Before I discuss today’s topic, I just wanted to quickly mention the good news for anyone that is currently unaware. Chet from the CRPG Addict has decided to take up his sword and shield to fight the good fight once again! You can go visit his blog to read all about his reasons for returning, but I for one am delighted that he’s back. I don’t at all see it as a negative that there are other blogs out there doing a similar thing to what I am, particularly as each of us is taking a different approach and following different genres. There’s a growing community that enjoy this type of thing and some individuals will make their selection based on writing style or genre interests, but there’s also a lot of crossover and potential to help each other out. Exciting times if you ask me (which you didn’t)!
The Unfathomable Refrain of My Thesaurus
Speaking of excitement, I’m actually both excited and apprehensive about giving Maniac Mansion a PISSED rating. On the one hand, it’s certain to lead the board after I’m done, but on the other hand, I kind of hope it doesn’t score too high. If Maniac Mansion were to push my ratings from the 40s and 50s into the 70s, I might have a problem on my hands when I reach some of the games down the track that get close to perfection. It’s important that I reward Maniac Mansion for its pioneering features as much as its entertainment value, but the genre would improve over time in every category below, so I need to leave room for that evolution. I’m still not certain the PISSED rating system is up to it, but I have to trust that this won’t be the game to break it. Here goes…
Puzzles and Solvability
It’s important to note with this category, that my rating will be based on the puzzles and solutions I experienced with the characters I selected at the beginning of the game. If I’d selected different characters, I assume I would have experienced similar puzzles, but the solutions would likely have been very different. This is impressive in itself, but the fact that a large majority of the ones I did experience were both logical in nature and highly satisfying in their resolution makes the game a phenomenon for its time. While I was playing, I eventually had to take notes about all the outstanding things that I felt might need to be done. If I couldn’t resolve something, I’d simply look at the list and focus on another puzzle, and most of the time solving the latter would lead to an item that might help with the former. I think there were only two occasions where I got stuck entirely and they were, as expected, right near the end of the game when there was little left to be done. Maniac Mansion was never a chore a play and I never felt that the solution to a puzzle was illogical. The only complaint I have is around clarity, which I feel was occasionally lacking due to some items only being relevant to certain characters and the interface allowing resolutions despite the commands I used not actually being correct. The first flaw lead to me spending quite a bit of time trying to do stuff with the easel and the developer which I now assume I was never going to be able to do with the characters I’d selected, and the second resulted in more than one occasion where I was misled into thinking I’d resolved a puzzle one way, only for my assumption to be incorrect.
I still don't know what that circle represents. Anyone?
Interface and Inventory
I probably don’t really need to tell you that the introduction of the SCUMM interface was hugely influential to the adventure genre as a whole. Not only did it begin the downward spiral for text based adventure games (they’d still be around for a few years yet mind you), it also opened up the genre to a much wider audience. Simply put, more people were willing to use their brains to solve puzzles when the interface was slick and easy to us, and it certainly helped that it was entirely driven by the mouse. Of course, despite what many websites will try to tell you, Maniac Mansion was not the first game to try this sort of interface. ICOM’s MacVenture games (such as Déjà vu and Uninvited) were 99% driven by the mouse and Tass Times in Tonetown actually gave the player the option of using action buttons or a text interface, but none of these felt quite right for various reasons. Maniac Mansion’s brilliance is the way it allows you to form sentence structures in any order (click the verb, then the item or vice versa) and then action them when you’re happy that the game understands what you’re trying to achieve. Intuitive and simple, yet ground-breaking and highly influential! The inventory is also more than adequate, which is great considering the player needs to take care of three characters throughout. You can swap items between their inventories easily, and the developers were smart enough not to limit the amount of items that can be carried in each or to fit the entire contents on the screen at once. It can be a nuisance scrolling up and down the inventory trying to find an item, but the alternatives are much worse!
Push, Pull, Open, Close, Turn On, Turn Off...this interface would have really worked in Leisure Suit Larry!
Story and Setting
This is definitely an area where Maniac Mansion failed to raise the bar. Story was always going to be a challenge when there are so many different pathways through the game, and Gilbert and Winnick pretty much sacrificed having a satisfying plot when they decided to have branching storylines and multiple characters. The game doesn’t make it very clear who the family are that inhabit the house, what have happened to them to make them so hostile, or why they’ve kidnapped Sandy in the first place. It just throws the player into the Mansion and gives them the task of saving her. Even the manual is pretty lacking when it comes to backstory or motives. You might be able to tell from my posts that I really didn’t know that the meteor was totally behind things until the very end, and I don’t think it was intended as a twist. I just didn’t get it to be honest! Somehow the lack of lucid plot didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the game, as while the occurrences leading up to my arrival at the mansion were not particularly clear, my focus and direction once inside pretty much always were.
Of course it is!
Sound and Graphics
The previous highest rated games from a sound and graphics point of view were all Sierra games. A quick comparison between the graphics of Maniac Mansion and those games (in particular Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest and King’s Quest III) results in a no contest. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but the increase in scale for both characters and items really makes a positive difference, even though everyone’s heads are way out of proportion to their bodies as a result. The artwork detail has only slightly been increased over previous efforts but the range and brightness of the colours is much easier on the eye. Compared to today’s graphics standards, Maniac Mansion is still fairly primitive, but it deserves some credit for what it managed for the time. The sound also has a slight increase in quality (and by that I mean actual sound quality, not the quality of the effects or music itself), but there is so little of it in the game that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Music is only used for the title song and sound effects are limited to ticking clocks, radio fuzz and the occasional opening door. I’m going to give the game a 7 for this category for upping the ante in the visual department, but a game of a similar standard in the future won’t be treated as generously, especially if it makes such minimal effort in the sound department.
Note: I've since adjusted this to a 5 after readers rightfully commented that I was playing the enhanced edition, therefore unfairly comparing the graphics of a game released in 1989 with games released in and prior to 1987.
A car being rocket propelled into space. Your argument is invalid!
Environment and Atmosphere
The first thing to say for this category is that the atmosphere really does suffer due to the aforementioned lack of sound. The mansion is reasonably atmospheric due to the b-grade horror staples such as bloody handprints, mummified corpse in the bathtub, and radioactive slime, but the steady silence deadens the majority of the effect these might otherwise have had. I never thought I’d talk about Uninvited in a positive light, but at least that game tried to keep the player on edge through the constant threat of death and creepy sound effects (that were admittedly pretty awful). I ended up playing music throughout my Maniac Mansion sessions, only tuning in when a sound effect in the game caught my attention. As for the mansion itself, well despite the fact that Maniac Mansion is basically a haunted house game, once you realise that the house inhabitants don’t actually offer much threat (unless you really push them), it’s just a matter of getting on with your business and getting out of the way on the rare occasion that one of your actions causes Dr Fred, Nurse Edna or Weird Ed to come out of their rooms. It’s not like the developers were attempting to creep the player out though, so I won’t be too harsh on the game for the atmospheric deficiencies.
Scenes like this one would have been a lot more effective with creepy sounds.
Dialogue and Acting
What Maniac Mansion does have over the likes of Uninvited is humour. It’s not as constant or hilarious as Space Quest or Leisure Suit Larry, and most of the humour comes from the various cut-scenes, particularly those involving Dr Fred’s Dr Evil style complaining about the constant interruptions and lack of budget he has to take over the world. The rest of the amusement comes from the sheer ludicrousness of what’s going on, including a depressed tentacle and intergalactic meteor police. The dialogue itself merely gets the job done, always taking the most minimal path to keep the player focussed on the tasks at hand while injecting enough humour to be enjoyable. Despite all of Maniac Mansion’s advances, there’s still no way for the characters to communicate with either each other or the NPCs, which is made totally obvious by the fact there’s no “talk to” or “ask about” verbs to choose from. For some reason this category has been getting either a 4 or a 6 every game so far and I’m going to break that pattern for this game as the dialogue is fairly limited when compared to the likes of Leisure Suit Larry and certainly not as clever, yet it’s not as simple or condescending as it was in some of the earlier games I played through. I’m going in between!
I'm sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, I am completely unable to speak and so cannot comfort you in any way.
That all works out to 62, which is 5 points higher than Leisure Suit Larry and the first game to earn Elaine Marley status. You probably haven’t noticed that there are different graphics that accompany the PISSED rating for each game as they’ve all been fairly bunched to this point, so I haven’t had the chance to bring many out (status’ range from LeChuck through to Guybrush Threepwood in case you’re wondering). I feel totally happy with the result, with Maniac Mansion clearly leading the pack, without causing great concern around the system coping with the inevitable future advancements. Now...what’s next?
Not another creepy house!!!!