October 17, 2006
Sometimes you get to talk about something really unique, like episodic gaming. In the past games were released every one or two or even three years. Sometimes the hiatus between releases were even longer. In this respect games were more like movies.
There have been games that just keep coming out with sequels, such as Wizardry(Sir-Tech Software) that came out with 8 versions or Ultima (Origin Systems) that came out with ten versions and then became an online game which comes out with continual play for years and years with expansion packs coming out every six months or so.
Most successful games had episodes which were really full versions of games that were spaced out much longer than Sam & Max episodes that started with Culture Shock. Sam & Max have stuck with an episode a month with Season One composed of six episodes. I believe this is the first time this sort of production schedule has been attempted. Perhaps the developers got the idea when doing the Sam & Max television-like cartoon show which was produced under similar circumstances.
Like a television show, the team works on each succeeding episode after the prior episode is released. This makes for a grueling productions schedule that keeps you busy over 40 hours in the intervening month of four weeks with five workdays a week.
A Short History
Sam & Max Hit the Road was released for DOS (Disk operating System) in 1993. Steve Purcell had the original concept and worked with a four man team on the design. Other notables in the credits include Ron Gilbert, Clint Bajakian, Jonathan Ackley, Sean Clark, Michael Stemmle and a bunch of others.
Ron Gilbert is known for the Monkey Island series and the SCUMM (Software Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), after Lucas Arts he went on the found Humongous Games to keep the Adventure Game genre alive for children’s games. Ron told me one time at E3 while we were sitting at a bar together that he and the others were hired to work at Skywalker ranch to do games about Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and special projects like The Dig. These technicians had ideas of their own which lead to Maniac Mansion, Sam & Max, Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle and the full line of Lucas Arts adventure games.
Incidentally, my original review copy of the DOS version of Sam & Max Hit the Road and my original review and all my research materials and press releases was sitting on the shelf next to the computer where I am writing this review in my office right behind the desk version of the Oh No! More Lemmings sign.
Sam & Max first appeared in print in 1980. Sam and Max appeared in comics first in 1987. Sam & Max were featured as a Marvel comic. Steve Purcell was wise enough to maintain control of his creation so that he could make this deal with Telltale Games and do the Cartoon Series. Steve Purcell now works for Pixar in story development.
The story comprises about 10,000 lines of scripting code per episode. The episode takes about one or two hours to play. The story is non linear, which in my opinion is the best way to do a game. Non-linear means that you can go anywhere and do anything once that area has been opened up by the plot. You may have to repeat things but many of them can be done in any order.
Sam & Max is almost the perfect vehicle since the two protagonists are capable of anything. Sam the nude rabbit deals in mayhem. Max, the clothed dog, is more reasonable, attempting to explain the mayhem in more sane terms. The story often earns its parental advisory for twisted humor.
The episode starts with a sequence that looks like it comes from the introduction of a television show with Sam & Max in the DeSoto driving through the credits. In the background the theme music is running like the introduction of a 1950s television show like Peter Gun. As soon as the animation and theme music run its course the game starts with Sam & Max in their office answering the telephone call for them to respond to the latest crime in typical freelance police fashion.
A former child star is hypnotizing the rivals of his children’s television show to promote his new eye-bo video. The eventual goal of the evil doer is to hypnotize the entire population of the world into watching him on television. While I applaud his goals, being a television producer myself, I deplore his methods. The ends do not justify the means. So the free lance police rush in to stop the evildoer in his tracks before more people fall under his spell.
Characterization has always been a strong point in good graphic animated adventures. LucasFilm and post-LucasFilm graphic animated adventures have always had a firm grounding in a twisted sense of humor and Sam & Max Season 1 Episode 1 Culture Shock (what can I use as a shorter name for this game?!) is no different. You will enjoy meeting the soda poppers, BOsco the inconvenience store owner, and Sybil the licensed psychotherapist, ex tattoo artist and ex psychic reader “still at the same location.” Return and be dazzled or meet the boxing glove at your next inopportune moment.
The locale is pure sleazy southern California with the normal hygienic trash blowing along the streets. The buildings and signs are in a modicum of disrepair and demolition ready waiting for the ball that never comes. The setting has character. Sam & Max transportation is the free lance police DeSoto which takes part in the plot of the very first episode.
Puzzles are not too difficult. If you find puzzles troublesome there are a number of available walkthroughs on the web. You simply explore all the conversation trees with every one you find until the tree starts repeating itself and then you think about how you can solve the problem. You may want to solve these puzzles yourself so I will not spoil it for you by giving you an example. I was not stumped once in episode one so the difficulty level is probably average.
Sam & Max uses Graphics that are three dimensional with bright coloring book colors that used to be popular in 1950s films when techno-color first became popular. Think War of the Worlds (the 1953 version) or Wizard of Oz colors. Sam & Max and other characters move smoothly with good animation that appears to have been worked on to make it look more lifelike.
$8.95 per episode is very, very expensive considering that you only get about two hours of game play per episode. A good graphic adventure game has about 40 hours of play time and costs anywhere from $20 to $50 which is 50 cents to $1.25 an hour. The purchase of an entire season for $34.95 only gives you about 12 hours of playtime. My personal opinion is that you are going to feel cheated since the episodes are so short. You may also want to wait and purchase the entire season on cd when it is released by The Adventure Company this August.
On the other hand everything about the episodes are first rate: animation, graphics, background, dialogue, sound effects and music. I guess we will have to find out if the excellent game attracts the money or the money drives away the potential subscribers. I think it might be the later but I hope for the sake of Sam & Max fans that the price tag is not a deterrent. Just to let you know you can dig in the bargain bin at Circuit City and find some one year old prize winning games for $10 just one buck and five cents more than one two hour episode of Sam & Max.
Voice talent on Sam & Max is great work. In the later episodes, the producers were forced to replace one of the voice talents of the main actors. The producers were dealt a cruel blow that made replacing the voice talent very difficult, expensive, and time consuming. Luckily this change did not affect the first episode.
Technical problems included being dumped out of the game with the error message Access Violation Program Terminated which only occurred two times in four hours of play. The access problem required that we start the game over both times since the auto save was not in the right location on either time we were tossed out of the game to Windows.
The game auto saves when ever a significant plot point is reached, but you can save at a any time by accessing the drop down menu with the Esc-key. The escape key drops down the save/load, options, new game and quit menu. The save load game screen accessed by clicking save/load from the drop down menu shows the save and load for four games, the auto save is on page one, other save games are shown four at a time with one game in each corner. Simply click on the name save or load in film backed green or yellow to save or load your game. There are four save games per page. I believe you can save infinite save games. Another tab appeared when the first page was filled with four saves. There were four more save games on the new tab. Perhaps tabs keep appearing the more games you save. I never tested this because I found 8 save games adequate.
Options have the following options: Graphics, sound volume for separate slider control of music, voice and sound effects, and subtitles and stuff to turn on and off subtitles, pop up text and warp drive whatever warp drive is. Graphics lets you set full screen on or off and quality of the graphics. Screen resolution can be 1280 x 960, 1024x768 and 800x600. 800x600 had great picture quality. Individual sound volumes for music, voice and sound effects and subtitles and pop-ups are often needed for those with hearing problems or for normal people like myself who hear voices differently than music. I often need to crank up voice volume to understand what the characters are saying and crank down the sound effects and music to fit my personal favorite volumes.
Culture Shock is a wonderful breath of fresh air with high quality overall presentation. The short story might scare many off with the high price tag for the two hours of play time. Overall I liked the idea and the final product.
Final Grade: A-