Released in 1987 for the Commodore 64/Apple II, then a few months later for the home computer (DOS), followed by Amiga and the Atari ST, and ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System in the early 90’s; Maniac Mansion was designed BY puzzle adventure game fans FOR puzzle adventure game fans. Lucasfilm’s first graphic adventure launched gamers into the puzzling, pixelated and humorous world of Maniac Mansion where co-writers and designers Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick based much of the storyline, characters, and set design on their love of B-grade horror films with endless parodies and references to many cliché’s found in such movies while getting the idea for the text-driven gameplay from the Sierra classic – King’s Quest. Lucasfilm Games wanted their designers to create an original game, and Maniac Mansion is just that, with Ron Gilbert often stating that the little oversight from the publisher is what made the creation of such games so successful.
The opening scene sets the story perfectly – a meteor crashed to Earth 20 years ago and has since taken over the home (and the minds) of the Edison’s – Dr. Fred, Nurse Edna, and their son, Weird Ed. Yup – “Weird Ed Edison” (this kid was doomed from the beginning). But they’re not alone. Living with the meteor-controlled family in the mansion are two tentacles – Green Tentacle and Purple Tentacle; each with very different agendas. It is learned that Dr. Fred and the meteor have been kidnapping teenagers and “sucking their brains out” (much to Nintendo’s dismay which saw this exact quote removed due to censorship for the port to the NES console).
Sandy the cheerleader is the latest victim being held in the mansion’s dungeon and it is up to the modern-day, byte-sized “Scooby gang” to rescue her. Lead by her boyfriend Dave, a compulsory character for play despite his lacklustre skill set, and a choice of any other two out of Syd, Michael, Bernard, Razor, and the mostly useless surfer-dude Jeff, it is now your goal to enter Maniac Mansion, collect items which aren’t all useful (chainsaw in the kitchen anyone?), solve tricky and somewhat challenging puzzles, deal with a depressed tentacle, feed a demanding plant, steer clear of Dr. Fred and Nurse Edna, win over Weird Ed (do not use Hamster in microwave if you wish to stay on good terms with Ed… “POP” – oops!), get rid of that mind-controlling meteor, and save Dave’s girlfriend!
A truly awesome aspect of this game that adds immense replay value even after 20 years is the different directions the storyline can take depending on your choice of characters and what you do with their skills. Want to help the sad tentacle get a recording contract? Then put musically inclined Razor or Syd to work. Want to develop Weird Ed’s film roll? Then you’re going to need Michael for his photography skills. Then there is always Bernard who can fix things and is technically minded, making game completion easier. With so much to do, with slightly different outcomes and even a few ways to finish the game, Maniac Mansion doesn’t get old!
The soundtrack is fun, albeit admittedly clearer on the c64 version with the DOS and NES sounds becoming annoying at times, and dialogue that can be quite weird and cheeky with slight differences again across platforms due largely to Nintendo demanding the game to be more “family friendly”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for once, as I personally find being called a “tuna-head” a lot more charming than a plain old “sh*t-head”. The controls are a more user-friendly “point-and-click” style with a mouse on the computer systems, however it doesn’t take long to get used to utilising a NES controller in a similar fashion either. It obviously comes down to personal choice. Whichever platform you played or will play this retro gem on, the oddness that is Maniac Mansion makes it a true text-based, graphic adventure classic that is still respected amongst gamers today complete with a well-received sequel – Day of the Tentacle (1993) – and TV series Maniac Mansion (1990-93).
One half of Maniac Mansion’s design team, Ron Gilbert (also the creator of Monkey Island and other LucasArts adventure games), will be opening PAX Australia where you will find the Retro Domination team alongside other game related exhibitors. For more information go to http://aus.paxsite.com/ and we’ll see you there!
5/5 for maniacal hamster-popping madness!