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30 Years Since ‘Maniac Mansion’: How Adventure Games Have Changed

On this day in 1987 Maniac Mansion was released for the Commodore 64, to be later ported to the up and coming Nintendo Entertainment System for gamers on the cutting edge of 8-bit technology.

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On this day in 1987 Maniac Mansion was released for the Commodore 64, to be later ported to the up and coming Nintendo Entertainment System for gamers on the cutting edge of 8-bit technology. Yet from the classic point-and-clicks and graphical adventures that delighted fans throughout their heyday in the mid-90s, to the modern adventures returning today, adventure games have come a long way in those thirty years.

Compared to a time when gamers were forced to rely on dial-up hint lines, game store guides, and plain old tenacity to get them through the stickiest of puzzles, it’s a far cry from today’s teeming online communities where every in-game challenge is a mere forum post or walk-through video away from being solved. Games like The Dig, King’s Quest, and Myst existed for an audience quite unlike what we know today and one which saw the demise of adventure games as they had been known.

By the late 90s, the adventure game genre was headed through an industry collapse with the two biggest hitters Sierra and LucasArts forced to end graphic adventure development. A saturated market and soaring costs meant the end of an era, with adventure games to be overtaken by popular shooters that focused on the challenge of combat rather than the maddening frustration of puzzles. However, in recent years, we have seen a renaissance of point and clicks. Gaming classics such as Grim Fandango, Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle have been given modern remasters, 2014 saw Tim Schafer at Double Fine attempt to recapture the adventure game audience with the release of Broken Age, whilst 2015 even saw the return of King’s Quest with The Odd Gentlemen’s series reboot restyled for a modern format.

Yet the crowning piece of this return to adventure games has been this year’s return of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, who created and worked on the original Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, and Monkey Island, now launching Thimbleweed Park: a modern adventure game, and a tribute to the original SCUMM engine.

Maniac Mansion’s Script Creation Utility (or, SCUMM) was first created as an engine that would allow future designers to create game locations, dialogue, and items without having to write code for each stage. A revolutionary tool for creating adventure games, SCUMM went on to not only be used to develop Maniac Mansion but a whole host of classics from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis to The Dig, each riffing off Maniac Mansion‘s original ‘Pick up’ ‘Give’ ‘Walk to’ command interface that evolved from a long history of fiddly text parser adventures.

Thimbleweed Park, through a sledgehammer approach to subtlety in referencing its progenitors, is inseparable from the nostalgic history of Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle. So to celebrate thirty years since Maniac Mansion, and the return of so many adventure game classics, we’ll be taking a look at how Thimbleweed Park and Maniac Mansion show how adventure games have changed, and how their players have changed as well. Looking back at Maniac Mansion reveals some drastic changes to the way adventure games are now made, as well as some nostalgic continuities that have lasted the test of time.

1. Permadeath and Fail-States

As two humans dressed, of course, as pigeons tell you in the beginning of Thimbleweed Park, you needn’t worry about saving your game. “The game was expertly designed to have no dead-ends or death” as, after Monkey Island, designers realized “that death and dead ends weren’t making the game more enjoyable” so death and fail-states were removed to make sure the player would be free to explore. It’s somewhat relieving for players who might have been used to King’s Quest style death-screens, where the game mocks you for so much as stepping into shallow water. Yet much worse are the kind of fail-states that riddled Maniac Mansion, where players could have reached a point where actually finishing the game was utterly impossible, yet have no idea that that was the case. Wasting items like paint-remover or accidentally exposing undeveloped film to the light could trap you in a dead-end in Maniac Mansion without anyone being the wiser, so it’s frankly a massive comfort to know that adventure games have recognized and attempted to do away with such insidious traps.

2. The Return of the Hint Hotline

Back in the good old days if you got stuck in a video game there would be very few ways to find a solution. Yet unlike today, beyond brute-forcing a puzzle or buying a guide-book, some games had dedicated hint hotlines that could be called up from a home telephone and provide you with a clue to get you through your problem. Though it may sound ridiculous, Monkey Island 2 even had an in-game reference to this system where players can find a phone-box tree in the middle of the jungle from which Guybrush Threepwood can call up the LucasArts hint line. Thimbleweed Park is no exception when it comes to nostalgic meta-references, and as such, the game also has a dedicated in-game helpline for players to call when stuck. It’s a world away from online gaming forums, endless article guides, and gameplay tips, yet Thimbleweed Park also improves on adventure games’ all-too-common failure with signaling.

3. To Do lists and Clear Signalling

As well as hint-lines, Thimbleweed Park brings in a ‘To Do’ list and frequent signaling from characters as they recap aloud the tasks they’ll need to complete. Some players might find it smothering to have their goals so blatantly repeated, but it’s a boon for gamers who can only find a couple hours each night to play through a story in brief snatches. Modern gamers perhaps do not have the patience that they once did, isolated from play-throughs and treated to fewer releases throughout the year. Thimbleweed Park needs to make sure the player can pick up from where they left off, and won’t give up in frustration simply because they’ve forgotten what they were doing. It’s a world away from Maniac Mansion where we are treated to a brief scene of a meteor crashing before being thrown into the game and forced to assume from the dialogue both that our girlfriend has been kidnapped and we are here to rescue her, which is about as much guidance as we can hope to receive.

4. The Pixel Hunt

Last of all, art styles have come a long way since we were cramming adventures into 8-bit processors, with the most recent King’s Quest showing that the same gameplay quirks can be brought to life and feel at home even with modern 3D environments. Yet one issue adventure games have always struggled with is the pixel hunt: having missed an important item, or even an entire area, that unfortunately blended into the background when you first passed it by, players end up having to trawl through every corner of the screen to find that one hidden pixel that will let you pick up an object or exit via a new path. Unintentionally hidden objects can mean the end of a play-through if it means the player misses a crucial item, so games have developed all sorts of tricks to ensure that vital interactables will be noticed. That said, Thimbleweed Park can’t help but poke fun at the fastidious madness that possesses players willing to hunt through every screen for a hidden secret, so the game is scattered with dead pixels that can be picked up and kept as a wonderfully useless collection in your inventory. It’s a nice throwback that reminds us just how simple, how difficult, and how ridiculous games used to be, as well as just how far we’ve come.

Games have come a long way since Syd, Wendy, Bernard, Michael, Razor, and Jeff headed into Maniac Mansion to save Dave’s girlfriend Sandy, but our nostalgia for difficult games is far from over. The way games like Thimbleweed Park are designed, and the ways we play them, have radically changed, but it seems that players always have been, and always will be, up for a new adventure.

Helen Jones is a Ravenclaw graduate who likes to apparate between her homes in England and Denmark. She spends her time reading fantasy novels, climbing mountains, and loves to play story-focused and experimental indie games like The Stanley Parable or Night in the Woods. She also covers tabletop and board games over at Zatu Games, and you can follow her twitter @BarnacleDrive for updates, blogs, and pictures of mushrooms.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Kyle Rogacion

    October 7, 2017 at 12:30 am

    Awesome recap on the surprisingly long history of adventure games. The quality of life improvements are definitely nicer when considering games have no real need to pad out time anymore.

    I actually got to speak with Ron Gilbert at PAX and he talked about how freeing it is to publish on their own. ‘Thimbleweed Park’ is the adult point-and-click the old LucasArts team has been wanting to make for a while now.

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5

It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.

Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist

Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding
: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Afterparty clip
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune

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‘New Super Lucky’s Tale’ is Polished, Pleasing Platforming

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Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and a nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad play time. The result lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero.

New Super Lucky's Tale carnival

In the fine tradition of its gaming ancestors dating back to the N64 days, the basics of New Super Lucky’s Tale revolve around acquiring arbitrary objects sprinkled through various stages in order to unlock doors and move on to the next area. This time it’s pages from the mystical Book of Ages, which contains the power to travel between worlds, and is the endgame of an nefarious cat sorcerer named Jinx and his gang of cartoonish thugs, the Kitty Litter. As part of a secret organization sworn to defending this kiddie-friendly Necronomicon knockoff, it’s up to Lucky to track down as many of these clover-embossed pages as he possibly can, and hopefully complete the book before his nemesis can get his claws on it.

It’s doubtful that the story will be what compels most players to keep going, and to that end, New Super Lucky’s Tale‘s simple setup also fits right in with its genre brethren. Still, Lucky is an amiable and upbeat fox to follow around, and Playful does an excellent job of surrounding him with a cast of gibberish-spouting weirdo goofballs that includes hayseed grub worms, supremely zen Yetis, loyal rock golems, and slick carny ghosts. Though their dialogue does little to drive any sort of narrative, it is endlessly amusing and often witty in its cheesy wordplay. In other words, the writing has a very Nintendo-like feel in its eccentricities that adds to the overall fun.

New Super Lucky's Tale factory

Those jokes would be less endearing without fantastic gameplay, but New Super Lucky’s Tale delivers some of the best running and jumping this side of Mario. Though this fabulous fox can’t quite match the plumber’s precision, Lucky does feel extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow under ground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots.

And they’ll have to if they want to find all four pages hidden in each stage. New Super Lucky’s Tale requires a bare minimum of these leaflets to be found (and simply beating the stage merits one as a reward), but it’s in rooting around those nooks and crannies where much of the fun lies, and it gives the developer a chance to squeeze every ounce out of the unique mixture of environments they’ve created. From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. One 3D level might task Lucky with casually exploring a farm as he gathers up the members of country jug band, while a side-scrolling obstacle course sees him dodging canon fire from an airship piloted by a feline Napolean. Some stages have a platforming bent, while others emphasize searching out secrets tucked away in mini puzzles.

New Super Lucky's Tale farm

It’s an absolutely delightful mix, and that sheer variety keeps New Super Lucky’s Tale fresh all the way through to the epic battle with fat cat Jinx himself. And though platforming veterans might find the overall challenge a bit too much on the friendly side, a few of the later bosses and and bonus stages may make that 100% goal a little tougher than it at first seems. And yet, it’s hard not to want to go back to incomplete stages or that block-pushing puzzle that stumped the first time around; the brisk pace and clever design will likely compel many players to find every scrap of paper out there.

No, Lucky isn’t the second coming of Mario, but there are few 3D platformers that offer such a polished, concise, joyful experience as New Super Lucky’s Tale. It may have taken a couple of efforts to get there (and for those who have played the original Super Lucky’s Tale, levels and bosses have been reworked here), but Playful has nailed a balance between creativity and efficiency that begs for more. 

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How Do ‘Pokemon Sword and Shield’s’ Max Raid Battles Measure Up?

Max Raid Battles are one of Pokemon Sword and Shield’s premier new features. Do they live up to their full potential? Let’s find out.

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max raid battles

One of the most heavily promoted new features of Pokémon Sword and Shield have been their Max Raid Battles. These gargantuan fights are both a key part of the online experience and likely the first taste most players will get of Dynamaxed Pokémon in-game. So, how’d this take on Pokémon Go’s raid system pan out in the series’ first mainline entry on console?

Well, on the plus side, getting into the thick of a raid is super straightforward. After the opening hour or two, players are introduced to the Wild Area and can access Max Raid Battles straight away by walking up to a pillar of red light on the field. From there you can invite others, challenge the raid with NPCs, and choose which Pokémon you want to use.

Real Friends Raid Together

Playing with friends online, though, is a bit more convoluted. There’s no “Invite Friends” option to be seen. Instead, all social features are handled through the Y-comm (literally accessed by pressing the Y button). It’s here that players can Link Trade, Link Battle, exchange player cards, and more.

After actively connecting to the internet–which has to be done each play session and each time the Switch is put into sleep mode–it’s up to the host of the match to find a portal and send an invitation to everyone. A notification will pop for friends on the side of the screen, and then it’s up to everyone to join the match directly through the Y-comm interface.

If players want real people to fill in any remaining slots (all raids are four-person affairs), they’ll need to join before the room fills up. Setting a Link Code avoids this hassle by creating a room but, unlike Salmon Run in Splatoon 2, only computer players can fill remaining spots after friends finish joining this way.

After some experimenting and fudding about, my buddy and I were able to hop into matches fairly quickly without much issue. Nonetheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that creating friend lobbies is only such a headache because it had to be tied to the Y-comm. Pair this with the fact that battling while waiting for a friend to create a room can cause the notification not to pop, and getting a group together is a bit more painful than it should be.

Max Raid Battle Rundown

The raids themselves are a surprisingly engaging twist on the classic Pokémon battle formula. Groups of four challengers work together to take on a Dynamaxed raid boss. Each raid boss has a different star rating, and even the 1-star battles are no joke the first few times around. These boss Pokémon are merciless, and regularly one-shot lower leveled ‘mons with ease.

To combat these monstrous foes, one random trainer in every group is granted the ability to Dynamax their chosen Pokémon and lead the charge. The Dynamaxed Pokémon gets the benefit of having extra-powerful moves and increased HP, though it’s rather disappointing that there only seems to be one Max Move per move type (one Grass move, one Dark move, and so on). Each of these has a secondary effect on the battlefield; some trigger sandstorms, others trigger a health regeneration field that heals everyone a bit each turn. Regular moves with type advantages deal a significant chunk of damage, but it’s Max Moves that can truly turn the tide of battle.

If one of the group’s Pokémon faints, that trainer has to sit out for a turn before it automatically gets revived (a smart design choice to keep all trainers actively involved). However, the fainting of each Pokémon triggers the storm above to become more and more vicious. After four faints or ten turns, everyone is booted out of the raid sans rewards.

max raid battles

The Fruits of Victory

Two of the easiest ways to better your odds are 1) Choose a Pokémon with a type advantage going into battle, and 2) Manage who Dynamaxes when. Each trainer’s Dynamax meter grows periodically and, though only one trainer can use it at a time, multiple players can activate it over the course of a raid. It also seems like each raid’s star rating is tied directly to the raid boss’ level, so bringing a generally powerful Pokémon to a lower-level raid is another viable strategy for success.

Aside from the chance to capture the raid boss itself (and some Pokémon are Max Raid Battle-exclusive), winning a raid nets players some very worthwhile rewards. These include everything from EXP candies and berries to nuggets and TMs. It’s not so much of a haul that it hurts the overall balance of the game, but there’s enough to make getting a few friends together and grinding raids for a couple of hours worth it.

max raid battles

Though Max Raid Battles are just a small part of the overall Sword and Shield package, they’ve ended up being a rather fun take on Pokémon’s traditional multiplayer offerings. For as unnecessarily complicated as playing with friends is, there are also a few cool ideas here, like being able to join a raid from anywhere on the map as long as the host is at the raid pillar. There’s some good fun to be had here if you prefer to battle alongside your friends instead of against them.

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