Maniac Mansion is Massively Impressive
At an earlier date the company LucasArts, the same company that made Curse of Monkey Island and several Star Wars spin-off games, was known as LucasFilm. This company has been around since 1982, just before the great Video Game Crash of 1983. The company worked hard to create games for Atari and they normally get great feedback, but due to some postponing issues Atari had with its home computer version of the console (The Atari 800), they were unable to release some of these games for that home console officially until 1986. In 1987, they released Maniac Mansion initially for the Commodore 64 and Apple II, although it did find its way into the Atari ST at later dates. In 1990, the NES port was released.
You know how Earthbound made fun of all the traditional RPG and science fiction clichés? Well, in a sense, this game does that, but for horror. The games story was based on B-Movies (low budget films) and horror films, and the mansion in question was based on the main house at Skywalker Ranch. If game designers put the effort to base the mansion in the game on a real life mansion, then there must clearly be a lot of inspiration about this game. When that happens, the end product is normally a very interesting game to play. Now, I have never heard of this game before, but apparently some people regard it as one of the best NES games around. If it's so great, how come I never heard about it? Well, let's have a look.
As the game starts up, it gives you a little back story. 20 years ago, a meteor crashed by a mansion. That's it. You see a little meteor crash by a mansion as a cut-scene, which is nice to see, seeing how rare they are in NES games. Then the lights of the mansion light up bit by bit in time with the music. This all adds up to be a very impressive opening screen. The music is awesome, the graphics are great, and the way the lights are turned on in time with the music really creates a feel for a horror setting. Even though this is a late NES game, it's still a very impressive sight to see. I also like how the text just swirls in and does weird patterns. This is a game that clearly has a lot of work put into it.
So as you start the game, you are greeted with even more awesome music and a character selection screen. That song is Dave’s theme. You can pick between 7 different characters, like Jeff, the "Surfer Dude", or you can pick Razor. She is a musician. There is also your stereotypical geek/nerd Bernard, Michel the photographer, Syd who wishes to start his own band and Wendy, who is a pro at writing things up. Each character has certain properties that will help you in your quest. And yes, they do all have their own unique and awesome sound track like Dave. You need to pick three kids to play as (well, two, as Dave is selected as default), and then hit start. You’ll notice you need to navigate that arrow to move around the screen instead of using the D-Pad or Select to select options like many other games. That's because this is a Point and Click game, and I dare say one of the first around at the time.
Ok, the story is that Dave’s girlfriend, Sandy, has been kidnapped by the mad scientist Dr. Fred, and has been taken to this mansion. You just simply have to rescue her. Depending on what characters you choose, you solve the game differently. The best part about it is that you have to work out how to beat the game with those characters. It isn’t immediately obvious what you have to do and how you do it. There is no one way to solve this puzzle of a game, and that’s pretty advanced for a NES game. Actually, this game was very ahead of it’s time, as it was originally on the Commodore 64, making it all the more impressive. The characters interact with each other as they discuss what to do. Again, depending on what characters you pick, the opening when you begin the game will be a little different, like how Michel says he saw a horror film where four kids explored a haunted house, but can’t go much further than that, indicating something terrible happened. That’s just hilarious, seeing how they are going to do the same thing.
The game starts of very easy in terms of puzzle solving. Dave even says you should look for a key under the door mat. Again, this is quite funny to poke fun at the cliché. There are a total of 12 options to interact with all the items in this game. They are all self explanatory; however, using the commands themselves can be a little confusing, like open. Sure, simple enough, but it’s what you can open with that option that throws me off a little. Sure, it opens doors and stuff like that, but would you think to open bushes? No, I wouldn’t have either. You can’t use the “use” option on lamps and such, it has to be “turn on/off”, which makes sense, but you have to be quite literal in this game. Apart from that, pretty much everything makes more or less perfect sense. There aren’t much excessive things that would make you think “How the heck was I meant to work that out”, because they do make sense when you think about it. Each player has a CD player, which you can turn on and off to control the music. That’s a nice touch.
Another thing I love about this game is that it has cut-scenes during the game. This is one of those rare games that have cut-scenes in. They might not be as impressive as the Ninja Gaiden ones, but it’s up there. The game is also time based, and you have to react to those cut-scenes when they happen. You can run away from the people living in the house, and they could be walking around and spot you, and capture you. Again, this is quite advanced for it’s time. How you react to those cut-scenes can determine how the game plays out. It is also possible for you to die a number of times. The fact that there are so many variables in this game it’s amazing it came out so early. You can also get little jokes here and there, like if you try and use the “use” option on the toilet. Its little things like that that makes a great game.
The music is a mixed bag. Yes, the music is simply amazing in every aspect; the eerie music that plays when you meet one of the residences of the house creates a mood like that of a horror film. Each and every one of the characters music is awesome to listen to and tells us about that character, and there is a great variety of styles to listen to. However, it does get annoyed every now and then. I’m not sure what it is, but the music gets on my nerves sometimes. The music fits the character, not the surroundings, which is what I’m used to. Listening to some good and cheerful music when in a house with blood on the walls and moving tentacles isn’t really the most appropriate music to listen to. It just doesn’t match the surroundings. However, I will admit, it’s not so annoying that I want to turn it off. After a while, it starts to lose its annoying factor (somehow…) and starts to sound great again. I’m not ever sure how that works, if I’m honest.
The graphics are great, if a little cheesy. The blood of the wall looks like it could be made off Microsoft Paint. It is, however, a nice touch seeing the blood pour out of the fridge. Why is the blood orange instead of red? Sandy looks like the stereotypical damsel in distress, and everyone living in the house has green coloured skin. The detail they put in the background is pretty nice. This serves well in a Point and Click game, where you are looking around very nook and cranny. These most often work a little like red herrings, but at other times this serves it purpose as a think you can move or open. The tentacles look a little disgusting and there’s a mummy with glasses on. It’s clear they put a lot of detail into this game.
I love how about a quarter of the game is full of useless stuff. I’m almost certain that the chainsaw is useless, as I fail to find any “gas” for it, and there is a point you can press a red button, which I wouldn’t recommend doing unless you saved first. The navigation around the screen can be a little bit of a pain and can be slow. It also requires patients and trail and error, as the first time you play this you might get captured in the first five minutes. It would require a fair bit of creative thinking to get all the way to the end, and a fair bit more to explore all possibilities. There is also a can of Pepsi in this game, no kidding. Isn't it weird to see a brand name in a NES game?
Overall, I give this game a 9.5/10 This game is truly remarkable in every sense. It was well ahead of it’s time and set the bench mark for future Point and Click games, with surprisingly a lot of replay value. It’s clear where the humour comes from the Money Island games, and you can see close resemblances to those games. Yes, the two games were created by the same company, but it’s glad to see they didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken. If you don’t like puzzle games or Point and Click games, then you won’t enjoy this very much. However, for those who love a good puzzle, then this is one of the finest from the NES. A hidden gem worth knowing about.