Set in the fictional city of Lost Wages, the story follows a middle-aged virgin named Larry Laffer who resolves to sleep with a woman before midnight. Land of the Lounge Lizards establishes several elements which recur in later games, including Larry's out-of-date attire, perpetually bad luck with women, and penchant for double-entendres. The story, certain characters, and basic structure of the game are lifted from Softporn Adventure, an 1981 Apple II text adventure.
The game begins outside a bar in Lost Wages (a parody of Las Vegas). Players are given 2 real-time hours to complete the game, at which point a despairing Larry commits suicide, resulting in game over. The time limit can be circumvented by speaking to a prostitute (see below). Players control Larry's movements with the directional keys and by imputing commands into a text parser (ex: "talk to man", "open window", etc). If Larry is too far away from a person or object to comply, or if the command is invalid, a caution message appears with hints on what to do.
The city consists of five areas: Lefty's Lounge (Lefty's Bar in the VGA remake), a hotel casino, a 24-hour wedding chapel, a discotheque, and a convenience store. The only method of travel between screens is by hailing a taxi, which costs the player money; failure to do so results in Larry being mugged or hit by oncoming traffic. During the early stages of the game, Larry can survive most premature "deaths": In the original release, a compartment opens beneath Larry's body and takes him to a laboratory where heroes from Sierra's computer games — such as King's Quest — are re-assembled; in the remake, Larry's remains are instead thrown inside a blender and reformed.
A prostitute is available as soon as the game starts. Should Larry attempt to have intercourse with her, he will contract a venereal disease and die shortly thereafter. This fate may be avoided by purchasing a condom at the convenience store; however, Larry questions the validity of losing his virginity to a hooker, and the game resumes (though the time limit is removed, nonetheless).
Larry's interactions with key women are accompanied by a detailed image of whomever he is speaking with, unlike other non-player characters. Each of the women (with the exception of the prostitute) shun Larry at first, but respond favorably to gifts of varying sorts. Although it is not possible to woo all of the women, gift-giving is required in order to progress to the game's final area: the hotel penthouse. To this end, money is essential for progressing through the game, as it is necessary for taxi fare or buying gifts. The main method of augmenting Larry's funds is to gamble in the casino, playing blackjack or slots, which is obligatory at least twice over the course of the game.
Larry Laffer is a 38-year old man who lives in a basement and has not yet lost his virginity. Having grown weary of his lonely existence, he decides to visit the resort city of Lost Wages to experience what he hasn't lived before, and find the woman of his dreams. Larry's quest involves four possible women: a nameless, seedy-looking prostitute; Fawn, a club-goer of low moral fibre; Faith, a receptionist who (true to her name) is faithful to her boyfriend; and Eve, a bathing beauty and Larry's ultimate goal.
Al Lowe, a former high school teacher, had carved a niche for himself at Sierra with his work on such Disney-licensed edutainment titles as Donald Duck's Playground, Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood, and The Black Cauldron, which he wrote, designed and programmed. Early in the company's history, Sierra had published a text-only game called Softporn Adventure. Years later, with the success of King's Quest and increasing demand for adventure games, company founder Ken Williams asked Lowe to begin programming a full-color, animated game based on a similar adult theme.
Lowe, who considered the original Softporn Adventure "a primitive, early effort", borrowed its basic structure and added a new 2D graphic engine, improvised humor, and an on-screen protagonist, Larry Laffer. Chuck Benton, creator of Softporn Adventure, is included in the Leisure Suit Larry's end credits, as the layout and puzzles of the game are identical to those found in the earlier title. An accomplished jazz musician, Lowe also wrote the main theme music, and some of his compositions appear in later entries of the Leisure Suit Larry series.
Due to the adult nature of the game, the game includes an age verification system consisting of questions to which the authors reasoned only adults would know the answer. As many of the questions are U.S.-centric, they risked frustrating non-American gamers. In the 1987 re-release, the age verification screen may be skipped by pressing Alt-X (or in the 1991 SCI remake, by pressing Ctrl-Alt-X).
- ""My initial reaction was that I had wasted six months of my life.""
- ―Al Lowe
Unsure of how the game would be received, Sierra's management chose to release the game without any publicity or advertising budget. Unsurprisingly, its first-month sales were lower than any new Sierra product launch in years; many large computer chain stores refused to sell it, finding the adult content unacceptable. However, word-of-mouth quickly spread; by year’s end, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards became a critical and commercial success, being named the Software Publishers Association’s "Best Fantasy, Role Playing or Adventure Game of 1987" and selling over 250,000 copies. According to marketing director John Williams, "Obviously lots of retailers were selling lots of Leisure Suit Larry, but no one wanted to admit it."