by Sierra called Manhunter 2: San Francisco.

The Manhunter series starts off in New York City, where I’d moved after college in 2004. In researching this article I found out that the Manhunter games take place that very same year. But the rubble-strewn, post-apocalyptic nightmare in which Manhunter is set… well, lets just say that any similarities are purely coincidental. We were still cleaning 9/11 dust off the window sills of the Downtown law firm I worked at, and every day I walked by two jagged sockets where the Twin Towers once stood.

Just another day in San Francisco, 2004.

According to the Manhunter story line, Earth had been invaded in 2002 by a race of ball-shaped aliens known as the Orbs who enslaved mankind, forcing all humans to wear tracking devices and nondescript robes, and forbidding them to communicate with one another. I wonder if Jeff Bezos ever played these games…

Your character is one of the titular Manhunters, a person chosen by the Orbs to track down other humans who are forming an underground resistance. Without giving too much away, you learn that the menacing googly-eyed monsters are not the benevolent overlords they make themselves out to be (shocked!). You end up turning against the Orbs and the other Manhunters, led by a maniacally-grinning antagonist with the suitably evil-sounding name of… Phil Cook.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Manhunter 2 picks up where the first game leaves off: Cook escapes from Manhattan in one of the Orbs’ spherical blue spaceships. You chase after him, flying west across the country and crash-landing in the middle of the Russian Hill neighborhood of the Golden Gate City. You stumble out of the wreckage and realize that you’ve handily crashed right onto another Manhunter, a la The Wizard of Oz.

Your first acquisition is the newly-squashed individual’s Manhunter Assignment Device (MAD). This laptop-esque computer allows you to identify and locate potential enemies and track their target’s last-known movements. This is your primary way of opening new avenues of investigation as you attempt to unravel the Manhunters’ operations, following a trail of grisly murders that leads to your arch-enemy.

Apologies to anyone named Phil Cook.

My dad brought home Manhunter 2 from his computer store job when I was a kid. It took me a while to get into it– the art was a bit more crude than other Sierra titles that I was familiar with in the Kings Quest and Space Quest series. What also set it apart was it’s first-person perspective and rudimentary arrow key-driven point-and-click interface. I can remember passing the cursor over every damn pixel on the screen, hoping for it to change into a clickable clue I might have missed in my first investigation.

Traveling around San Francisco involves a top-down map of the city, and each location you unlock through finding clues becomes a spot on the map you can visit. Some of the locations are famous landmarks, such as Fisherman’s Wharf, the Bank of Canton building and other notable sites. Some of the locations are more general, such as an apartment where a suspect lives or a warehouse in which you must dodge guard robots in order to reach an inner office. This part is particularly frustrating (but Havoc made a hilarious super-cut of my many, many deaths).

Certain sequences involve an arcade-style gameplay like the above-referenced warehouse scene. Another involves punching bats and stomping rats as you make your way down a corridor. If you miss, the vermin munch your face. Each time you die the game’s makers—siblings Barry, Dave and Dee Dee Murry—appear and intone a silly rhyme before transporting you back to the moment just before your unfortunate wrong step.

The Murrys created games under the company Evryware Inc. and for a while were working on a third Manhunter as well as redos of the original games. I gleaned all these details from a November 2000 convo recorded on Google Groups. It seems they were unable to acquire the rights to the original titles through Sierra’s many buyouts, so alas the remakes and sequel never materialized.

Manhunter 2’s creators Dave, Barry and Dee Dee Murry, pondering whether you deserve another chance.

Dave led the team in regard to the coding aspects of the games. Dee Dee worked on the background art and is an award-winning wildlife artist. Barry—who sadly passed away in 2001—was closely involved in the storyline and music. I was surprised to learn from Evryware’s website that the Murrys were behind a classic title from the Golden Age of PC gaming: Broderbund’s The Ancient Art of War (which I will surely write up at a future date).

Ironically, the key to Manhunter 2’s lasting impression for me is the faithful depictions of San Francisco’s iconic landmarks—with a twist, such as the gas spewing from the top of Coit Tower (a phallic homage to the firemen of the city) and crud-encrusted Trans-America Pyramid. The hippie van propped up on cinders in the opening titles of the game is a nice touch.


What stood out most in my young mind was the various depictions of murder victims you encounter as you track down your arch enemy. Even rendered in simple 16-bit graphics, the images are arresting in their vividness and detail. Gaming had barely exited the text-based Zork era, but the images presented in Manhunter 2 were by far the most gory I’d encountered, at least until I had my guts sucked out in Space Quest III (again, we’ll save that for a future review).

While the plot was perhaps less complex than other Sierra titles, I found myself stuck at a point in the story involving a door marked “bat vomit.” This was one of those sad points in my life when I was forced to resort to manual labor on behalf of my parents in return for a brief call to Sierra’s 900-number help line. I eventually solved the game, a rare occurrence when I look back on my experience with late-80s Sierra games.

Even though by contemporary standards Manhunter 2 was sub-par in graphical design and challenge, It will always remain my introduction to San Francisco. I’ll never look upon the city’s skyline without picturing a fractured Golden Gate Bridge and hearing that frantic PC speaker intro in my mind. And I’ll never not laugh when I see a crate marked “Poopsicles.”

If you’re a Sierra game fan, be sure to check out my review of King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella.