Classic adventuring: “Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders” (FM Towns)

Lucasfilm Games’ Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is the best example of a humorous sci-fi point-and-click adventure game that is entertaining and frustrating at the same time.

Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (FM Towns)
(USA 1988, developer: Lucasfilm Games (defunct), publishers: Lucasfilm Games (defunct)/Disney, platforms: FM Towns, PC-DOS, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST)

National Inquisitor newspaper reporter Zak, freelance scientist Annie, Yale university coed students Melissa China and Leslie Bennett, try to prevent the alien Caponians to bring humanity’s intelligence down with their Mind Bending Machine, and the only way to achieve this is to build a machine with alien crystal artifacts scattered around the world and on Mars.

A strange new and alien old world
In the early years of the classic graphic adventure genre, Lucasfilm (and later LucasArts) reigned supreme with unique storylines, memorable characters, and simply witty writing. Zak McKracken has all of these. Making fun of alien abduction and space travel as well as tabloid newspapers, the story is as wacky as it’s engaging, mixing sci-fi with world-traveling and introducing four characters with personalities one can easily relate to. Despite not going very deep, it’s enough to know that Zak would like nothing better than doing more serious writing, that Annie is interested in everything connected to alien culture with a scientific background, and that Melissa and Leslie just want to have a good time on Mars. The alien adversaries might not be the most fleshed-out characters, either, but the idea to enslave humanity with their stupidity machine is priceless.

Stupidly funny
The dialogues and comments are funny, many scenes are surreal (like a broom that looks like an alien and soon turns out to be an alien), and the timing for the jokes is perfect. Interaction between the characters and even aliens are also highlights, as even the bad guys are quite likable. As one travels the world and visits many locations, the setting constantly changes, but thankfully the humor doesn’t start to rely on stereotypes in each country as in so many other games. This doesn’t mean that these people aren’t ridiculed, but it all makes sense in the context of the story. So a Shaman in Katmandu who teaches Zak a special dance only accepts credit cards and plays golf, and in Peru another one who explains to Zak how to use one of the crystals for communicating with animals is known for writing and selling books about spirituality.

Around the world
Globe trotting doesn’t only mean an open world to explore, but also flight tickets to buy. As each one costs money and it’s not always clear if one has the right item (which can cost money, too) for the right location or if one has to do something else before, this realistic feature can become a huge problem. While it’s possible to win more money in a lottery, one first has to get there, and even then it’s more annoying to be restricted in one’s movements, especially since every character has his or her own credit card and abilities.

Four characters, many items, places, and dead ends
Just as in Maniac Mansion, there are certain actions only specific characters perform and others don’t, either because they’re too scared, don’t have the right knowledge, or simply refuse because they don’t feel like it. Even if this makes them more distinguished, it’s a gameplay mechanic that unnecessarily prevents the player from trying out things, resulting in backtracking and switching between the characters. Changing characters is also not much fun, as there are enough time-sensitive actions that have to be done simultaneously. Even worse are dead ends, and the worst of them are the ones one isn’t made aware of. Right from the beginning one can dispose of a very useful item without knowing it. There are a few alternative solutions to puzzles and some workarounds, but unlike other Lucasfilm or LucasArts games, failing becomes a frustrating punishment for people who like to try everything with everyone, death scenes obviously included, too.

Classic puzzling
Puzzles are generally varied, logical and often inventive, but as one can carry many objects around and the world is quite big with lots of places they can be used in, they’re not so easy to solve. One can later use crystals to go to specific places and even turn into animals, which makes backtracking a bit easier and puzzles more fun. With four playable characters and a story that takes place on the whole continent and Mars, there is always something to do, so one will be overwhelmed with options. Unfortunately, labyrinths and some code-based puzzles are relics of the past that should have been buried, especially since these are random. While the latter aren’t too difficult to figure out, the former are just too numerous and as one sometimes walks around in darkness, the mazes only extend playtime without contributing anything to gameplay.

Remembering the good old graphics and sounds
The artwork of backgrounds and characters is still quite good even today. Despite having a low resolution, there are enough details to make each locale recognizable, while the character animations are also fun to watch. The music is extremely catchy, with some very nice background sound effects adding to each screen’s atmosphere. This obviously doesn’t apply to every version of the game, as some DOS graphics and sounds are nowhere near as good as in the FM Towns version GOG gladly provides as well. Having played the DOS floppy disc version I can safely say that these are indeed worlds apart in terms of visuals and sounds.

One of the more obscure but fun adventure games
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is a game full of funny scenes and characters with a story that is as weird as it’s unique in the adventure game genre. Traveling around the world and on Mars and solving puzzles with four characters also sounds like the best game ever. However, with dead ends, an annoying cash per flight/item system, too many mazes, and timed sequences it can be a very difficult game to play today. While it still looks and sounds quite good, adventure newcomers should definitely try more forgiving titles like the Monkey Island series before venturing into more dangerous and mindbending terrain like this one.

Score: 7.5/10

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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