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18 October 2016 @ 08:45 pm
Game Review: Maniac Mansion  
When I was young and had newly acquired an original Nintendo, I went shopping one day for a game with my parents. I fixated on a game--I no longer remember what it was--and told my father that I wanted it. He looked it at dubiously and suggested something different, a game I had never heard of called Maniac Mansion. I looked at the cover, with the house and the five misfits on the cover and the weird face in the background, and I turned it out. It didn't look exciting. It didn't have Mario or explosions or spaceships on it. Would I really like this? Despite his attempt to convince me, I rebuffed his suggestion and insisted on my initial choice.

Well, it turns out that maybe I should have gone with my father's choice. I spent years after playing adventure games on the PC and I don't even remember what game it was I wanted so badly. I've always remembered the game that my father suggested, though, and now that it's October and I'm looking for spooky games to play, I thought it was finally time that I sit down and do so.


Arson, murder, and jaywalking.

Maniac Mansion wasn't the first game to implement a graphics-based interface, with clicking on objects to interact with them instead of typing into a text parser, but it was the most popular of the early games to do so. Initially there was some worry about this being too easy, since hunting for the right verbs and nouns was part of the appeal of text-based games since it was seen as a kind of ur-puzzle taking place over the entire game, so nothing was context sensitive. As such, instead of the later "Move," "Look," "Take," "Use," and "Talk" list of commands that Sierra would popularize, there is a list of fifteen verbs like "Walk to," "Pick up," "What is"--used to identify items, since there's no look command--"Fix," "Read," or "Unlock." This is obviously an improvement over a text parser, but there's still a ton of extraneous commands. "Turn on" and "Turn off" are separate, and there's both "Unlock" and "Open," which strikes me as leading to nearly as much frustration clicking on the slightly wrong verb and getting "You can't do that" responses.

But I didn't have to deal with any of that, because I didn't play the original version! I played Maniac Mansion Deluxe, a 2004 fan remake in the Adventure Game Studios engine that uses the Day of the Tentacle interface and verbset. That does have Look and Use commands, as well as context-sensitive right-clicking so that most simple interactions are entirely mouse-driven. It also upgrades the graphics to 256 colors but leaves all the details the same. I don't feel like I missed anything.

Okay, that's not entirely true. I missed the music from the NES version, which is character-based and is amazing. Dave's Theme, Wendy's Theme, and Bernard's Theme are what I could have had playing, plus the Edison Family Theme. That's a genuine loss, but I wasn't willing to put up with a controller-based interface to do it.


No disintegrations.

Maniac Mansion is classic B-movie horror. The opening cutscene shows a meteor impacting near a creepy-looking haunted mansion and all the lights turning on, and then the story kicks in. Dave's girlfriend Sandy has been kidnapped by Dr. Fred for nefarious and unspecified purposes, and he ropes two of his friends into going to the house to rescue her. The puzzles begin right away, with a locked door and having to look around to find out how to get in--the key is under the mat, by the way--and then a house filled with weird single-purpose rooms, strange displays, and even stranger inhabitants.

The game wasn't the first to have a click-based adventure game interface but it was the first to have cutscenes called "cutscenes," and those are the way most of the story is delivered. Every ten minutes or so, the game cuts away to the people in the mansion talking to each other. Nurse Edna and Weird Ed talking about how Dr. Fred has been locked in the basement for a while, Weird Ed deciding he's hungry--which means you better get your characters out of the hallways so he doesn't see them--Dr. Fred menacing Sandy in the basement, a package arriving, and so on. Some of these are for flavor, and some of them carry vital information, like the cutscene where Dr. Fred accuses Weird Ed of stealing the keycard that he (and the player) need to get in to see the meteor and also talks about Ed's pet hamster, thus informing you that you'll need to into Ed's room and search the hamster cage.

Though I had already done that by the time that cutscene came up, but I felt better when I saw it because the developers thought about it.  photo emot-scienceA.gif


Tuna heads unite.

At the very beginning of the game, there's a selection of several other kids besides Dave and a requirement to pick two of them. Then, there are multiple endings depending on which kids you pick, which is pretty great for a game from 1987.

I picked Bernard and Wendy, which gave me the option to repair the radio and call the Meteor Police, who come and arrest the meteor for hideous crimes as depicted on the wanted poster in one of the mansion's rooms; or find the draft of the meteor's memoirs and have Wendy rewrite then, getting the meteor a lucrative publishing contract and give up its life of crime. I've learned since then that I could have combined them by calling the police and then giving the meteor the contract before they show up, leading to the meteor being arrested in live TV. That's really clever and I'm kind of sad I didn't do that.

Other kids have other endings. You can launch the meteor into space, you can get a recording contract to pit the green and purple tentacles against each other, you can ally with Weird Ed to free his father from the meteor's control, you can feed the meteor to the man-eating plant on the top floor... Considering most old adventure games offer you the choice of one ending, maybe two of you're lucky, with the only variety being the myriad of horrific deaths available for stepping one pixel out of line, this is an amazing buffet of options.

Though there are horrific deaths too. Like microwaving the hamster and then showing the remains to Weird Ed. Not the smartest idea, that.  photo emot-commissar.gif


This is one puzzle I had to look up.

I had a walkthrough open while I was playing, because this was an old adventure game, built for a time when people didn't have Steam backlogs that would take thousands of hours to play through, and I'm not a boy scouring demo discs because I'm otherwise out of games to play. But it turns out that I didn't need it as much as I thought I would. Not because Maniac Mansion has obvious puzzles, because it doesn't. They don't have the torturous logic that a lot of adventure games do--though there are a few obscure ones like using the Pepsi to keep the man-eating plant from eating anyone who comes nearby--but they are harder simply because the game doesn't tell the player anything more than that they have to free Sandy. Everything else is up to you.

No, it's because I already knew so much about the game just through geek osmosis. I've listened to four podcasts from three shows about it, read the Nintendo Power coverage of the game fairly recently, and read articles that mentioned the puzzles for years. I had to look a few things up, but so much of the game I already knew. I mean, that's why I picked Bernard and Wendy, because I already knew their skills and the endings they could get. I knew I had to use the telescope to see the safe code, that I had to pour the radioactive water on the plant, that I had to drain the swimming pool to get the radio, that I had to get the high score from the Meteor Mess machine... I didn't know what order I had to do them in, but as soon as I found any hints at all I knew excatly what I had to do.

Unfortunately, that means I can't provide any idea of how hard the game would be for someone who didn't have those advantages. I was so riddled with unconscious spoilers that there were bits that seemed obvious that would almost certainly be inscrutable to anyone else who wasn't adopting the old adventure game mode of saving often, going everywhere, and trying everything. Like the aforementioned safe code, which requires distracting Edna, finding the ladder in her room before she returns, getting the dimes, figuring out the right place to move the telescope without running out of dimes...

Trial and error, with an emphasis on the error.


 photo 3327b7f6b45a33781e80dce4e4461510-d4ipx9c.gif

I can see why people load this game up and play it to relax. Occasionally wandering aimlessly, sometimes having to look things up, relying on my memories, it took me three hours to finish. If I had known everything to do and immediately set to, it might have taken me an hour.

I'm surprised by how well Maniac Mansion holds up and doesn't fall prey to most of the problems of adventure games, which is even more astonishing considering it was made in the 80s. There are very few ways to render the game unwinnable that don't involve one of the kids dying, though there are ways that can lock out certain specific endings--all of that is listed here. There are time-based events, but they're all either triggered directly by the player or there's a cutscene warning you that it's happening. And even when you're caught by the house's inhabitants, you're thrown in the dungeon instead of dying and can either unlock the door with the key and leave or find the secret catch that unlocks the exit. It’s amazingly lenient and even though I got stuck, there was never any time when I cursed the developers after learning the solution or ended up frustrated because I needed perfect timing on my actions to accomplish what I knew I had to do. If all adventure games in the 80s and 90s had been like this, the genre never would have dropped from popular consciousness.

There's a lot of gaming classics, especially on PC, that are nearly unplayable today. This isn't one of them.
 
 
Current Mood: nostalgicnostalgic
Current Music: Maniac Mansion - Flashbulb Junk (Dan Studnicky OC ReMix)