Tuesday, August 16, 2011

PC: Sam and Max save the world

Holy Blessed scuba-diving Buddha on a banana boat with cocktail onions and a map to the stars' homes!
So I just finished the first season of the new Telltale-version of Sam & Max and thought I might share my thoughts with you guys.
If said names don’t ring any bells for you, first and foremost be ashamed. At least just a little bit. Then suffer with me a bit, for explaining Sam & Max without sounding just mildly psychotic is indeed a tricky challenge.
Suffice to say, back in the 90’es in which everything was a lot simpler, we were blessed with all the wonderful adventure games that still hold a very dear place in the hearts of many gamers. Yours truly included. Perhaps you’re familiar with other great titles such as Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle or the ever going Monkey Island-series.
Lucasarts, the father of said games, also released a surreal adventure game based on a comic, depicting a talking dog, Sam, with his best friend, a highly homicidal talking rabbit, Max. Together they worked as freelance police, making their way through life fighting crime, enjoying walks along the beach and likely messing up as much as they possibly could along the way.
Back in those days we were pretty used to weird settings. Anyone who played Day of the Tentacle will know what I mean in this regard. Yet still, I was skeptic about the Sam & Max-game, which had the subtitle ‘Hit the Road’. It wasn’t particularly ugly or anything. Frankly it was delightfully colored in an appealing comic-way and the voiceover in the CD-ROM version was awesome. Hell, even the intro made me chuckle and managed to instantly capture me in a strange state of fascinated horror.
The game itself was as we knew it. Through a variety of commands you guided the rough duo through various parts of the US as they attempted to solve their case, all the time making use of commands such as Walk To, Use, Pick up and Talk. The story was in itself quite simple; Bruno the lost Bigfoot had escaped the local freakshow along with Trixie the Giraffe-neck girl. As it was properly stated later in the game, Sam & Max were the only hope.
Thus the story went on, and what a ride it was. Personally I was swept away by grotesque, over-the-top humor and violent outbreaks of sarcasm. Moral scruples were an alien concept to the two friends and thus you were violating, breaking, and disregarding about every rule in your journey. Breaking into homes, sabotaging tunnels of love, intimidating, stealing, lying and much more was the only way forward, as the story evolved and possibly got more and more weird. Often you would solve a puzzle by accident and stare disbelievingly into the screen mumbling “…okay…?” as the next part of the game played out.
Eventually you grew accustomed to it, and while the game didn’t have an entirely impressive ending it made sure to keep you there till the credits started rolling. Maybe even a little longer.
This is a long time ago now. Sam & Max hit the road saw its first light in 1993 and saw a rerelease in 2002, which luckily helped spread its renown. And yet it’s not a game known by many.
However, those of us fortunate enough to be acquainted did lighten up a lot, when the company Telltale games announced a continuation of the game. At the same time I decided to retain a healthy amount of skepticism, since reviving old classics very often get ugly. And if there is one thing I hate it’s to see my childhood memories get molested. The new game received the title ‘Sam and Max save the world’ and the first episode was released in 2006, 13 years after the first game.  I decided to wait it out and see.
Then, in 2011 (I’m such a cheapskate, I know) STEAM had its summer sale. It dawned on me that not only one but THREE seasons had now been published of Sam and Max. And the seasons were a bargain. So I decided to strap in and give it a shot.

As usual I’ll start out short.

I absolutely love season 1. It’s everything I used to like about the old game, only better.
I must confess; originally I was a bit concerned about this new chapter-style, which greatly contradicted my conservative adventure game-attitude. After all, you tell a story in one long stretch, right?
Well, no. And yes. I mean…
It doesn’t really matter, see? Because, it doesn’t really matter whether we’re dealing with chapters in Sam and Max or just a travelling to another location in Kyrandia 2. We’re simply progressing through the story. And the gaps in Sam and Max didn’t feel anything like gaps. Instead they were exactly what they promised: Chapters. And yet everything was so coherent that you would really miss out on a LOT of stuff, if you were stupid enough to just start right in the middle of things.
Providing you with a detailed presentation of the respective story would be too extensive and frankly, strip the game of several of its lovely surprises along the way. Beyond doubt, one of the strongest points of SMSTW is when you stare at the screen and can’t help smiling/giggling and yet doubt whether you should in fact be concerned for doing so.
Each chapter is a continuation from the previous episode, with the pilot-episode presenting our beloved duo as they are presented with their next case. Trouble has been stirring downtown, especially in the local grocery story known as ‘Bosco’s inconvenience’. Aptly named after its delusional, paranoid owner, the store is having problems with involuntary deliveries of piles upon piles of strange videotapes about self helping. Nobody knows exactly where they come from or who made them. Additionally, the delivery boy bears a strange resemblance to a character from the television show ‘The Soda Poppers’, and why is his gaze so distant and absent?
Before you know it the story spins straight out of control in a downright spiral of absurd storytelling, and you might as well just hang on and go with it. Whereas everything does seem pretty random initially there is method to be found, if said in a Shakespearian way.
The journey of Sam and Max takes the two friends through a myriad of sceneries and situations, which not only provides you with puzzles to be solved and amusing dialogue to hear. There is a lot to look at, investigate and click on, and usually the cynical couple has some snappy or inappropriate remark about it.

Thus it goes from the office to the grocery store in which the hysterical Bosco goes to great lengths to avoid being spied upon by the government, often installing equipment worth millions of dollars in his store. You also get to meet Sybil, the woman who’s never satisfied till she had her try with about every branch on the career tree. Including a few you likely never heard about.
A really nice part of the game is to see especially how just mentioned characters develop along the way.

Later on you also get to star in a television sitcom (why didn’t anyone think of this before in an adventure game?), infiltrate the local toy-mafia, let Max run for president, kill the internet and infiltrate a dangerously cheerful cult on the moon. If you think this sounds weird, let me assure you; it’s just the beginning.
There is very little to say about the interface, really. You click at something and something happens. Period. The graphical aspect is pretty much what you see, and on the audio-side everything is  smooth. The voices in particular are really good.
A few issues do keep this game from the top score, though. They aren’t really that big but they’re there.
First and foremost the puzzles are really straight forward, at times bordering the insultingly easy. Later on in the chapters the difficulty does increase a bit, but for most seasoned adventure players the first couple of chapters will pretty much be a walk in the park. This doesn’t really rob the game of as much value as you might think, and in the end I didn’t mind that much, since I was more interested in the story and the jokes.
Second, the chapters are short. Even when you put it all together you’re likely not at the same length of, say, Sam and Max Hit the Road. You can pretty much walk through a chapter in an hour if you’re clever, which emphasizes the importance of taking your time, enjoying the story and inspecting everything.
But these two issues are so very small, compared to the amount of joy I had when playing through this game. I will happily admit that every episode, at least once, made me laugh out loud (no, not just LoL, I really laughed).
For this very reason I won’t really bore you with any additional spoilers, nitpickings or endless praise. If you loved the old genre of adventure games, you really should consider giving SMSTW a go. It’s not really that expensive, you’re supporting a great initiative and if you were into the old Hit the Road, I’m quite sure you will at least feel a happy fuzzy bliss of reunion.
Verdict: 9/10

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