Gaming on a Timer

Evolving a Genre – Maniac Mansion Retrospective

As an adventure game fan, I have many fond memories of Maniac Mansion; although I was late to the party (having played it in the mid-90’s as part of a Maniac Mansion/ Day of the Tentacle combo purchase), it still held up impressively well against its successors – in part because of the unique horror/comedy setting, as well as  the (for the time) novel idea of character selection – the player controlling protagonist Dave and having the choice of two sidekicks out of a possible six.

Maniac Mansion’s a prime example
of comedy tinged with horror elements.
The character selection was more than cosmetic though; Maniac Mansion’s story and puzzles changed, depending on the player’s choice of sidekicks – as each character has a specific ability to be used in puzzle-solving (such as Bernard, who can repair various electronic devices). This offered a hitherto-unheard of degree of replayability; the game offered a grand total of five endings, depending on which of the characters were chosen (as well as various other in-game events, such as whether any characters died).
The sequel, Day of the Tentacle added
time travel to the mix.
Interface-wise, Maniac Mansion pioneered a new form of player interaction; the now-famous SCUMM engine allowed players to use pre-determined actions (verbs) such as Pick Up, Talk To and Open – this came at a time when adventure games mainly (if not exclusively) relied on text parsers as a means of interaction and thus pushed the genre into a more user-friendly direction. It’s interesting to note that the SCUMM engine (acronym for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) went on to power most of the Lucasfilm-era games, with such hits as Secret of Monkey Island, Sam & Max Hit the Road and The Dig.
Monkey Island 2 – might not have been
as successful without the SCUMM engine.
The game’s story is based on the 80’s-era horror clichés; a group of teenagers must enter the mansion of mad scientist Dr. Fred, in order to rescue their friend – the game itself plays upon these stereotypes with what would eventually evolve into the staple humour of the Lucasfilm adventure library, offering a surprisingly well-made comedy/horror fusion that fits well with the setting itself. 
Sam & Max: Hit The Road, based on Steve Purcell’s popular
comic book characters, also owes its’ existence to SCUMM.
The story revolves around Dave Miller, an average teenager, who must enter Dr. Fred’s mansion in order to save his cheerleader girlfriend Sandy; while Dave himself has no abilities of note, he is accompanied by two (out of a pool of six) friends, who can provide their expertise in navigating the mansion’s various environments.
Ultimately, Maniac Mansion came in a period where the adventure genre had a small following (mainly due to the relatively high point of entry for text parser-based interfaces) and pushed the boundaries open by simplifying the player’s interaction into a more intuitive form, thus attracting a larger player following (and consequently, greater interest by developers); it is thus my belief that Maniac Mansion was partially responsible for the adventure game boom of the 90’s and though the genre itself has evolved in new and interesting directions, the game itself is still a great example of innovative design.


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