October 16, 2006
I've been around a while. I was there when computers fought their way into people's homes. I was there when the thing called An Adventure Game was invented. I've seen the rise and fall of genius and schlock. The pioneering days of home computers were heady times and one of the bright spots was a small company by the name of Lucas Arts.
Now, don't confuse the Lucas Arts of the early '90s with the bloated, money mill Lucas Arts of today whose only capability is to churn out clone after clone of indistinguishable Star WarsFPSs. No, back then Lucas Arts was experimenting, feeling its way, willing to try edgy/risky stuff. They created the legendary Monkey Island series which brought whole new meanings to “Swashbuckle.” They created Full Throttle, a gritty adventure game centered around a biker's club. And they even allowed a young artist by the name of Steve Purcell to make a computer game from his off-beat comic characters, Sam & Max.
By the three-pronged sex toy of Xenu, that's disturbing!
Sam & Max defined “edgy.” That is, they live right on that hairy edge dividing the rational from the psychotic. Max is a “small, white, rabitty thing” with teeth modeled after a rip saw. He looks like he made a funny face as a child and his face froze that way (so listen to your Mothers, children!). And while he may appear to be a maniacle rabbit, Sam thinks of him simply as a sociopathic lagomorph. Indeed, Max is exactly what the authorities have told us we would all turn into if we played those violent video games. He lives in his own surreal world which occasionally leaks out from him like so much decomposing lettuce. Max is the unfortunate love child of Salvador Dali and Hannibal Lecter.
Sam, on the other hand, is a large dog dressed in a full suit, slacks and hat reminiscent of the hard-boiled detective. His easy-going ways and dry humor could fool you into thinking that he was normal. But remember, he likes Max and approves of his behavior. Sam acts as Max's cover and enabler, allowing Max to get into places which would normally slam the door in his face.
So what do you do with a couple of social misfits who worship large guns and believe violence is the solution to every problem? Why, place them in a position of authority, of course! And so the Freelance Police were formed, ready to take on any case the regular Police were too embarrassed to be associated with.
Steve Purcell actually published several Sam & Max comic books before coming to work for Lucas Arts. These early comics have been horded by adoring fans and lovingly stored in the bottoms of bird cages, making it very difficult for those new to the scene to find copies. But even without all this documented evidence to warn them of what they were getting into, Lucas Arts allowed Steve to create an adventure game around his Freelance Police.
The resulting Sam & Max Hit the Road was everything the public feared it would be – a tongue-in-cheek romp through every cheesy tourist trap across the country searching for the lost Big Foot, missing from the carnival side show, and Gertie, the Giraffe Necked Girl from Scranton. It had humor. It had attitude. It was the Addams Family without the goth.
And people loved it. Not all people, typically just the ones who hum Tom Lehrer songs in the shower. But a lot of people.
And that was it. No sequel. No follow on. Nothing other than a few episodes snuck onto the Cartoon Network before an executive actually watched one and yanked the show. Requium obscura eternum.
Holy iridescent manatees frolicking in a Country Cadillac!
Then came TellTale Games, a company formed from the old Lucas Arts crowd and dedicated to bringing back games with the old classic style which launched the genre. They provided a new home for Sam & Max and a resurrection took place.
Web comics aside, a new story was written and a deal was struck with GameTap to bring back The Dysfunctional Duo. They are to return in a series of six episodes with the first episode, Sam & Max – Culture Shock, being released on 17 October 2006, just in time for this review.
I don't want to say too much about the game itself and spoil the joy of discovery. But I have played the game the whole way through and loved it. I can offer these comments:
First, TellTale Games did a wonderful job of recreating Sam and Max. The style and character are true to the spirit of the comics and the original game. This is a worthy sequel.
The script is perfect. The story line is what Sam & Max fans have been hoping for and the dialog is true to the characters. “A” to the writers for nailing it.
The graphics are upgraded from the original but remain true to the spirit. In the original game, the graphics looked like they had been made with MS Paint. Now they look 3-D rendered, but with the same Toonville style. There are also many more cut scenes than the original.
The voice acting for most of the characters was very good. They seemed to know what they were talking about and their personality quirks came through nice and strong.
The game-play is the same 2 ½ D as the original. That is, the background is static or scrolling and the characters move around on it. Everything is mouse controlled. Just click on anything which strikes your fancy. If it has a name, then Sam (or Max) will tell you about it or interact with it. If not, Sam and Max will simply walk there. And don't worry about Max blocking Sam from getting where he needs to be. Sam has a very elegant solution for that problem.
The puzzles are in all the classic style of inventory or dialog tree. There was also one puzzle which barely qualified as an action sequence, but you don't need to be a joystick twitcher to handle it. To say that they are logical might be stretching the meaning of the word, but they are all consistent with the Sam & Max way of thinking. I would place all the puzzles at the easy to medium level of difficulty.
The play is fairly linear with plenty of hints as to what needs to be done next. For example, if you hear Sam say, “Gee, I'm going to need a left-handed smoke sifter if I'm going to get past this left-handed smoke.” then you should have a pretty good idea of what you need to do next. The average adventure gamer should never get stuck.
The game auto-saves at every scene change, but you can also save anytime you want. There appeared to be plenty of save positions, but I found that I only needed one.
And finally, it is worth noting that I didn't find a single bug in the entire game. This was obviously not produced by one of the major publishing companies out there.
If you would like a small taste of Sam & Max, then go to the link below and view the trailer. You can also read more about the characters you will meet there.
There are two things in life you never want to see: Randy Sluganski without any clothes on and Max with a sharp, pointy object.
Unfortunately, for all the excellent work that went into this production there was one fly in the eye salve which brought it down from the “A” it otherwise deserved.
You perhaps noticed all the space I gave to describing the psychotic leanings of Max? These comments are well supported by the comic and the original game. But the voice actor brought none of that to his character. Most of the time Max is just flat. Occasionally he comes across as a whiny ten year old. But never did I feel that edge which would cause me to always keep him in plain sight.
I can't blame the script, the words are perfect. But any actor can give a dozen different personalities to the same words. This is critical because the words are crafted to imply something deeply disturbing, but without that edge they just come across as a cheap wisecrack.
The bottom line is that I was playing the game, enjoying the plot and the puzzles and occasionally thinking, “Wow, that was a funny line. So why aren't I laughing?” There is a Voice Director listed in the credits. Perhaps he can pull more out of the actor for the next episode.
I loved playing this game. My biggest upset is that I must wait over a month for the next one to come out. I really wanted to give it an “A”, but because of the flat voice acting for Max, I can only give it a “B+” But even so, I heartily recommend it to all Adventure Gamers as money well spent.
Final Grade: B+