Written by: Jo

Date posted: October 8, 2007


I’ll let you into the least intriguing secret ever – most of the games I’ve considered for reviewing I’ve played (and finished) seven thousand times before. Needless to point out that it’s pretty easy to whizz through one in a couple of days, particularly when you know the answers to all the puzzles already. This time I fancied playing something for the first time around (except after playing it a few times when I was eight or something) to see if I could come up with a view a little less plagued with nostalgia.

If you're not careful you'll be seeing this screen quite a lot early on. (Original EGA release)

The plot of Maniac Mansion goes something like this: twenty years ago, a meteor crashes outside the mansion of Dr Fred Edison. It sends him crazy, and possessed by the meteor, Fred abandons his family and begins a series of strange experiments that could see him accurately described as a mad scientist. Over the years, there have been tales of odd sightings and weird goings on up at the Edison mansion, the latest of which sees him abducting pretty young cheerleader Sandy for experimentation. Enter Dave – hero (sort of) and boyfriend of the unfortunate Sandy. As Dave, it’s up to you (and a couple of pals) to break into Doctor Fred’s mansion and set her free.

By happy coincidence, it’s also been around twenty years since Maniac Mansion was released and changed the way we would play adventure games. It’s been viewed as a starting point for LucasArts and the dawn of the ‘point and click’ genre, not only introducing the familiar SCUMM interface but also those characteristics that were key to the success of the LucasArts adventures that followed it (quirky story, memorable characters, quotable lines – you know). All of this is true: adventure games owe a great deal to Maniac Mansion. Did I have fun playing it? Erm…

Usually, and I hope you’ll come with me on this one, a good old point and clicker is an excellent way to while away the hours, keep you distracted when you’re sick to the back teeth of absolutely everything, and click your way through a few mindbending puzzles. MM does this, no doubt – but there are a few problems, the main one being that it really is difficult, more so than many of the games that followed it. This may be one of the reasons that I see MM as a working blueprint – trying out a whole bunch of ideas and seeing what works. There are a lot of things to consider. On the one hand you’ve got your bog standard puzzles; open door, door’s locked, pick up key, use key in lock, open door – type thing. Then you’ve got your more ‘adventure logic’ type puzzles; stamp on hedgehogs face, remove dime from hedgehog, use dime in vending machine, eat liquorice, kiss girl who hates liquorice, girl falls over – door opens, type puzzles. Then there are a couple of extra layers to stick on top. For one thing your timing sometimes has to be impeccable. And unless you’re absolutely sure of what you’re doing first time out, you’re going to miss out on something and end up back at the beginning. Which reminds me, if you do miss something – you’re knackered.

Bernard gets a nasty surprise in the bathroom. (Official EGA re-release)

One feature that differs from more conventional adventure games is the ability to use multiple characters (used also in Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders). Fans of the popular sequel Day of the Tentacle will be familiar with using the different characters to complete the game, however, DOTT‘s use of characters were more defined by their environments (ie – each character being set in either the past, present or future) whereas MM‘s characters are defined by their particular skills. The former turned out to be the more successful idea.

Initially, you’re required to choose two characters to use in the game. By default you have to use Dave (well, it is his girlfriend you’re saving). The subsequent characters you choose determine the way in which you actually complete the game. Each character holds different skills, and therefore defines which puzzles you can complete. It’s a bit tricky figuring out which ‘kid’ does what, and all you’ve got to go off is a tiny bio that pops up as you hover the cursor over the characters at the initial screen. Michael, for example, is a keen film student. He’s probably going to come in useful for either making comments like “This movie only got two stars in Total Film – I’m not watching it” or doing something a bit more technical (like knowing how to use a dark room). Other characters aren’t quite so skilled, and seem to be minions, wandering hither and thither picking stuff up, using stuff (or saying that they ‘don’t know how’ to use stuff) and passing stuff to other characters. By the way, your default character, Dave, also falls into this category.

Clearly, as you’ve not actually played any of the game at the point of choosing your characters, you’re a little on the shafted side when it comes to knowing who’s going to come in useful for what. Other than Bernard looking spoddy and clever (and the fact he’s in the sequel) it’s a bit of a lucky dip as to who you choose. Plus, you could be halfway through the game before you realise you’ve picked a thoroughly useless bunch of kids and can’t complete any of the puzzles. This is all unless you’ve a) played the game before, b) got a walkthrough (filthy) or c) if I tell you which characters do what – which I’m not going to do. Boo.

Those of you familiar with Day of the Tentacle's intro will know that, unlike his purple counterpart, Green Tentacle's a sensitive soul. (Official EGA re-release)

To make things worse, you’re only allowed to save one game. And that’s not one game at a time, or one game per player, that’s one game EVER. When you return to load a game, it’s just the last thing you saved. Which really isn’t fun in a game that difficult, when you need your timing to be impeccable and when there’s an Edison looming around every corner to throw you or one of your buddies in their underground dungeon at any given moment. First time around, I just gave up – sick to death of replaying the blasted thing. It reminds me of all the things I don’t like about platform games and the King’s Quest games AND Lord of the Rings. Actually, forget that last one in this case (I really don’t like Lord of the Rings though).

And then there’s the interface. MM was the leaping off point for SCUMM (hence the name; SCUMM stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) and so I guess back then it was all a bit of a breakthrough. Having used the more modified engine, though, it’s pretty safe to say that in its initial form at least, SCUMM is a little clunky to use. This is largely because there seems to be a shedload (exaggeration) of pointless commands that you’ll probably only ever need to use once. These are things like Turn On, Turn Off, Unlock, Fix, Read, Push, Pull – all of which could easily come under one of ‘Use’ or ‘Look At’. This isn’t a massive problem, of course, but I did find that it slowed the game down somewhat. Infuriatingly enough I seemed to keep giving up the ghost on certain puzzles for thinking I’d already tried something, when actually I’d just used the wrong command.

Anyway, this all brings me nicely to my next point, namely the unofficial remake of Maniac Mansion. I know some of you will be hardcore gamers that you don’t really care about nice graphics because ‘that isn’t what makes a game good’ and I would probably agree with you on all accounts – but the shiny new graphics certainly help in this case. For one thing everything looks a hell of a lot nicer (which just contributes to the all round atmosphere of playing a point and click game) and for another, you can at least tell what objects are just by looking at them without hammering the ‘What Is?’ command twenty thousand times.

This is a game where you break into an elderly couple's house, steal from them and smash the place up a bit as well. Who needs GTA? (MM Deluxe - unofficial VGA version)

The newer version of MM (known as Maniac Mansion Deluxe) incorporates the SCUMM interface from DOTT which cheerfully scraps the useless commands I harped on about earlier. There’s also the odd musical sequence that’s also been thieved from DOTT along with some creative new ones. Plus, the sound effects have been given a swift overhaul too – so all those actions sparking noises that sounded like a parrot being crippled with a cricket bat have now been replaced by a polyphonic ringtone version (of a parrot being crippled with a cricket bat).

To conclude then, I’d recommend Maniac Mansion for anyone who’s a fan of point and clickers, particularly for anyone who enjoyed DOTT. Even if, like me, you come to find that the games following MM were more enjoyable (in playability terms), it’s worth checking out how it all got started. Besides, it’s brilliant story, with genuinely funny moments – and that’s hands down what makes a good point and click game. If you do fancy giving it a go, though (and at the risk of angering the purists), then I strongly recommend (for your own sanity) getting hold of the VGA remake – if only for the multiple save game feature.