Gaming History 101

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Maniac Mansion Retrospective

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Maniac Mansion is a significant game in the evolution of the medium, but interestingly enough it’s also a game that is hard to find and not many have played.  Perhaps it’s the fact that the point-and-click genre went away long ago and until recently, really hadn’t seen a resurgence.  It also likely has to do with the fact that Lucasfilm was for many years no longer in the publishing business, didn’t have much interest in rehashing these older titles, and the fact that it was originally on microcomputers like the Commodore 64 made it hard to port.  The reason Maniac Mansion holds such an important role and special place in my heart – which is impressive considering I generally hate point-and-click adventure games – is because it started a new trend for the genre.

When it was conceived in 1985 the rift between computer gaming and console gaming was vast.  On consoles the experiences were more action oriented and based on feats of skill in the moment with titles like Super Mario Bros. or Gradius.  This makes sense because consoles like the NES were tailor made for an experience like that with the ability to scroll and a gamepad as an interface.  On computers, the story was a bit different.  Microcomputers were terrible at scrolling and any attempt to do so was clunky with the player literally able to see the vertical lines being drawn as they progressed.  Games had to have rudimentary sound, supported single button 9-pin joysticks, and could come from various sources such as cartridge, tape, and floppy disk.  One thing the computer had over the console was the fact that it could use a full keyboard for its interactions and this is where the adventure genre really takes off.  From text adventures like Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and RPGs like Ultima came the point-and-click adventure.  In the early 80s these were dominated by Sierra On-Line, a development house that also published and was responsible for notable graphical point-and-click adventures like King’s Quest.  These titles, while incredibly immersive and entertaining for more mature gamers, suffered a fatal flaw in that you could overlook simple items in the beginning only to have them render the game unbeatable several hours later.  Gamers like myself also hate the fact that the concept is basically to read the developer’s mind and in the end succumb to the horrid tactic of “try everything on everything.”  Back then Sierra was even meaner, with fail states that could kill your character and thus if you forgot to save resulted in the loss of progress, sometimes large sometimes small.  That’s not to say that Sierra games aren’t good or enjoyable, many of my peers will admit to loving the Sierra catalog and they are a welcome addition to the library at Good Old Games, but Lucasfilm Games hoped to do something different.

labyrinth_boxLucasfilm Games was a new branch of Lucasfilm created by, you guessed it, George Lucas to jump into the world of storytelling through video games.  1986’s Labyrinth was somewhat of an anomaly for the budding studio as it had a unique word wheel interface, was published by Activision, and featured David Fox doing whatever he could to avoid the text parser format held by other adventure games.  While it was positively received, and as a fan of the film I’m eager to try the Commodore 64 port (it originated on Apple IIe), but David Fox admitted that the word wheel was an improvement over a basic text parser however not what he ultimately wanted.  At the time of Labyrinth‘s release, new hires Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick were assigned to create a new game.  As Gilbert has explained in interviews, Luacsfilm was incredibly hands off and gave its developers the keys to the kingdom in terms of creative freedom, but that was always with an unexpressed caveat that if a game failed it could go south for the developers.  Gilbert and Winnick found that they had similar taste in multimedia and became quick friends even before the creative process of Maniac Mansion.  After several meetings – and thanks to a movie that Winnick to this day seems frustrated he can’t recall – it was decided that the game would be a comedic take on a haunted house horror story.  Gilbert was the lead programmer making the gameplay while Winnick was the artist creating the visuals.  This was the inception of what would become the influence for all Lucasfilm Games moving forward.

maniac_mansion_skywalker_ranchUnlike many other game development processes, little was planned or designed on Maniac Mansion.  It seems that Gilbert and Winnick would just think of funny gags and lines to throw into the game and out they would come.  The significance is that video games at the time weren’t all that funny.  Sure, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was quite hilarious as you would expect from a game penned by Douglas Adams, but the puzzles left much to be desired and I personally got so stuck I walked away from it.  Maniac Mansion hoped to be different.  The duo worked out of the stable house on Skywalker Ranch and this prompted them to base much of the house off of that, given that they were looking at it every day.  Other pulls for characters came from stereotypes, family, friends, and in the end it was decided that a cast of playable protagonists with unique abilities would be the protagonists.  Themes and concepts of what would happen in the hilarious house of horrors were taken from the works of EC Comics from the 50s (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, etc.) and the many works that these early comics inspired.  Before the type of video game was established, Maniac Mansion started life a board game where puzzles and items were mapped out.  In trying to determine the interface, Gilbert was a bit stumped until over the holidays of 1986 he watched a cousin play King’s Quest and determined that this would be the ideal way to play the title.  Unfortunately this presented a new challenge of how they were going to build the game and eventually resulted in the SCUMM engine.

maniac_mansion_1At the point of actually building and coding the game, Gilbert and Winnick had already created a story around multiple protagonists with special skills, puzzles, and a story.  The trouble was how the heck they were going to be able to put it all together into a game.  In addition, they had to figure out how to program for various combinations, some unique to the character you had selected, and it all resulted in an elongation of the development process, which came with some harsh words from a management that had been mostly hands off at this point.  It got worse when Gilbert had to scrap his original version of the project because he’d developed in 6502 (assembly language, common for games of the time) and Maniac Mansion had become too complex for it.  The way he tells it, Gilbert’s job may have very well been in jeopardy.  Gilbert decided upon a language similar to C, which was only possible because the game didn’t need to process quickly like most other genres of the time.  Fellow Lucasfilm Games employee Chip Morningstar started with the base code – Morningstar was incredibly talented and at that same time was in the process of developing and releasing Habitat, an MMORPG in the mid 80s!  Gilbert took this initial work and spend 9 months creating the engine, which was forced into a 64KB requirement given it was to release on the Commodore 64 and needed scrolling that forced Winnick to simplify all of the graphics and give the characters big heads so you could tell them apart.  Then David Fox got involved (remember him from Labyrinth above) and took the opportunity to build upon his previous efforts.  Gilbert, Winnick, and Fox decided upon taking the interaction commands of the word wheel and putting them all in a list at the bottom of the screen.  The idea was that the player could work from these limited commands and have a more logical run through a point-and-click adventure.  Additionally they decided to remove fail states, one of the most frustrating parts of Sierra games, so aside from one or two there are almost no death scenes in Maniac Mansion.  After almost a year Gilbert finally finished SCUMM, Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, and better yet it was compatible with several other platforms to make mutli-computer ports a possibility.  Fox came in at the end and was really responsible for taking the SCUMM engine, the design concepts, and even the dialogue so it’s important to appreciate him for Maniac Mansion as much as Gilbert and Winnick.

maniac_mansion_kitchenManiac Mansion premiered at CES Chicago 1987 and released later that year, appropriately in October 1987.  Critics ate it up.  The 80s was a great time for horror movies and although few would argue that Friday the 13thA Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween weren’t graphic, there was this new sarcastic and slightly humorous series of situations in these films that gave it a camp feel.  Maniac Mansion nailed that same concept, but with mostly general audience content (although try throwing the hamster in the microwave).  Aside from the content critics praised the multiple protagonists, SCUMM interface in relation to puzzle solving, and surprisingly the graphics.  Furthermore, it was funny.  For a lot of critics Maniac Mansion was the inception of a new kid on the block that provided a straightforward, hilarious, game that lacked the frustration of traditional Sierra titles.  SCUMM also gave way to the language that all Lucasfilm Games would utilize moving forward until the engine eventually went to 3D in 1998’s Grim Fandango.  Despite all of these significant and retrospectively more ideal concepts, Lucasfilm Games continued to come in second behind the vast library of Sierra On-Line games that took the more traditional approach.  Not that the Lucasfilm Games weren’t successful, just that they rarely finished first.  This didn’t discourage the teams, however, who continued to make games like Maniac Mansion for more than a decade and a half following its release.

The NES Version

maniac_mansion_nesYou can’t really talk about Maniac Mansion and not talk about the only port to a home console, namely the Nintendo Entertainment System.  In the US there was only one version released, however two ports do exist for this game on the Japanese version of the NES, the Family Computer (or Famicom).  The first port was done by Jaleco, only released in Japan, and is widely considered a poor way to play the game.  It tries to hard to be the Commodore 64 (C64) game and ignores the many things the Famicom (NES) can do better than the C64.  For example, it doesn’t scroll, something the Famicom/NES was great at – just look at any NES platformer.  Instead, rooms were attempted to be compacted into a single screen and if it needed to be multiple screens would refresh the second half of the room as a separate screen.  Most of the minutia of the game is missing, which removes most of the charm that the original contained.  Probably the biggest reason no one wants to play is the removal of saving, which results in a 100 character password system.  Imagine getting even one of those characters wrong and your load fails, ugh.  When Jaleco brought the game to the US, the developers assigned were Lucasfilm Games in conjunction with Realtime Associates.  Instead of trying to stuff a round peg into a square hole, the project was most likely saved when Lucasfilm employee Douglas Crockford offered to spearhead the effort.  Crockford is most notable for assisting in the creation of Javascript, but the only thing most know about his Lucasfilm days is the hell that was developing Maniac Mansion with Nintendo on the NES.  He created a version of SCUMM for the NES (appropriately called SCUMM NES) and it worked to the strengths of the system to bring the game, rather faithfully, to the console.  Oddly enough it was actually the removal of content, appropriation of themes, and censorship of some questionable material that resulted in Nintendo’s biggest problems with the game.  Crockford even documented his frustration in a document called The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion, which he posted on a listserv message board.  In fact, the only thing that sets the NES version apart in a positive was was the fantastic soundtrack created by David Warhol of Realtime Associates that didn’t exist on microcomputers.  To this day people often say the best hybrid is playing the NES chiptune music over the Commodore 64 version, which is largely silent aside from random sound effects.  Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine Productions and designer of sequel Day of the Tentacle, has often been given credit for his work on this version of the game but his involvement is, in fact, reduced to being a play tester for Lucasfilm Games at the time.  Granted, play testing anything is a grueling project that I’m certain was no fun, but he was too new to get heavily involved in the development of the game.  Nope most of that should be given to Douglas Crockford on the development side and David Warhol on the sound design.  Maniac Mansion on the NES is probably the most widely played version of the game, but for several reasons listed above you probably want to play a microcomputer version if re-visiting today.


day_of_the_tentacle_maniac_mansionNeedless to say Maniac Mansion lives on as the genesis for the SCUMM engine and the beginning of the careers of many talented and hilarious developers.  Lucasfilm Games is a great studio that cranked out some fantastic titles, albeit they are products of their time period.  It was nearly impossible until recently to get your hands on Maniac Mansion without either purchasing the original hardware and game or turning to piracy and emulation as an alternative.  Fortunately the recently released Day of the Tentacle Remastered features the original Commodore 64 game in it, just like the original did, as a fun Easter Egg.  You can locate it in Wierd Ed’s room by interacting with his computer as Bernard.  Day of the Tentacle Remastered has been released on Steam, Playstation 4, and Playstation Vita.  If you’re going to throw yourself back into the point-and-click adventure genre, especially if you’ve not played any until now, it’s probably a great start due to the lack of fail states and the straightforwardness of the interface.  Most probably won’t, though, and that’s fine as long as you take the information on the creation and value of Maniac Mansion and note it in your gaming history.

Written by Fred Rojas

April 8, 2016 at 11:00 am

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