Whenever I explore a new facet of video games, I have a tendency to go in hard. If there’s some revered series or sub-genre that I’ve yet to touch, I’ll dive right in from the beginning and blow through as many titles as possible before my endurance is expended. So of course I had a point-and-click adventure phase, what (formerly) young gaming hobbyist hasn’t?
My introduction to the genre was probably the best one possible, Maniac Mansion. This was the NES version, which also helped draw me into the 8-bit generation, but that’s a story for another day. Maniac Mansion is the game that started off LucasArts legendary journey to the lands of point-and-click — their earliest entry in what would become a series of excellent examples of the verb-piloted genre. Backing it was the SCUMM engine, a backend that would support future endevours like The Secret of Monkey Island and Sam & Max Hit the Road (it actually stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion). This is where the template for many point-and-clicks would be derived from.
DON’T BE A TUNA HEAD
As the story goes, a meteor crashes near the old Edison mansion sometime in the past. Years later, Dave and two pals try to infiltrate the mansion to rescue Dave’s girlfriend Sandy from the clutches of Dr. Fred, who is planning on extracting her brain. That’s the premise, such as it is; the game itself is basically one big puzzle that requires you to use your literacy in adventure game logic to reach the end.
This means that things aren’t exactly straight forward. To get by a sentient tentacle on the third (-ish?) floor, you need to figure out what it wants to eat. To get every kid out of the dungeon, you need to come up with a way to get a key down from a chandelier. Just to mix things up, there’s a set of events associated to each character that you need to figure out in order to reach the end based on their particular skills. Don’t have a degree in Point-And-Click-ology? Just start hunting pixels until you can proceed.
THE CORRECT VERB. THE CORRECT NOUN.
By today’s standards, Maniac Mansion is pretty archaic. The verb-driven action system has been dead for over a decade now, outside a few throwbacks. At the time, however, most adventure games came partnered with a text-parser which required you to guess what verb the game wanted you to use in a given situation. Maniac Mansion gives you a slew of verbs at the bottom of the screen. Click the verb, click the item, and away you go. Use those batteries on that flashlight. Live a little.
Granted, Maniac Mansion had a lot of cumbersome verbs. Do we really need separate actions for turn on and turn off? What’s the point of the unlock function when “use key on door” works just as well? The game first came out in ’87 for the Commodore 64, I guess we should be thankful that the interface isn’t even worse.
Adventure logic aside, a lot of thought went into the creation of Maniac Mansion. The mansion’s puzzles reveal themselves in an almost organic way, allowing you to explore its halls at whatever pace you decide. Its occupants carry out tasks on their own, giving them a dash of familiarity. The environment itself is tight and focused, so it’s easy to grow familiar where everything is, where scenes are taking place, and where you still need to go. You may find yourself working on multiple puzzles at once, as you accumulate items that may relate to your goal.
It’s a difficult game to truly fail at. Avenues to success rarely close off entirely, as they often would with contemporaries like King’s Quest. Dead ends do exist, but you often need to be trying to bump into them. There are a lot of mostly useless items in the game, but they just clutter your inventory and provide vexing red herrings. The only true stoppage that you’ll bump into is your own patience for the aimless wandering that occurs when you can’t figure out what noun to verb.
THE USELESS CHAINSAW
Underlining the game’s design is a fantastic personality filled with humour rooted in sci-fi and horror cliches. You can’t use the spiral staircase because it’s out of order, nor can you wield the chainsaw because it’s out of fuel. The Edison’s drive an Edsel, and Nurse Edna will wish she tied you to her bed. It’s not so much that Maniac Mansion is often funny, but it’s at least always quirky and endearing.
It’s a short title, too, but there’s the possibility of it dragging on if you can’t figure out a particular puzzle, and that’s almost a certainty. Some of the solutions to problems are extremely out there, and it’s not always clear what reaction a character is going to have to a certain event. At times, it almost feels like you need to be clairvoyantly aware of the designer’s intended solution. At the same time, a walkthrough isn’t going to leave much satisfaction due to the game’s brevity. It’s an issue that a lot of adventure game’s of this vintage have, and it’s hardly surprising that such a landmark title features it, as well.
Maniac Mansion has an incredible lasting legacy. It launched the career of a handful of people who would be instrumental in the adventure game genre for many years. It set LucasArts (at the time, Lucasfilm Games) on the course of adventure game dominance in the early 90’s, and carved a place for the company in the halls of gaming history. It also helped re-write the adventure gaming philosophy and steered it away from the burdens of player death and unwinnable scenarios.
If you’re able to make it to the bottom, Maniac Mansion is a game you won’t likely forget. The mansion is loaded with personality, the puzzles are fun (if sometimes obtuse), and it is designed in a way that challenges without presenting the player with outright failure. Certain archaic design elements do hold the game back in places, but they aren’t too difficult to grapple with, and it could have been worse. Overall, it’s not the best of LucasArts’ adventure catalogue, but it’s definitely one worth visiting.
There’s been a multitude of ports for the game across a wide range of platforms. Heck, there are separate Famicom and NES versions, even though those are basically just regional equivalents of the same console. In my experience, all versions are functionally the same game. There are some modifications to the graphics, art style, and sometimes even the room layouts, but the puzzles are identical.
This review was conducted on digital versions of the DOS original and enhanced variations, as well as an original cartridge copy for the NES. All versions were purchased by the author.