LucasArts game studio has closed on April 3, 2013, bringing to an end a 31 year old run in the games business. That’s really quite impressive even if you just look at the numbers. It makes me a little sad, because a big part of my youth was attached to things that start with the LucasArts guy displayed on a CRT monitor. If I’m honest, the LucasArts I loved and admired had died a long time ago, when the suits upstairs had decided that creative story-based video games wouldn’t make money and instead chose to exploit their Star Wars franchise to the max.
In a way, it’s hard to fault them for it. With the rise of 3D graphics at the end of the 90’s and the exciting new world of shoot-shoot-kill games with ever higher graphical fidelity, the (truly) golden era of adventure games had come to a sad end. I had only discovered this line of games in the early 2000’s, when I got heavily into PC gaming, but it was one of the big revelations and a time I fondly remember forever in my heart (:*)).
Thanks to ScummVM and abadonware sites on the internet (I vow to eventually acquire physical copies of every title I can one day, manuals, codewheels and all), I got to immerse myself on a real binge of adventure gaming for a really prolonged period. So to celebrate these games, I compiled a little list of the games I enjoyed the most:
5. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
Oh Indi. There was once a time when peopleassociated this game with the term “indie game”. I had actually never really watched the films when I played this game the first time. To me, this was just a really atmospheric and witty adventure. It was as unlikely as it would seem given the technology of the time, a really cinematic experience. This is one of the shining examples of video game story telling. Where most AAA publishers these days seem to think story telling gets proportionally better with graphical fidelity, LucasArts knew better when making Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis many years ago. It’s the characters that make or break a great story, and this games has them in spades. Add to that a real sense of discovery and mystery with suspense evoked not from action shooting sequences, but from the twists and turns in the story itself. When I eventually did watch the films, I felt pleasantly reminded of the game, as if they were movie adaptations of it. I think there can be no higher praise for an Indiana Jones game. The puzzles were a real challenge, too, but solutions were always plausible and comparatively well grounded in reality more so than some of the more whacky LucasArts adventures. I recommend playing this game on a binge with one or more good friends. What elevates this from watching one of the films is that in the game, you don’t watch Indiana being smart, no, you are one who needs to be smart, making every triumph and every downturn in fortune along the story a lot more impactful. Great game, and the pixel graphics were just gorgeous.
4. The Secret of Monkey Island
The first Monkey is in my mind, the original LucasArts adventure game. It’s the perfect blend of charm, humor and simplicity. Not to say that the puzzles were easy. Some of the more difficult ones could really wreck your brain, but the payoffs were worth it. I remember fondly the structure of the story with the different acts, the 3 pirate tests and breaking into Elaine’s mansion. It has some of the best world-building in a game to this date. Most of all, Monkey 1 feels fresh, courtesy of being the first in the series, but also because it is so light-hearted and just feel-good fun. Remember, grog is so acidic, you can never carry a cup of grog very far, it’ll all spill on the floor. The insult duels were pure comedic genius and the last confrontation with LeChuck is extremely inspired. You can absolutely tell that this was a labor of love. It’s a game that isn’t just wonderful on its own merits, but it’s also wonderful because you feel and get to appreciate the care poured into it by Ron Gilbert and the team.
3. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge
Monkey 2. For a long time it stood on top of my favorites list, simply because it was like Monkey 1 but it was better. It was bigger, the humor even more out there and Guybrush HAD A BEARD! His pirate coat was also really cool to look at. On top of that, the story was more epic, the graphics more stylish (though keeping with the VGA pixellated look that grew so iconic and I personally prefer to Monkey 3’s). My only misgivings were the difficulty and obscureness of the puzzles. At some point, you WILL need to consult a walkthrough, but that’s okay. The absolute best thing about this game is the ending, with a twist that leaves you shocked and feeling mind-fucked, but that also so completely out there it’s hilarious. It’s the perfect ending to the original Monkey games (Ron Gilbert not being involved in the sequels). It’s a deliberate twist that allows for all following Monkey games to be excusable in the over all picture. Quite like Abed’s dreamatorium setting up season 4 of the TV series Community to be interpreted as nothing but a dream.
2. Day of the Tentacle
After playing DotT, I was even more taken away than I was with Monkey 2. Quite simply, here we have a game that makes time travel work in a great and fresh way, while avoiding a lot of the problems that plagued some of the other Lucas Arts adventures. In games like Monkey Island for example, you’d enter a new area with a lot of different screens, and had to go over the possible solutions in your mind. After working your brain hard for hours or even days, you’d finally move on to the next major area, only to be introduced to yet another flood of places and possibilities to explore – items, people and so forth. The problem is that this can be mentally exhausting and take away from the joy of further exposition. In Day of the Tentacle, you are only in one place for the entirety of the game. It’s just one house with various rooms. The twist is that you get to explore the same place in different eras – the present, 200 years in the past and 200 years in the future. The game does a great job of only peeling away at the layers and increasing the possibility space bit by bit. You might unlock a new room in the game, but you have been there before in another time, so you are already familiar with the layout. This all helps immensely with keeping you engaged without exhausting you. It also helps that you get to play as three very distinct and cool characters so that there’s always something fresh about the interactions. Being challenged to think of how puzzles can be solved utilizing the time travel mechanic is very cool too, because it’s unique and genuinely works. It’s such an elegant game and therefore it’s such a memorable gaming experience.
1. Grim Fandango
Grim Fandango. It was the most inaccessible of the LucasArts adventures for me, even more so than the really old ones. It’s the control scheme. With the move to 3D graphics, Lucas Arts opted for a tank control scheme similar to that of Resident Evil. It’s not intuitive by any means, and results in you running around like a drunk. Add to that the fact that finding clues in environments became very fuzzy and inaccurate because you always have to observe Manny’s head. He’ll automatically turn his head towards areas of interest. This is quite elegant in theory, but it all felt like a step back from the traditional point and click scheme. Inventory management is also overly complex and fuddly as a result. I don’t understand why they couldn’t just make it all point and click. But then the shift to 3D must’ve been a real challenge for Lucas Arts and I think at least they tried their best.
I explain my complaints because it speaks to the quality of the game where it really matters. The first few times I couldn’t get into it, and stuck to playing earlier adventures. But then one weekend, I was determined to overcome the hurdle. What I was rewarded with was one of the best gaming weekends of my life. Grim Fandango is a true gem that needs to be unearthed before you can see its shine.
The entire premise from the outset is already incredibly interesting and feels very inspired, and games born out of inspiration are the best. Taking place on the other side, the land of the dead, a place of limbo where lost souls try to make their way to their final destination, this is an incredibly human story of a man trying to make the best with what he has, while also trying to clean up his mess. This is something that I and so many others can identify, because isn’t a large part of life just that?
The style and tone of the places you visit and the people you meet is inspired by things like Mexican folklore, art deco, Casablanca, the film noir genre and others. You hardly ever see games drawing from such influences, and even rarer are those that can combine and evolve their styles along with the progression of the story, while avoiding to feel disjointed. There’s a very unifying vision here.
Another thing that is wonderful is the dry humor. While still containing wacky characters and the occasional silly joke, there’s a much more mature humor, largely because so many characters are essentially dead people who have grown incredibly cynical, with Manny among them. There’s much to think about here along with the smiles and that’s what endears this game the most to me. Here’s an article that expresses my love for this game much more than I am able to.