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.

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Written by Fred Rojas

April 8, 2016 at 11:00 am

Podcast: There is no Try

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With the recent unfortunate closure of LucasArts by new owners Disney, we reflect this week with Fred, Trees, and Derrick H on the long standing library of titles that included point-and-click adventures, flight sims, platformers, and of course Star Wars games.

Opening Song: Star Wars Theme by John Williams

Closing Song: Maniac Mansion Theme from the NES version

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Adventure Gaming is Dead

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Ron Gilbert, known mostly through the retro circles as the creator of Maniac Mansion and various other games that ran on the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine, said it best way back in 1989 when he wrote his rant entitled “Why Adventure Games Suck.”  In it Gilbert attacks the myriad of tropes and issues he foresaw with the very genre that made him famous.  It’s quite an impressive read and I suggest you all check it out because there are things he mentions within that piece that are still true today.

mm1All snark aside the point-and-click adventure genre, which saw its largest degree of popularity in the mid-late 80s and early 90s, was always doomed to fail.  Not quite a game, not quite a movie (Gilbert is the apparent father of the term “cutscene” because of script he wrote in Maniac Mansion referring to scenes you were forced to watch as “cut-scene”), and despite its general solid writing definitely not a book.  It spins a yarn and in many cases tosses in some comedy as one of the only gaming genres that can still control timing without forcefully restricting the player.  In concept the genre seems perfectly suited for being a form of interactive fiction and one who hasn’t played these titles may wonder why it performed so poorly and had such a short shelf life in the industry.  This is because you haven’t played an adventure game.  As enticing as the chuckle-filled story may seem, point-and-click adventure titles were still video games and thus had to adhere to certain rules.  No one has quite found the balance and I do believe nostalgia is to blame for the reason anyone still likes these games, because the balance between telling a story and making a game has never found its happy medium.  Before you kill me, let me explain.

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Written by Fred Rojas

January 22, 2013 at 10:36 pm