I recently got the hankering to play some old point-and-click adventure games. While I’ve been known to devour many of the classic Sierra games (especially Gabriel Knight), I’ve always preferred the flavor of LucasArts adventure titles. Sure, Sierra games were much more difficult, but LucasArts games just seemed to have better writing, art design and puzzles. Lucas games were vibrant, and the writing was filled with tongue-in-cheek humor and pop-culture references. Also, there seemed to be more exploration involved with LucasArts games than with Sierra. Sierra did create some outstanding titles, and had many great people working for them. However, when it came to adventure games, LucasArts just did things better.
The first game on my adventure game to-do list is the first adventure game I ever played: Maniac Mansion. Since I played the watered-down NES version when I was kid, I decided to give the original PC version a whirl. There are numerous differences between the NES port of Maniac Mansion and the versions available on the Commodore 64, Apple II, Amiga, IBM and Atari ST. Instead of going over those changes in detail, I’ll direct you to an interesting article written by Douglas Crockford, one of the programmers that worked on the NES port. It’s a great insider look at Nintendo’s censorship policies and explains how the console porting process works. It’s also interesting to note that the porting process is pretty much reversed these days, with games being developed for consoles first and then ported for PCs and Macs.
Most adventure games still hold up even by today’s standards, and Maniac Mansion is no different. Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick created a fascinating, and humorous, point-and-click adventure title that features memorable characters and unique puzzles. The premise of the game is that Dave Miller’s girlfriend Sandy Pantz has been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Fred Edison. Dave recruits five of his best friends to help rescue Sandy, who is being held hostage at the creepy Edison family mansion.
After the initial cut-scene, the player gets to select two of Dave’s friends to help him solve the numerous puzzles that are in the mansion. Each character has a “special ability” that allows them to solve certain puzzles that other characters can’t, which in turn determines what end-game puzzles you’ll be able to solve in order to beat the game. This is perhaps the best aspect of Maniac Mansion, as many of the puzzles can be solved in different ways and what occurs during the final cut-scene changes depending on which character is used to solve the final puzzle, which can be different depending upon whom the player selects to be in their party. For example, Bernard (who later becomes the main protagonist in Day of the Tentacle, Maniac Mansion’s sequel) is the nerd of the group and knows how to fix and operate certain objects in the house, one of which can be used as the final puzzle to beat the game.
There are also “timed” events that occur periodically, like when the doorbell rings because Weird Ed’s package has arrived, or when Dr. Fred has to cut power to the house for a few minutes. These events are key in solving certain puzzles but don’t necessarily leave the player at a disadvantage if they miss an opportunity. This is probably the biggest difference between LucasArts adventure games and Sierra adventure games: With some exceptions, no puzzle becomes unsolvable because the player misses an item, becomes trapped or dies. Even if all of the playable characters get caught wondering the mansion and are thrown into the dungeon, it is still possible to finish the game (most of the time). Some gamers might find that makes LucasArts games too easy, but I completely disagree. LucasArts developers put in plenty of insanely difficult puzzles that could take a player an hour or more to complete if they’ve never played the game before and/or aren’t using a guide. LucasArts adventure games don’t punish players for exploring, and that’s a good thing.
Maniac Mansion is not without its flaws, and is by no means a perfect game (though it does come close). Some of the objects in the game can be difficult to click on, and there are too many useless verbs to select from. One would assume that selecting “fix”, then clicking on the broken telephone, then selecting “tools” would fix the telephone. However, that’s not the case: you just need to click on “tools” and click on the “telephone” in order to solve the puzzle. In fact, I don’t even recall ever having to use the “fix” command. A couple of the puzzles seem a bit unfair, as well, and I don’t understand how really anyone was able to solve them without using a guide or calling the now defunct LucasArts hint line, especially for solving the puzzle that involves an envelope and a jar.
I’ll admit, I did use a guide to solve some of the puzzles in the game. I was fortunate to never get stuck (there are only seven dead ends in the game, but some are humorous and are worth checking out) and have to restart the game, but I did play through the game a couple more times to see the other endings and to hunt for some Easter eggs, which are always plentiful in LucasArts adventures. It’s things like that that keep coming back to Maniac Mansion, and why it still remains one of my favorite adventure games of all time.
- Ringing the doorbell to annoy the hell out of Weird Ed.
- Helping Green Tentacle get a record deal.
- Using the telephone to prank call Nurse Edna.
- Using the telescope to see some odd things.
- Two words: Microwave. Hamster.
- Eugene Levy turned Maniac Mansion into a sitcom for Canadian television. The show featured comedians from the classic Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV, and lasted for three seasons from 1990 to 1993.
- Tim Schafer, who would later create some brilliant adventure games for LucasArts himself, was one of the testers for the NES port.
- Maniac Mansion contains the first appearance of “Chuck the Plant”, a “character” which became a running joke and was featured in a few other LucasArts games.