Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
LucasArts’ comic adventure game Sam & Max Hit the Road still stands the test of time as one of the funniest and weirdest games.
Sam & Max Hit the Road (PC)
(USA 1993, developer/publisher: LucasArts (defunct), platform: PC)
A wise-cracking dog and violent rabbit as the Freelance Police investigate the disappearance of a yeti from a carnival fair.
Comic book anarchy
The original comic book series of Steve Purcell who also participated in the design of this game was already full of anarchic humor, strange personalities and episodes that had their own weird inherent logic. Sam & Max Hit the Road captures everything perfectly. The story is bonkers and engaging enough, mixing detective work with road trip comedy, and the people or creatures the infernal duo meet are just as crazy as the unlikely heroes themselves. The script is funny, the dialogues are witty, and the plot is unique, silly, and surreal like the locations Sam and Max visit.
Road trip madness
Featuring the world’s largest ball of twine, a vortex controlled by giant subterranean magnets that makes one’s head spin with all kinds of strange perceptions of reality, and bungee jumping from Mount Rushmore are only a few examples of how the game parodies the USA’s sightseeing tours. Country music and carnival people are also made fun of, and there’s a very cool twist on the misconception of yetis. All in all, one doesn’t only follow a story that offers quite a few surprises, but also discovers one memorable setting after another.
Of course the main characters carry the weight of humor most of the time. It’s certainly not for the squeamish, because comic violence abounds, especially with the way how Max handles things, e.g. pulling a paper out of a cat’s mouth or constantly commenting on how he’d like to rough up people and destroy things. Sam might seem more contemplative, and his one-liners that don’t always make sense are great, so the interaction between the two is spot-on funny. Slapstick comedy and well-written dialogues are what makes it a joy to listen to every conversation, even if it doesn’t necessarily progress the plot.
Being able to visit so many places that unlock on a map by finding clues or talking to people doesn’t come without its problems. As hints of what to do next are non-existent and one usually finds objects in one place and has to use them in another without knowing it, remembering where everything and everyone is becomes rather difficult. Goals aren’t always clear and the use of items is as obscure as the world Sam and Max traverse. Overlooking important objects or even access to additional screens is also a constant with so many details in the background and no signposting, so trial and error with pixel hunting becomes the norm rather than the exception. This isn’t made any easier with the controls that sometimes fail to register when one wants to pick up or look at objects. The puzzles themselves are admittedly fun and unique with solutions that usually defy normal logic, but are well integrated in plot development. Using Max in some scenes and timed sequences ramp up the difficulty at times, though.
Time for some mini-games
If one gets stuck or simply wants a time-out from all the puzzle solving, one can indulge in some optional mini-games. Except for an essential whack-a-rat and alligator golf scene, there are various games one can buy at one of the various petrol stations. Car bomb plays like the classic Battleship game, so one has to guess where the opponents’ cars are parked and tries to destroy them before the other does is. Using special bombs or placing trampolines that can throw back bombs to the opponent’s table adds to the fun and frustration. Less than a game and more than a distraction is the Dress-Up Book that is simply about putting both characters into the most ridiculous outfits, while the Paint-By-Numbers Book makes the player splash all kinds of colors on cartoon pages. Another game that isn’t essential for progressing the story and can’t be bought is Hiway Surfin in which Sam drives the car and Max has to evade street signs by either jumping over or ducking under them.
Comic(al) looks and sounds
The game still looks great thanks to its impeccable comic book art direction and fun animations. Each screen is full of color and all kinds of small details, while the human characters are drawn as over-the-top weird caricatures of real life, with more strange creatures adding to the surreal atmosphere. The classic jazz music is complemented with catchy synth tunes as well as a few country folk songs which are all pretty cool to listen to. The same holds true for the very good voice acting in which each character simply sounds right.
A well-remembered classic
Despite being over 25 years old, Sam & Max has lost none of its appeal. Thanks to the well-drawn characters and backgrounds, very good soundtrack and voice acting, its presentation is as good as a comic adaptation can get. Despite only having a short playtime of 4-5 hours, there are enough mind-bending puzzles, crazy locations to visit, people to talk to which make playing through it a joy. The story is uniquely weird even today and the main characters remain as iconic as when they were first put on paper and then screen. Even if one will often be frustrated with some puzzles and the timed sequences, one will always remember this road trip as one of the best in gaming history.
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