One of the first genre journeys I recall embarking on as a retro gaming hobbyist was an exploration of the LucasArts adventure catalogue. During that time, I dug through a scattered assortment of titles, but burned out earlier than I would have liked. I found new favourites in games like The Secret of Monkey Island, but have still yet to finish Day of the Tentacle or Grim Fandango. I’ll get there, I’m sure.
Then there were games that I barely touched for one reason or the other, and the one that sticks out most is Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. This was the 1988 follow-up to Maniac Mansion. It’s the second in a long series of games that use the SCUMM engine. I recall avoiding it because of its reputation. What had scared me off was the complaint that the game features dead ends, a faux pas that future LucasArts games would steer away from. Despite this, I’ve just finished replaying Maniac Mansion, with makes it an appropriate time to jump in and see how accurate those complaints were.
GROOVELING TO THE KING
Zak McKracken is the story of the titular character, a tabloid writer, who is… actually his motivation isn’t clear. He’s feeling unfulfilled with his chosen profession and wants to write a book, but his boss is demanding that he go out on another story. Why he doesn’t just quit isn’t really explored. While tracking down a two-headed squirrel, he stumbles across a crystal and learns that it’s part of a device that can be used to thwart the meddling of an alien race who is attempting to make all of humanity stupider.
This was, of course, 1988, so I guess a shallow plot laden with cliches is expected.
What follows is a globe trotting adventure to find these crystals. It’s really a grouping of barely connected set-pieces, each complete with their own point-and-click puzzles. In a way, it’s a lot more expansive than Manic Mansion, focusing on several locations rather than a single house. On the other hand, it makes the exploration tedious in more way than one.
There isn’t really all that much connecting Zak McKracken to Maniac Mansion, aside from scripting engine. It’s obvious that it wasn’t intended as a sequel. Despite this, it uses the same verb driven point-and-click interface that has you selecting from a list of actions and objects. The flow of the game is largely familiar; pick up items that could, at some point, become useful (ie. all of them) and rub them in the correct places until you get the desired effect. It’s a formula that would carry LucasArts games well into the next decade.
The game’s sense of humour is also at the forefront, like it was in Maniac Mansion, but rather than parody horror and sci-fi cliches, it tends to stick to adventure films and conspiracy theories. Popular modern mythology, such as ancient aliens, the continued existence of Elvis, and the lost city of Atlantis, are all accounted for. Weirdly, though, the whole tabloid writer aspect doesn’t play into it much.
Actually, the humour doesn’t really play into it much. Like Maniac Mansion before it, there isn’t much actual dialogue in Zak McKracken. What is there is borderline painful to the point where I’m glad it existed before the time before voiceovers. Zak has this shtick where he phrases whatever is happening as a tabloid headline while looking directly at the player, and it’s never funny or insightful, and it just makes me want to reach through the screen and slap him. Not that Maniac Mansion had exceptional dialogue, but at least I didn’t want to strangle any of the characters.
The script is easy enough to ignore, but the gameplay has its problems too. For starters, you’re given a Cashcard early on which holds all your money, and each character is given a finite amount. I have no idea why. To get to other countries, you have to dole out the dosh for a ticket, and the prices increase the further away you want to go. At first, it seems like you have more money than you’d ever need, but it drains fast later in the game. If you travel to one location, find out that you don’t have an item that you need, and have to travel back, you could find your account running dry before the game is complete, forcing you to reload to an earlier save or start over. There are few opportunities to replenish your funds, and the most viable doesn’t occur until much later in the game. Transferring funds between characters is yet another useless pain in the arse, and isn’t even possible for two of the characters. It’s a poorly thought out mechanic that contributes absolutely nothing to the overall product.
Speaking of which, you don’t exclusively play as Zak; you’re given three additional characters to toggle between, whose names I actually don’t remember because, well, I naturally have trouble internalizing the names of uninteresting people. The exact reason why this design decision was made is incredibly unclear, as they merely add an additional step to certain puzzles, as well as their own inventory to manage. They also compound the money issues, since they each have their own Cashcard with their own funds, and they too have to pay for transportation.
The result is this overall feel that Zak McKracken deliberately wants to force you into a brick wall. On top of the money issues, characters can die or become trapped if you’re not careful. The two martian explorer characters both have oxygen supplies that must be replenished intermittently. If you’re not paying attention right off the bat, they can die. Adding to this is a trip on a tram that could become a one way trip if you don’t prepare in advance, which is completely arbitrary, by the way. The game makes it clear that it could have prevented this sticking point, but thought it would be funny if it didn’t.
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders has its problems, but they’re not so damning. At it’s core, it carries over Maniac Mansion’s solid formula and runs with it, but it falls into some of the pitfalls that its predecessor managed to avoid. It expects too much clairvoyance from the player, expecting them to avoid certain traps without the necessary prior knowledge of what they’ll find at their destination. Save early, save often, children.
Even without its mechanical deficiencies, I felt a general indifference to Zak McKracken’s design. The humour often toed the line between mundane and annoying, the plot felt overwhelmingly bland, and the characters are entirely forgettable. The puzzles are reasonable, but rarely feel clever. Then you pile on its missteps and wind up with a game that I just can’t recommend. It has its place in the LucasArts library of adventure classics, but it’s the dubious place of one you can probably just skip.
This review was conducted on a digital copy of the game purchased by the author from gog.com.