Developer: Lucasfilm Games
Based on: A B&E adventure featuring hamster fetishism, tentacle abuse, and literary space rocks, as portrayed by SCTV star Joe Flaherty.
Article by bobservo | March 4, 2008
When talking about our dearly departed friend the traditional PC adventure game, a common approach is to bemoan the loss of this beloved genre and raise fists angrily in the air towards anything that has been created in the decade since it's gone kaput. But in this case, we come not to bury PC adventure games, but to praise them -- and there's really no title more worthy of laudation than Maniac Mansion, the Rocky Horror-esque classic that almost singlehandedly gave birth to Lucasfilm Games' successful blend of cartoony humor and mind-bending puzzles. And believe it or not, the definitive version of the game -- at least until the excellent fan-made Maniac Mansion Deluxe came along in 2004 -- is its 1990 port to the NES. Sure, the system's boxy controller was far from being a sufficient replacement for the precision of the mouse, but the NES version of the game made substantial improvements on the Commodore 64 original by beefing up the graphics and even adding music to what began as an eerily silent exercise in breaking and entering.
The only unnecessary "improvement" was the addition of a sticker to the box which suggested the potential Maniac Mansion consumer check out the game's TV adaptation on what was then known as The Family Channel. Really, the less said about that, the better -- though the morbidly curious may want to soak up the heartwarming and unironic intro, which can only be described as an unholy union of the Cheers and Growing Pains opening credits. Still wondering about the show's authenticity to its video game source material? Let's just say that Home Improvement actually bears more resemblance to the Lucasfilm original.
Undoubtedly, Maniac Mansion is one of Lucasfilm Games' (now LucasArts) most popular creations; it was ported to nearly everything capable of displaying an image and was even given a cutesy anime makeover for the Japanese on the Famicom. But why, you may ask, was this adventure game so much more popular than its contemporaries?
The answer lies in Lucasfilm's direct competitor, Sierra; while they made their share of impressive titles, their games had a tendency to be downright malicious to the person playing them. Common features of the Sierra line included linguistic trickery via the traditional input of a text parser, instant deaths caused by simple player curiosity, and the always-great situation of "you forgot to pick up item X at the beginning of the game, so tough luck, chump." Maniac Mansion, while not as forgiving as Lucasfilm's later games, shook adventure gamers out of their Stockholm Syndrome by giving them an experience that was uniquely funny and downright playable at the same time.
While Sierra games operated in very broad genres (space, fantasy, cop, sex offender), Lucasfilm always had a knack for delivering scenarios far more inspired than their competitors. Maniac Mansion is the earliest example of that outstanding creativity; not only did the game seem to be the first to embrace the irony of the then-popular teen slasher films, it also co-opted more than a few tongue-in-cheek '50s B-Movie clichés to tell the story of a simple country doctor under the control of a meteor that makes him suck out the brains of cheerleaders for some reason. The titular mansion, though sparsely populated, has its share of standout characters who really make the game memorable: the sexually frustrated Nurse Edna (mildly censored in the NES version), survivalist hamster aficionado Weird Ed, and Dead Cousin Ted, an aptly-named mummy rotting away in the Edison mansion's bathtub. Adding to these characterizations are cut scenes, an entirely new and not-yet-abused device, which often interrupt our heroes, giving the player vital clues about the oddly-blue Edisons and their activities while you snoop around the mansion and fix their broken appliances. While the cut scenes ostensibly exist to fill out the game's story, they actually have a more utilitarian purpose: to inform the player of where they should be, where they shouldn't be, and of any major changes happening in the Edison residence. Maniac Mansion marks one of the very few times in which cut scenes are a completely necessary element, rather than a "because we can" exercise in multimedia abuse.
The antagonists are actually more interesting than our seven possible heroes, but, in giving the protagonists specific skills, Lucasfilm makes the necessary initial choice of three playable characters into a sort of personality test. Of course, some characters are far less useful than others, but all of them have their specific abilities which can be used to reach Maniac Mansion's multiple endings. In order to rescue Sandy the cheerleader, boyfriend Dave must evoke the help of two friends of varying talents out of six possible choices: Bernard, the nerd, who can fix anything broken and complicated; Syd and Razor, whose musical talents inexplicably come in handy during a rescue caper; Michael, who knows his way around a darkroom; Wendy, who doesn't mind editing manuscripts during home invasions; and Jeff, a mostly-useless party dude who can somehow fix phones between bong hits.
While the characters rarely have specific dialogue, their abilities -- as well as their disabilities -- give you a real sense of personality, not to mention a variety of ways to play through and finish the game (a rare feat at any point during the PC adventure game timeline). The addition of music to the NES port also lends a bit of character to the mostly-silent teens; each one of them has a personal CD player (in 1990 -- talk about progressive), with a tune befitting their personality: Razor listens to punk rock, Wendy's a fan of classical music, etc. Tragically, Dave, despite being the main character, has no real skills, and, in most playthroughs, is usually the teen who stays in the basement and pushes the secret switch in the form of a loose brick to set free any of his friends caught and imprisoned by the Edison family--but that does lend Dave some degree of usefulness to his uselessness.
The characters you choose determine your possible paths and -- if you're unlucky enough to choose Jeff in the beginning of the game -- your impossible paths. If you want to enlist the help of the mansion's resident Green Tentacle, you'll need one of the musical teens to help him (?) land a recording contract. For those looking to get Weird Ed on their side, it's necessary to develop his film, which only Michael can do. And if your goal happens to be helping the evil meteor take the publishing world by storm -- perhaps the most morally questionable ending -- Wendy has to tag along to polish his memoirs.
There are many ways to win, and surprisingly few ways to die; while Lucasfilm Games would eventually abolish death in their games, in Maniac Mansion, the only instances where you can meet your maker are completely obvious, i.e., showing a person the microwaved remains of his pet, entering highly-radioactive areas without proper protection, pushing ominous and clearly-labeled red buttons, etc. The Edisons also happen to be nice enough to bury any dead teenagers found on their property in the Mansion's front yard, which leads to some bleak comic moments when you switch to a dead character and are constantly told that he/she can't reach whatever you happen to be pointing at in the area around their gravestone.
The 1993 sequel to Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, was nearly as ambitious in concept when compared to the original; it offered only one ending, but the Edison Mansion was explored in three different time periods simultaneously. Still, Maniac Mansion remains the most open-ended Lucasfilm adventure game, its options of character choice and possible endings outnumbering anything the company made after it. And compared to its adventure game contemporaries, it was nothing less than amazing; not only did the game deliver a world full of possibilities, it was also a remarkably fair experience where red herrings didn't lead to instant death. The point-and-click text parser was also a revelation, dropping the cumbersome and unintuitive control methods of adventure games past. There was no question what verb was necessary to manually enter in order to make use of the different objects in the game; clicking "use," then the object, then whatever you wanted to use the object on was much simpler than trying to figure out the vocabulary choice of a tired game programmer. This system would grow more and more refined over the years, eventually dropping the textual commands for symbolic ones, but Maniac Mansion and Lucasfilm Games' use of the SCUMM engine (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) redefined the PC adventure genre, making it much more approachable in the process.
So while we can all weep and moan and grouse about the death of adventure games, the old ones still exist, are just as playable, and, in this case, can be had for free thanks to devoted fans seeking to recapture the magic these titles once brought to a select few. And while it's fun to live in the past to a certain extent, playing Maniac Mansion again can teach us an essential lesson that comes close to what many would consider the meaning of life, especially for complain-y video game enthusiasts who pine for the golden age of long-dead genres:
"Don't be a tuna head."
Images courtesy of MobyGames