Friday, May 10, 2013

"Maniac Mansion", NES, 1990.

Well, folks, here it is, the final stop on my Lucasarts memorial tour. I thought "it's too bad I don't have any ads on file for Maniac Mansion" but then I remembered The Stack... So it's not exactly an ad, but at the same time -- everything in this magazine is an ad, if not for games on the NES, than for the NES itself and the NES "lifestyle". Early issues of Nintendo Power had this really awesome trend of arranging for little dioramas depicting game scenes for use as magazine covers. It was that brief moment in time when the best way to depict objects on a computer screen was in 2D and the best way to compellingly present the subjects of that 2D artwork was analogue sculpture in 3D. These covers were one of Nintendo Power's recurring strong points (well, that and the Howard & Nester comics, who also engaged Maniac Mansion in their own way.) Here's a (partial -- thought I scanned both halves, but guess not!) map of the Edison estate. One of my recurring interests in video games is games that revisit territory -- games built on the maps of earlier games, like the System Shock 1 call-out near the end of System Shock 2, or eg. Pyramid 2000 being built on Adventure's map. Isn't there a Wolfenstein 3-D map adapted from a Pac-Man level? (It even happened to A Story As You Like It!) Maniac Mansion's sequel, Day of the Tentacle, of course also takes place in the Edison mansion, but the basic layout there is considerably changed. (Granted, continuity takes a backseat to story and gameplay, and isn't a compelling virtue unto itself, but it definitely sends me a shivering metatextual frisson. Wait, come back!) I wouldn't go so far as to say that these profiles contained everything you needed to know in order to win a game (and thus basically spoil it), but rather contained much that would enhance your enjoyment of the game, drawing attention to important design elements and minimising player time spent banging their head against a wall elsewhere. A couple of important Maniac Mansion elements: multiple endings attainable through variable party composition, plus of course red herring objects.

Did You Know: computer Maniac Mansion was considered such a phenomenon that a kawaii Famicom re-implementation was made that doesn't use SCUMM? It retains most of the elements that Nintendo of America requested be removed as in the notorious expurgation article. Only later for the US NES release did we get a version built on the bones of the earlier ones. We didn't end up seeing many similar graphical adventure games on consoles with the exception of Nightshade and the Scooby-Doo title I mentioned there, and arguably Cosmic Spacehead... because A Joystick Is Not A Mouse, though Icom still had success porting their MacVentures to the NES and ignoring that directive. Apparently most of the time allotted for the development of this game was actually spent developing the SCUMM scripting language (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, don't you know?) which meant this project ran into overtime -- but they sure ended up getting a lot of mileage out of the framework, first at Lucasarts and also at Humongous!

If you haven't played Maniac Mansion, the authoritative way to do so is through the AGS fan remake Maniac Mansion Deluxe by "Lucasfans", if you can find it. MM was one of my very first pieces of sneakernet warez back in the day, but it wasn't until MMD that I was able to finish it (... because a keyboard is also not a mouse, and slows you down for timed puzzles involving eg. draining flashlight batteries.) And, of course, you should all have SCUMMVM installed on your devices to facilitate investigation and revisitation of this game, its successors and brethren. Did you ever see the Maniac Mansion TV show? At the time it felt very strange to watch, knowing that most viewers would have no idea it was a video game first, and that likely more money was spent on an episode-by-episode basis than was spent on making the entire game it was based on.

If you have any interest in the unusual aesthetics of early versions of MM for older machines (C64, Apple 2), it's worth looking up its Lucasarts predecessors, the Habitat MMORPG and the Labyrinth adventure game (with creative input from Douglas Adams! "Adumbrate the elephant" indeed!)

And that's really just about everything I have to say about Maniac Mansion. Hats off, Lucasarts, you made some good adventure games, and eventually you also made the Dig and Full Throttle as well.
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