The Last Express - the best game you've never heard of.
Jordan Mechner founded Smoking Car Productions in 1993 to create The Last Express, the first real-time adventure game and one of the most innovative and expensive computer games ever made. Although Smoking Car was tightly run, the project took nearly four years to complete and included a month-long blue-screen filmshoot and a round-the-clock staff of up to 50 animators, artists, asset wranglers, and programmers.
Set on the Orient Express in 1914, you play Robert Cath, an American aboard the train's final journey from Paris to Constantinople before World War I. The game is inhabited by some 30 characters representing a dramatic cross-section of European forces at the time, including Serbian terrorists, a German arms dealer, Russian aristocrats, an Austrian spy posing as a concert violinist, a British secret agent, and an mysterious art collector. As the train races east, you must stay alive while interacting with these characters: eavesdropping on conversations, sneaking into compartments, defusing a bomb, getting attacked, and so on.
The 3 CD game was published on a combined Mac and PC disc in April 1997. Following a bidding war between all the major game publishers, Broderbund, Softbank, and GameBank had split the worldwide distribution rights for various platforms. There are six languages spoken in the game (which are subtitled for languages that Cath understands), and dubbed versions of Express were soon released in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese.
Express received rave reviews both in print and online. Newsweek called it "exquisite" and "thrilling" and MSNBC said "the mystery and characters are very fascinating" and "this game is definitely for everyone." GAMES magazine declared it the Best New Adventure and Role Playing Game, and it received Editor's Choice awards from PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, Next Generation, and dozens of game websites, including a gold medal from Games Domain.
But Express only remained in stores for a few months. Broderbund's entire marketing department quit weeks before the game was released, resulting in no advertising for it. Softbank pulled out of the games market, dissolving its subsidiary GameBank and canceling several dozen titles in development, including the nearly finished PlayStation port of Express. Then Broderbund was acquired by The Learning Company, which was only interested in their educational and home productivity software. Express was out of print long before its first Christmas season and nearly a million units short of breaking even.
In 2000, the game publisher Interplay bought the lapsed rights and began quietly selling the game. A year later, they too were out of business, leaving fans to swap old copies on eBay. In 2006, the online service GameTap added the game to their library, where it is still available to their subscribers.
Yahoo! Games recently described The Last Express as "one of the finest adveture games ever made," a compelling experience more than a decade after it premiered.