Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
Lucasfilm Games had a great library of point-and-click adventure games, and Maniac Mansion kickstarted a revolution in gaming, but does it still hold up well today?
Maniac Mansion (PC)
(USA 1987/1989, developer/publisher: Lucasfilm Games (defunct), platforms: PC, C64, Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST, NES)
After a meteor crashed near the Edison mansion 20 years ago, the inhabitants went crazy, with Dr. Fred starting to collect human brains for his experiment, but the abduction of Dave’s girlfriend Sandy starts a rescue mission.
Horror comedy weirdness
The plot and characters feel to be taken out of a cheesy horror movie, but with a humorous touch. The heroes are all stereotypes of a certain kind: Syd, an aspiring musician trying to start his own new-wave band; Michael F. Stoppe, an award winning photographer for the college newspaper; Wendy, who wants to be a famous novelist and is waiting for a big break; Bernard, the president of the physics club and winner of the college’s Geek Award; Razor, the lead singer for the punk band ‘Razor and the Scummettes’; Jeff Woodie who usually hangs out on the beach and responds to the name Surfer Dude. The antagonists, the Edison family, together with a green and purple tentacle, are plain weird. Dr.Fred is a retired physician and now mad scientist under the influence of the Meteor, Edna is Dr.Fred’s wife and a retired nurse, Ed (or “Weird” Ed) is the neurotic son of Dr. Fred and Edna, obsessed with the military and also very fond of his pet hamster, and Ted is the dead cousin of Dr. Fred’s family who is also a mummified corpse that almost seems alive.
The mansion itself can also be seen as an entity with all its rooms where these strange characters live, but also where secrets are hidden. Even if one doesn’t learn much about the characters in dialogues except, there are always enough objects in the room that tell more about their eccentric lives. While the game has its creepy moments, e.g. when the lights go out or the Edison family hunts down the teenagers, everything is still presented with lots of twisted humor that works surprisingly well after all those years because of a very funny script that constantly makes fun of horror movie clichés in an original way. Story progression happens via scripted cutscenes and unlike many later adventure games, choosing different dialogue options is replaced by using the appropriate object with the right character, so one doesn’t have long conversations or multiple ways to reply to or ask questions.
Many doors to open and characters to walk through
However, the gameplay is non-linear, because one has to choose two characters who help Dave on his quest for rescue. Depending on the playable heroes or heroines, puzzles have to be solved differently, as each person has special abilities and attributes. Some can fix electrical things, some can use specific objects, some are brave in certain situations, others are scared. This doesn’t only result in alternative puzzles, but also in different story endings. The downside of all this is that one often collects things one simply can’t use with the current character roster. Switching between the teenagers is essential, as some situations require simultaneous actions, which can become quite tricky and annoying, especially if objects can only be exchanged in the same room. With so many identically-looking doors on different levels, playtime is unnecessarily stretched out because of the confusing mansion layout.
A mansion of terror and puzzles
In addition to navigation problems, it can happen all too often that characters are captured by the Edisons and put into prison. While this situation can be avoided by running away and hiding in other rooms, or changed by having one inside help the other escape, it’s still a bit annoying, as there isn’t much time to search rooms for items or perform actions. What is worse, though, is the inclusion of dead ends without the player noticing. Making an object useless or using it at the wrong time with a character who doesn’t know any better is very frustrating, and it doesn’t help that certain outcomes of actions are funny with the player invited to experiment with every object and person. Waiting for certain events to be triggered or doing something under time pressure is also quite annoying, especially when switching between characters and sometimes acting in the dark. The puzzles are usually quite original and add to the weirdness of the characters and setting, but one has to be very aware of environmental clues or hints in dialogues to understand the very obscure solutions.
Classic minimalist style
Due to its age, the game can’t offer the best graphics, but because of its timeless art direction, it still looks surprisingly good, at least in the VGA DOS version on PC. Backgrounds and characters have enough details to make the Edison mansion, family, heroes, and heroines feel as if taken out of an old, funny and creepy cartoon. Music and sound effects are minimalist affairs, as there aren’t many tunes. However, the absence of a score during the game only enhances the horror vibe and evokes unrest in the player when only the ticking of a clock in the house can be heard.
A true classic or a relic of its time?
A graphic adventure game that is 20 years old is difficult to rate in today’s gaming landscape when it comes to presentation and gameplay mechanics. Even if Maniac Mansion‘s dead ends make it a frustrating, paranoid savegame-keeping experience and the puzzles aren’t the best the genre has to offer, it can still be called a classic that is fun to play. Being able to choose between different characters and having unique puzzles to solve is great, and despite not featuring a great story or character development, there are enough memorable lines and genuinely funny moments to warrant a playthrough or two.
As prices of the retail version have increased over the years and the game isn’t available on digital platforms, one of the best and cheapest ways to enjoy Maniac Mansion is to buy Day of the Tentacle: Remastered which doesn’t only include the full game as an extra, but is also playable on PS4.
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Using the GOG link and buying the product also helps ;).