Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Inspector Gadget - Cooking with Secret Sauce

Written by Joe Pranevich

Go-go gadget retro-review! The manual has been read, the score-guesses have come in, and it’s time to actually play Inspector Gadget. This might seem silly, but I am struck first just by the question of what we should expect in an adventure for children. Some might argue (not incorrectly) that pretty much all adventure games are designed for children, even if some of those children are well into their thirties or beyond. With few exceptions, adventure games since the golden age have been all-ages affairs with puzzles and stories that would not be tremendously out of place for young people. So when I say “children”, I suppose I mean the younger ones. We at the Adventure Gamer don’t specialize in games for younger kids and I am not sure that we can review them fairly. I have personally reviewed only two so far, Dragon’s Keep (1982) and Winnie the Pooh (1985), while Aperama looked at Mixed Up Fairy Tales (1992). Trickster was famously uncertain about playing these adolescent adventure games, in large part because of how difficult it is to judge them on a scale that they never really aspired to. I will do what I can to be fair and to enjoy the games for what they are trying to do, rather than what an adult thinks they should do.
All that is to say that I do not know yet how I will cover this game. I’m just going to start playing and start typing and we’ll see what happens.

The Chief gets no respect!

We begin the game in Gadget’s lovely suburban home. Gadget walks in and seems to talk to someone on his… finger phone? From there, we are free to play as Penny but there is nothing to interact with except Gadget and the TV. We can tell this because we get text captions when we mouse over things we can interact with. I talk to Uncle Gadget and he reveals that Chief Quimby just called to tell him to turn on the TV. He does so and we see the Chief on the screen with orders for us. A letter slides out of a hidden slot and we learn that Dr. Claw and M.A.D. have kidnapped six U.N. delegates and set up secret operations in each of their native countries. Also: this message will self-destruct in ten seconds! Gadget admits that he doesn’t have a plan but runs off anyway, but not before tossing the crumpled-up letter onto the TV. The letter explodes revealing that the Chief wasn’t actually broadcasting remotely, he was actually hidden in the television. It does make for an excellent gag! We try to talk to the Chief, but he just keeps mumbling on about the time that Gadget locked him in an incinerator, or knocked him into a vat of acid… he’s just glad that he’s a cartoon… You cannot tell from the screenshots, but when you turn the TV on, the Chief is seen wearing a gold command uniform on what looks suspiciously (if deniably) like the USS Enterprise. So not only is he hiding in Gadget’s TV, he’s hiding in a full mock-up of Star Trek! It’s a cute little detail; you can still see the gold shirt and black pants after the TV explodes.

I admit that I enjoyed this brief introductory sequence. The graphics and animation are surprising good for 1992; all of the characters are drawn very large and with plenty of cartoon-accurate detail. This style of graphics also tend to hold up pretty well over the years, compared to some of the atrocities of the early 3D era. Plus, the joke was pretty funny! If this keeps up, I might enjoy it after all!

Go-go gadget minimalist interface!

The scene shifts to outside Gadget’s house and there doesn’t seem to be a way back in. I start to toy with the interface, but things are pretty sparse. There is almost nothing that we can interact with in the scene. The huge “G” mailbox, for example, is just for decoration, It doesn’t show up when we mouse over it and nothing we can do affects it. By clicking on the icon of Brain, the dog, I can switch my control to him. Some of the commands for picking up and dropping objects are greyed out when I play as Brain, but we can still look around and interact with things. I look forward to future puzzles where I will need to use them both in tandem.

But can it run Linux?

Fun Fact: The term “notebook computer” was coined in 1982 by InfoWorld magazine, anticipating that at some point in the future they would have computers that size. I have no idea if the creators of Inspector Gadget stole the idea from there, but Penny has a computer hidden in a book that she can use. Most of the options are grayed out, but we have a “super magnet” that we can use, plus we can call the Chief. The picture on the left seems to be an alternate view of our current location while the one on the right seems to show what Gadget is doing right now. Is Uncle Gadget flying off to fight M.A.D.?

Metro City, USA. Coastal city with convenient commute to evil lairs.

Leaving the front of the house takes us to a map view, although again there is almost nothing to interact with. Our only option is to select M.A.D.’s lair on what appears to be a peninsula off in the distance. That seems more than a bit premature, but if that’s our only choice, let’s see what happens!

One “D”: Evil Organization; Two “Ds”: Good Organization

We arrive at a massive but clearly labeled door. Isn’t it nice when evil organizations put their name on the door? If this were a few years later, I bet they’d even have an evil website. I cannot seen to open the door and ringing the doorbell doesn’t do much. My computer’s magnet doesn’t do the trick either. There’s a path around the side, but I’m still experimenting here so I click on the “Chief Quimby” button to see what that does. Penny calls him on her watch and he suggests that if I am stuck that I ask Brain what to do. I switch to Brain, but he doesn’t have any better ideas. But… if I call Chief Quimby as Brain, we get a cute little scene where Brain talks to him in dog and he understands completely. He then reveals the solution is to just check around the back. Very cute!

Service entrance.

Around the side, we find another door that we can knock on, but this time one of Claw’s goons pops his head out to tell us to go away. There’s also a trash can here containing a strangely convenient police uniform. I cannot pick it up as Penny, but when I switch to Brain he happily wears it and disguises himself as a suspiciously short police officer. This is hinted at pretty well: when Brain picks up the cap, he has a little thought bubble of a police officer, so that when I pick up the rest of the uniform I know that is what he is planning to do.

What seems to be the problem officer?

This time, when Brain knocks on the door, the goons think that it’s a police raid and run inside to hide. They also conveniently leave the door open for us. That leads us into a M.A.D. kitchen, but there’s nothing there for us to do. The only object in the room that we can interact with is the pot on the stove, but Penny just complains that it is too heavy. I call the Chief again just to see what he says and he suggests that we just keep moving. We do get a brief line of dialog where Brain complains that there is no dog food here, but nothing else helpful.

Best not to think too hard about this.
That leads to the M.A.D. dungeon where we find Gadget but he has had all of his gadgets removed. There’s a key dangling from the ceiling, but with no gadgets he has no way to reach it. I use the magnet from Penny’s computer book to get the key down and we unlock the cell. He tells us that he tried to save the delegates, but they were uncooperative and possibly brainwashed. In any event, they are all gone now. We are given a map of locations where each of the delegates were from and a push to go rescue them. Is this the real start of the game?

When did Brain change out of his police uniform?

Oh no! They stole New Zealand! 

After a brief cutscene of a plane leaving Metro City, we can select which location we want to travel to next. My choices include Los Angeles, New York, Rio de Janeiro, London, Moscow, Nairobi, and Hong Kong. Strangely, Moscow is listed as “Moscow, C.I.S.” which seems somewhat weird as even in 1992 the C.I.S. was envisioned as more of a trade union of independent governments rather than a new super-government ala the Soviet Union. I’m not quite sure how U.S. perceptions were in 1992. Similarly, Hong Kong is listed as part of the United Kingdom; that remained true until 1997. We’ll see if Gadget mentions that when he visits later in the game…

With no real strategy, I am going to go west-to-east starting in Los Angeles. I expect a kids game won’t make you solve them in a specific order, but there could be puzzle objects or similar that we have to take from one to another.

Limo directly on the tarmac?

We arrive at LAX and are greeted on the runway by a limo driver with a sign for Inspector Gadget. I have Penny talk to Gadget and he seems typically confused, mistaking Los Angeles for Philadelphia before Penny corrects him. He says that our mission here will be to find the U.N. delegate Caroline M’Bega. We talk to the limo driver and Gadget suggests that we split up: Penny and Brain should take the limo to rest in the hotel, while he takes a cab to start working on the case. Without having any real options, we get into the limo. There was no other way to leave the airport anyway. Once the car is moving, we realize that it is a trap. We are now prisoners of M.A.D.!

That’s what I said.

We have some banter with the evil chauffeur and he tells us that there will be no rescue because our uncle “couldn’t catch a cold”. Penny reluctantly agrees with that assessment. Penny says that Brain will have to find a way to escape and get Gadget while the driver yells at us for talking too much.

I explore the interior of the car, but there are not too many options. There’s a car phone (quite a luxury in 1992!), but the only place we can call is a pizza restaurant and they refuse to help. We turn on the TV instead and the driver gets frustrated by all of the noise. Seeing the approach, I turn on the stereo as well and the driver literally starts to pull out his hair in frustration. Maybe he should have brought earplugs? He parks the car and comes into the back to yell at us, but Brain uses that moment to escape. Penny is not as lucky and she is thrown into a cell.

At least there’s TV.

I explore the cell, alone. There’s a control panel there, but it is too dark to look inside. Fortunately, Uncle Gadget’s flashlight and a pair of pliers are conveniently stored in the nearby cabinet. How could that have gotten here? I have no idea. By using the flashlight to examine inside of the panel, we learn that it is a control system for the closed circuit TV. With the pliers, Penny can rework the TV signal to tap into the exterior cameras, giving her a view of the wherehouse where she’s been kidnapped. Naturally, it’s the clearly labeled first-place-we-should-check, the M.A.D. warehouse.

And I thought I was in the M.A.D. coffeeshop.

I try switching to Brain and he’s managed to make it back to the airport, but Gadget is nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, he just gets a thought bubble that he doesn’t know where Gadget is. I guess I have to tell him? I switch back to Penny and use her computer book to contact Brain. That gives us some basic dialog options, but I select that I am trapped and Penny helpfully tells him where she is located.

Microphone, speaker, … what’s the third wire for?

Switching back to Brain now, we can leave the airport. We are given a very basic map of Los Angeles with the Hollywood sign in the distance. Our only options are the airport, an “O’Ronalds”, and the warehouse. I try to “O’Ronalds” first and discover that it’s a tofu-burger parody of McDonalds, but it is closed and there’s nothing I can do there yet. I go to the warehouse instead

This does not particularly look like L.A.

But at least M.A.D. labels their warehouses!

Outside the M.A.D. warehouse, we find a setup pretty much like before. There’s a door here, but the M.A.D. agents inside won’t let me in. Scattered around the exterior is a VCR, a fishbowl, and some other stuff. As I interact with them, Brain gets the idea that he will somehow use all that to disguise himself as a robot. Why a robot? I have absolutely no idea. There is no evidence here that a robot would be helpful to the matter at hand, but sure. Let’s go with that.

That is awfully convenient.

With the robot costume on, Brain is let into the warehouse… to discover that it is filled with similar-looking robots. That’s… er… surprising? Convenient? Stupid? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly one of them. The scientist scolds Brain for arriving late and says that he’s off to lunch. He leaves us and we can explore. The foreground robot on the right almost seems to work. When we turn it on, it tries to move then slumps down. Brain thinks that it must be broken. The robots in the back of the room all seem to be out of batteries. In the end, there seems to be nothing we can do here so we try the door in the back. That leads to Penny!

On the way out, the room with the robots is now littered with burger boxes. Is that garbage brought back by the scientist? In any event, he is nowhere to be seen. That must be our clue and it’s time to go back to “O’Ronald’s Burgers”.

Go Planet!

Actually, tofu burgers sound like they could be pretty good...

We head into the burger place after I try to throw out the wrappers that I found in the warehouse. That didn’t work, but at least we got a brief PSA about littering. Inside, we find Gadget ordering a burger while he is taking a break. He just stumbled on this restaurant by accident, across all of Los Angeles? He must be a lucky guy! He tells us that clues may be anywhere, but also that it’s always okay to stop for a burger or doughnut now and then. There are some uniforms lying around but we cannot pick them up without Gadget seeing us.

Without having too much else to do, I hand Gadget the “Gadget Flashlight” that we discovered in the warehouse. That triggers an event where a waiter comes and delivers Gadget all the wrong food. He storms off to find a manager, leaving us all alone. I can now switch to Brain and pick up the uniform smock and hat from the ground, disguising him entirely unconvincingly as a restaurant employee. We can now enter the “Employees Only” door at the back of the restaurant.

A photo-realistic picture in the game? Who is that?

As soon as we arrive, Gadget starts talking to Brain, complaining about his incorrect order. He obviously thinks that he is the manager! We can explore a bit and even find a plaque in memory of Roy O’Ronald, the founder of the restaurant chain, with the message that “the cows thank you.” For those of you not an expert in American fast food, this appears to be a mixed up parody of Roy Rogers restaurants, McDonalds, and Chick-fil-a. Points for creativity! After two attempts, Penny is able to sneak into the “Secret Sauce Room” and see what’s the secret behind the restaurant’s tofu success.

I might be eaten by a grue?

Another inventory system!

Once we are inside, it is too dark to see. Gadget joins us, but what do we do now? I consult my computer book and see that the upper-middle icon is enabled! When I click on that, the picture of Gadget (still him flying with his Gadget Copter… strange) turned into a list of gadgets that I can use. The only one listed is the “Gadget Flashlight” which I just returned. I click on that and Gadget is able to light up the room!

Dead end job. Low wages. No benefits.

Better than ranch.

With the room lit, we find our missing U.N. client ambassador! She’s stuck just repeating the phrase, “Make the sauce. Make the sauce.” over and over again. I can explore a bit and while I am talking to Caroline, Gadget discovers that the “secret sauce” is just ketchup and mayonnaise! That is a let down. (But admit it; you knew the whole time!) When we challenge Caroline that there is nothing special about mixing ketchup and mayonnaise, she wakes up and realizes that she doesn’t work here.

Gadget’s “flashlight” looks an awful lot like a gun.

Spell-checking: optional.

Caroline thanks Uncle Gadget for rescuing her; Gadget seems as surprised about it as she does. But from there, the mission is over and we are returned to the airport and can select our next exciting destination. Penny’s inventory seems to reset between each mission, but Gadget’s “gadgets” that we recover appear to be kept from mission to mission. This implies that there could be alternate solutions or even a fixed path that we will have to take to solve certain missions with certain gadgets. I am probably giving the game too much credit.

Time played: 1 hr 25 min
Gadget Inventory: Flashlight

It’s like a magic school… book.

Penny’s Computer Book: Environmentalism

One neat and completely overlooked feature of the computer book is that it has several topics that you can look up (lower-left hand icon) based on the area you are exploring. In this case, I can look up entries about Los Angeles, its smog problem, and the environmental challenges of polystyrene. These days, polystyrene containers are rarely used and banned in numerous jurisdictions in the United States.

L.A. is a beautiful city.

Similarly, LA smog has been reduced by something like 80% since the 1960s and continues to see an improvement since 1992. Of course, the current Federal administration is not as air-friendly as previous administrations and it remains to be seen whether pollution levels will be rising again as Federal rules are lifted or ignored. Maybe the free hand of the market can prevent pollution...

All in all, I do not find the game so far to be particularly effective with an environment message, no matter how much it tried this week. I’m curious to see how (and if) the game tries to keep up the educational subtext and to what extent it succeeds. For now, I’m off to New York to see what environmental catastrophe this game throws at me next.


  1. This game makes an interesting comparison with Ecoquest, which was also an environmental game for children. Gadget is just way more simplistic - all of the individual sections follow pretty much the same format, with Penny getting captured etc.

    BTW, I wonder if the name "M'Benga" shows any Star Trek influence?

    1. I had completely forgotten about Ecoquest, but that is a good comparison. As of right now however, this game doesn't really effectively make an environmental message. Somehow it was about smog? Or about plastics? But the UN person was trapped working at a fast food restaurant? Does that make any sense? And how did those robots fit in? What was the point to all of it!?

      There is SLIGHTLY more of a working message in the next post (Rio de Janero) but we'll see when we get there. I noticed some commonalities in the story but we can talk about that next week and figure out the best way to handle it.

    2. M'Benga is definitely a Star Trek TOS reference.

      I'd also point out that MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) was responsible for the dubious achievement of raising the American drinking age to 21. Because of them, young US people can die in a war earlier than they can crack open a beer.

    3. Yep, as of the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act. It used to be state-by-state, but this law withheld federal funding for highways of states didn’t raise it to 21. MADD wasn’t solely responsible, but they lobbied like hell.

  2. Didn't the show end each episode with a really hamfisted environmental message that only occasionally had something to do with that episode's plot? If so, you can't really complain about the game doing the same.

    From what we've seen so far, the game feels like it's a pretty solid effort as far as kids' games go. Simple, but not too simple, puzzles and a genuine attempt at nailing the actual feel of the show as far as I remember it.

  3. This game seems pretty well-constricted! I hope it doesn’t eventually prove to be a slog—so far so good.

    Man, I loved Inspector Gadget when I was a kid. It was so stupid, but in all the best ways.