There was a time I felt George Lucas could do no wrong. I remember even giving him a pass on Howard the Duck… actually I remember unironically enjoying Howard the Duck. Gimme a break, I was 12, I still thought irony had something to do with keeping your pants pressed. And besides that, I’ll still watch Howard the Duck just for the enjoyment of seeing Jeffrey Jones chew the scenery.
So maybe 1986 wasn’t a great year for Uncle George, but 1987 was another matter. 1987 was the year that George’s still fledgling electronic gaming franchise, LucasArts, debuted a little something called Maniac Mansion.
Anyone with an ounce of adventure gaming nostalgia for the late 80s and early 90s should have just perked up. If not for Maniac Mansion, then at least for LucasArts (at this early stage still presented to the public as “Lucasfilm Games”). How should I make this comparison for those who weren’t part of “the scene”…? How about saying that LucasArts was the Pixar of graphic adventure gaming back during that time? I don’t consider that hyperbole, by the way: I’m being perfectly honest. They just turned out fantastic game after fantastic game, for years, making several innovations along the way that would resonate throughout the whole genre, and all the while maintaining a stellar standard of writing and presentation. I know, I know, I already said that Sierra On-Line was the real juggernaut of the age in graphical adventure gaming, and that’s no less true… but from 1987 onwards, LucasArts is the label that I truly remember being a guarantee of money well spent (or at least software worth the trouble of pirating).
I’ll condition that statement by stating I missed out on a few of their titles, such as Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, but we’re talking about my recollections here. My recollections are that I slavered for LucasArts adventure games, and was only limited by my lack of funds, combined with the sad fact that birthdays and Christmases only came once per year.
Maniac Mansion wasn’t the first game LucasArts released, but it was like the Toy Story to all the previous shorts (sorry, Ballblazer fans). Maniac Mansion introduced LucasArts’ SCUMM interface (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), which as far as I know was the first real point-and-click interface for a 3-D animated adventure game. Previous games such as Sierra’s required you to type in what you wanted your character to do (as you’ll have seen if you looked at the gameplay videos for King’s Quest and Space Quest). Maniac Mansion debuted the idea of constructing pre-formed sentences using a list of action verbs combined with hovering over and clicking on objects on the screen, as you can see in the following animation of an early game sequence:
And yes, the mouse was still a very newfangled idea at this point and very few computers had them, so the cursor was generally controlled by either a joystick or the keyboard arrows. Primitive and sometimes clunky, but a new idea in a time when all the games before it required you to type things out yourself, sometimes having to engage in a lot of frustrated guessing as to what was meant to be interacted with and what was scenery. In Maniac Mansion, if you clicked on an important item a “noun” would appear that you could then try various verbs with.
And yes, this does mean that Maniac Mansion started (or at least was largely responsible for) the “hunt the hotspot” problem that plagues adventure games to this day, and is often cited as a main reason for their eventual decline in popularity. Since I can’t find a good definition link, I’ll briefly explain that “hunt the hotspot” meant roving your cursor all over the screen trying to find relevant objects to interact with, which in some of the more cluttered graphical games was very, very irritating as time went on. But that was later, and at this point it was a freaking revolution just to have hotspots to hunt, as opposed to King’s Quest where there was nothing to really differentiate between the tree you had to climb to solve the game and the dozen other trees that you couldn’t.
Beyond the beginnings of the no-typing interface, though, Maniac Mansion also boasted several other interesting features. The story of Maniac Mansion is that, ever since a small meteor fell to Earth on the property of reclusive scientist Dr. Fred Edison and his family, the Edisons have steadily been growing weirder and even more isolated from the public at large. The in-box materials included a mock-up of a high school bulletin board with a lot of little details which give you insight on the escalating strangeness (“Whoever cut off two of the tentacles from the Biology class octopus better confess to their sick prank!”) as well as obliquely introducing you to the main characters.
Yes, characters. Maniac Mansion was a “team” adventure game. Still single player, but you chose a group of three high school kids from a pool of seven possibles. Actually you only got to choose two of them, since one always had to be Dave, the denim-and-sneakers clad popular dude (hey now… 80s, remember?) whose cheerleader girlfriend Sandy has been kidnapped by Dr. Fred and taken to the Mansion. The introduction screen gives you a little blurb on each kid which hints at what they might be good at, for instance the school photographer, the new-wave keyboardist, the science nerd, and of course the surfer dude who isn’t really good at anything but providing comic relief. During the game you could switch freely between your three kids, and quite literally had to in order to solve some of the puzzles. Whatever kids you weren’t using would just hang out wherever you left them, which could end up being a serious problem if one of the Mansion’s roving denizens happened across them. Timing could play a big role as, for instance, one of your kids ding-dong-ditches at the front door to get Weird Ed out of his room while the kid you stashed in the closet then slips into the room to get needed stuff before Ed comes back (brief cutscenes would help you and warn you in this, but it could still be pretty nailbiting).
Playing Maniac Mansion, I did have fun, but I began to realize how ignorant of the world at large I was, for instance the idea that people might leave keys to their houses under doormats. So several of the “common sense” and know-how puzzles were alien to me. Hell, when I played the sequel years later I still had no clue that wine eventually turns into vinegar, and that turned out to be an important concept. This is what I meant when I say adventure games were best played with at least one friend looking over your shoulder, and in this era I was mostly flying solo: mom and sis weren’t interested, and my dad’s “help” usually consisted of sneaking up behind me, then suddenly leaning over and typing randomly and crazily on the keyboard in a blatant, grinning bid at causing gaming catastrophe.
He was so sad when the mouse era finally arrived. Of course now there’s the Kinect… but now I have my own apartment, and he has no key.
Anyhow, the other thing about Maniac Mansion I hinted at before is that the kids you picked actually could make a difference in how the game played, meaning Maniac Mansion was one of the first titles out there with a “replay value” beyond just striving for a perfect score. A broken radio could be repaired, but only if Bernard the Nerd was along to use his mad Radio Shack skillz. Sid and Razor, the musicians of the group, were the only ones who could utilize the music room to its full potential. These actions in turn enabled alternate ways to solve the game, such as befriending the sentient science experiment Green Tentacle and convincing him to betray his master, or calling in the Intergalactic Meteor Police on the situation (a solution I swear Brian Lee O’Malley stole for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World).
Now, for those of you who remember LucasArts, you may or may not remember that Maniac Mansion was before they came up with that other crazy idea that random deaths and (worse) leaving your character alive while rendering a game unwinnable was not a lot of fun in an adventure game. Maniac Mansion was chock full of both issues, which was a problem in a game that, while paying homage to B-movie horror, still was meant first and foremost as wacky comedy. Now being able to put Weird Ed’s beloved pet hamster into the microwave = hilarious, I’m not talking about that. But if you got water out of the swimming pool and put it in the microwave, this happened:
A little bit depressing there, especially considering your surviving kids could go out and find that tombstone on the lawn. Also I believe that you could only lose one kid to death or imprisonment before you were officially fucked out of being able to complete the game, but the game wouldn’t really tell you that. It just left your last protagonist as a sad, lonely wanderer of the mansion until you figured out a restart was required.
As I’ve said before though, Maniac Mansion was by no means alone in these sins during this era of gaming, and it was LucasArts who would soon pioneer the kinder, gentler adventure game. We’ll get to that another day. In the meantime, the seeds of talent and genius to come were still readily apparent in Maniac Mansion, with snappy writing, innovative gameplay, and (for the time) a truly rockin’ intro sequence that blew the one for Space Quest out of the water, including what might perhaps have been the first ever in-game cutscene to start things off. And yes, depending on which kids you picked, the dialogue would be different, but I think this particular video has the best combo in using Bernard and Jeff. Ok, let’s go rescue Sandy!
Also, if you want to hear a more modernized version of the theme song, this is pretty great: