Maniac Mansion
Review By: Gringo

I bring good and bad news. Bad news first; I'll warn you in advance. I've put a Rocky Horror Picture Show joke in this review. Good news; it's not until the final paragraph. On with the review.

This is the story of Dr. Fred, a man who keeps mutated tentacles - their names are Green and Purple because they' and purple - as his servants at his mansion high on a secluded hill. See, Dr. Fred isn't your average doctor. He has no PhD, probably didn't sit any medical exams. He's more interested in taking over the world and kidnapping people than sorting out an ingrown toenail or broken finger.

Maniac Mansion is one of LucasArts' (then known as LucasFilm's) earlier games. It's a validation of the work put into it that it's still as playable today as it was back when first released, in 1988. Even before the game starts, there's a unique spin; the characters you play aren't decided. What do I mean? Well, the story goes like this: twenty years ago, an evil meteor (you read correctly) crash landed in the backyard of the Edison mansion - home to maniac Dr. Fred, his militant son with a short temper Weird Ed and the bizarre Nurse Edna. The meteor led Dr. Fred to start building strange devices and carrying out freaky experiments. Normally you couldn't care less. What's one more psychotic added to the mix?

The reason you get involved is because all-round nice guy Dave finds out that Dr. Fred has kidnapped his girlfriend, Sandy - intending to perform all manner of bizarre experiments on her. And so, with his friends, he sets out to rescue her, unaware of the devious plot he will discover. Of course, it's more ludicrous than devious, with jokes a-plenty throughout the game. This isn't a serious race against time to save humanity; Maniac Mansion takes a very light-hearted approach from the very beginning. Speaking of the beginning - you can choose from a pool of six of Dave's friends; the only character you can't choose is Dave, who must always form part of the required trio. Maybe you'll choose surfer Jeff, who's handy with fixing stuff and, well, surfing. Or perhaps rock n' roll artist Syd, who might be able to put his musical talent to good use. There's always Bernard, hero of Day of the Tentacle, appearing as even more of a nerd in this game than its sequel. The great thing about this mass-character selection is that each group you choose has different effects; it's not just a visual difference - if you don't choose someone who is good with electronics you'll have to find another solution to a puzzle. In addition, your choice of trio can affect the game's several different endings.

And so, once you've chosen the two heroes who will join Dave on the quest to Dr. Fred's mansion, you begin the game. The first puzzle is finding a way into the house. Ring the doorbell and you'll be told to disappear in no uncertain terms. The solution is incredibly simple, and this puzzle is here more to get the player used to the controls than to be a head-scratching challenge. Rest assured once you're inside the mansion things get more difficult. However, getting used to the controls is your first great challenge. They're quite irritating, especially in the light of games which have more refined point-and-click interfaces. To do something, for example reading the warning sign outside the mansion, you must first find 'Read' from a list of commands, then click on the sign, then click on the sign a second time to make it happen. It's a tedious operation, but given the infancy of the point-and-click game at the time of Maniac Mansion, it's one that should be forgiven. Somewhat.

Something else that will instantly alert you to the fact that this isn't an 8MB 3D video card extravaganza, fresh to the gaming world, is the game's graphics. The graphics are fairly chunky with standard colouring; take a look at the screenshots on the right of this review to get an idea of what the game looks like. For their time, they're good enough. And the various props and locations are as clear as they need to be; you're not going to be pixel-hunting for something when playing this game. If you need it, it's fairly easy to find. It's just that it won't look very nice when you do find it. Similarly, the characters look all right, but they're not very detailed and only basics like hair colour and clothes distinguishes them. In the case of Nurse Edna and her whiter-than-white hair and seemingly blistering red skin, that's a big distinguishing feature. Having said that, there's a retro element to the graphics and colour reminiscent of many of 1950's B-movie which works well given the game's plot.

Being relatively old in the gaming world, Maniac Mansion doesn't present any leaps and bounds in today's world of synthetic sound, 3D experiences and other forms of musical delight. Your computer's speaker is one option, if you really like playing the game with a soundtrack sounding like a grocery scanner going off every two seconds. Alternatively, silencing the computer speaker and just making do with complete nothing-ness might be your choice. Either way, it makes little difference. The theme tune's good enough given the sound limitations, but apart from that there isn't much use of music in the game. The most you'll get is hearing Syd playing the piano as he tries to get Green Tentacle to help him with a puzzle.

Similarly, sound effects are kept to a bare minimum, meaning that Maniac Mansion doesn't make a lot of noise. No voice-over, no real in-game music, no great sound effects. Strangely, it doesn't matter in the slightest. It's a real credit to the plot and humorous dialogue of the game that something as seemingly crucial to a game as its sound takes a back seat for once. If you're really desperate to make sure your computer's sound card hasn't gone to sleep, then the best you can do is stand by a clock to hear it ticking, or hear the ping of a microwave as a hamster gets cooked to perfection.

Oh yes, the hamster. Putting him in a microwave to antagonise Weird Ed is just one example of the bizarre, twisted humour that runs throughout Maniac Mansion. The game's many puzzles have an undercurrent of eccentricity, almost all of them being funny in either the route taken to solving them or the effect solving them has. Classic examples are the payoff of sending Green Tentacle's record to a big-shot music producer, the many ways to defeat the evil meteor and distracting Ed for long enough to get into his room; which is adorned with war memorabilia, sinister blueprints - and a hamster cage. The fact that solving situations in the game is frequently funny in both process and reward helps keep you addicted to it.

Maniac Mansion isn't an overwhelming challenge in terms of puzzles. There are several tricky moments in the game, but a lot of them can be solved with the application of some common sense. Albeit common sense with a hint of madness thrown in for good measure. Some may strike you as dull (processing a reel of film in a dark room) whilst others may seem repetitive (the cat-and-mouse game involved in getting Weird Ed out of his room that you might have to use over and over if you don't have any luck the first time round). However, most are worth the effort. True to the non-linear form of LucasArts' other games, Maniac Mansion lets you solve several puzzles in no major order. Added to this is the fact that you can switch between any of your three characters at any point in the game. It keeps the game fresh, because if you get stuck with one character, you can focus on another until you get a brilliant idea of how to solve the previous puzzle. Or you might just sit there with a blank look on your face, in which case I recommend that you get some sleep.

One thing that may irritate players is the fact that unlike most LucasArts' games, it's possible to die in Maniac Mansion. And it's often in quite freaky ways. You can be drowned, electrocuted or simply disappear. Once you're dead, that's it. Whenever you select the deceased character, it simply cuts to a graveyard where they rest in piece. Or not, if they've been buried in a hard coffin. It's so hard to get a good night's sleep in the afterlife on a tough mattress. The fact that your characters can die and therefore make the game impossible to complete is an irritant, but if you save relatively often then mistakes can be overcome with minimal fuss. It's usually worth it to explore the various means of getting rid of the characters you control simply to see the comic fate that awaits them.

In addition to its PC release, Maniac Mansion was available on that deceased grey box of a console, the NES. Having played both versions, I was surprised to find the NES version slightly better graphically, but the controls were worse. What's the point of telling you that? None, really. But if you've got both versions you'll know what I mean. However, the game remains enjoyable whatever form of it you play. And as for that Rocky Horror joke - well, if you play Maniac Mansion make sure you play the excellent sequel Day of the Tentacle. Now that's a great a science fiction double feature. Ho ho ho. If you don't get that joke, it's probably for the best. No, really.

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