Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Good old times

By pure chance I got my hands on a slightly ‘renewed’ version of the LucasArts classic “Maniac Mansion” - the very first graphic adventure ever published. It’s been years since I last played it and this free version runs under Windows without any problems.

The graphics are really ancient by today’s standards, of course, but with the slightly changed SCUMM system and inventory (the number of verbs in the SCUMM has been shrunken down, because most of the original verbs are quite useless and the inventory has pictures now), it’s still fun to play.

The background to the whole game is a classic B-movie story: Sandy, the girlfriend of one of the main characters, was kidnapped by the evil (and possibly also mad) Dr. Fred Edison who, together with his wife Edna and son Ed, lives in the strange mansion outside the town. With two friends (whom the player can choose from six different characters) he drives over there and does everything to save his girlfriend (and Earth) from the evil plans of an evil purple meteor. (Which has been controlling Dr. Fred’s mind for twenty years, hence his bad reputation.)

In the huge mansion, the player meets a variety of characters from the slightly sexually unbalanced Edna Edison (a former nurse) and military fan Ed Edison to the tentacles, one green (and friendly) and one purple (and mean).

The SCUMM system (which has been used in LucasFilmGames from “Maniac Mansion” right to “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis” and was copied by quite some other publishers) is actually named after the game, because “SCUMM” is short for “Script Utility for Maniac Mansion”.

The game also was the first that could be played with the mouse (or joystick) alone (apart from saving, loading and quitting the game). While other adventures had the player type in everything he wanted to do (and quite often couldn’t understand the input, depending on how good or bad the parser was), “Maniac Mansion” made it easy for people. You clicked on a verb, then on something on the screen, clicked either on the screen or on the sentence between verbs and screen again and it was done (for example one click at open and two clicks at a door in the upper area of the screen would open it – provided you didn’t need a key for it). Compared to always typing in a command (well, open is easy, try something longer and more complicated), this new system made it all easy (and for the first time, adventures could be translated, because basically you just changed the words on the screen and the names that would appear when you click a hot spot, the rest remained just as it was).

In addition to the easier handling, “Maniac Mansion” also had something very new to the adventure genre (to which graphics had been brought only a couple of games before): the cut scene. What is perfectly normal today, suddenly stumbling over a scripted event or an in-game movie that shows you what’s happening somewhere else, was completely new then. Classic adventures never featured that – even if they happened to have graphics.

“Maniac Mansion” and the games to follow it (like Zak McCracken or the first Monkey Island) had one other thing in common: they were funny. You could laugh about the scenes, about the characters or some things you had to do (like, for instance, challenge pirates all around the island to a duel of insults, so you could finally beat the sword master – who happened to be a woman).

Years later, “Day of the Tentacle” appeared, a sequel to “Maniac Mansion”. A letter from the friendly Green Tentacle calls Bernhard (one of the characters you could choose, he was quite useful, actually) and his roommates back to the “Maniac Mansion”. Purple Tentacle has drunken some of Dr. Fred’s poisonous sewage and grown arms (tentacles don’t have them, normally). Now it wants to take over the world (years before “Pinky and the Brain”). After the rescue mission goes wrong, Bernhard and his friends find themselves in three different eras (200 years in the past, the present, 200 years in the future) and have to get back together to stop the Purple Tentacle and the IRS (who wants unpaid tax money from Dr. Fred). This involves exploding cigars, frozen hamsters, shrunken laundry, tentacle-shaped American flags, George Washington, a mummy (in all three eras) and lots of other strange situations.

And in Ed’s room, you could play the original “Maniac Mansion” on Ed’s computer.

I’ve had more funny hours with “Maniac Mansion” than I could count off right now and I’m glad I was able to play it again (and I’ll keep it on my computer, just in case).

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