Game of the Month: July 2017
Sam & Max: Hit The Road - PC/MAC
An anthropomorphic Dog and Rabbity type thing walk into a carnival looking for Bigfoot! Sounds like the opening line to some bizarre joke doesn’t it? If, like us, you like how that reads then the wait for the punch line will so worth it because believe it or not what you actually just read was the plot for a video game based on a comic strip from a man famous for making videogames. Art imitating life, imitating art that parodies itself and it’s inspirations through an old genre using existing technology whilst successfully bridging gaps many think can’t ever be crossed. Right about now some of you may be scratching your head wondering what the hell is going on but don’t panic, because all of this is actually intentional. Sometimes it’s nice to change how one these features begins…
Change is hard, it’s both a constant and also a necessity if anything is to ever grow, learn and survive and ultimately become stronger. Evolution is how life itself moves forward as we thrust our arms in the air, open our hearts and minds and absorb everything around us in order to both make sense of the known and at the same time explore the unknown. Wandering off into new areas or down a different path is exciting, it’s enlightening, it’s fun.
As humans we each crave, demand even, a level of control over the events around us in order to play out the story because it’s the story that drives us. From the dawn of civilization humanity has had a deep and eternal love affair with stories. Parents teach their children via the use of them, we take memories and build tales around them for the entertainment of others. A good story is a thing of wonder, it has value, that value… priceless!
Much like any entertainment medium videogames understand this and if you cast your mind back they always have. From the first games that appeared in arcade halls early videogame fans would see the artwork on the cabinets and create a back story around them. When games entered the home through consoles and micro computers it was the back cover of the box along with the instruction manual that gave the player the tools to truly immerse themselves before graphical clarity, cut sequences and even readable text in-game evolved. It’s the details that connect a game to it’s players… or at least that’s how it was and perhaps how it should be again. Whilst books, TV shows, films and music also work on the principal of storytelling it’s videogames that allow you to have a vastly larger degree of control over that stories pace and in many ways it’s direction. It’s not just a person dressed in green saving a kingdom, it’s you!
With all of this in mind it’s clearly no surprise that adventure games have always been popular with gamers, from controlling a square block around a maze to jumping between ropes with Lara Croft people have always loved to play out a story through interaction. One particular genre that has always excelled for this is known as the “point ‘n click” adventure game and was itself an evolution from text based adventures. The invention and introduction of the “mouse” peripheral as a control interface transformed the world of videogames completely during the 1980’s and along with other technology revolutions allowed a truly limitless genre to explode into the consciousness of gaming fans across the globe.
Thanks to this evolution of what could be done and because of people’s core need to tell a story the point ‘n click adventure game genre blossomed, one particular company, Lucasarts were for many years the reason why you turned on your computer. With a catalogue of classics that would make 99% of developers and publishers green with envy they entertained millions with numerous adventures that not only blessed us with dozens of well rounded characters but also let us become, in some small way, the author of incredible stories.
For the month of July 2017 it’s time to take a look at one game where humour met perfect execution of timing that became one of the formats best ever games at a time when technology was fast approaching the moment film lovers experienced with the arrival of the “talkie”. A game that on the surface looks completely ridiculous that once you delve deeper turns out to be even more so than you ever thought possible in all the right ways. It’s an absolute pleasure to celebrate the legendary point ‘n click adventure game that helped convince everyone that the CD format was here to stay. Let’s get dangerous, let’s get violent, let’s laugh our arses off with the Lucasarts stunner, Sam & Max: Hit The Road.
Starting out in comic strip form Sam & Max were the creations of the talented artist Steve Purcell who created the characters in his youth from the initial concept ideas of his brother. What started out as friendly sibling rivalry and mockery became a final polished product after the rights to explore and define the concept was given to Steve on his birthday by his brother, Dave. After doing freelance work for Marvel comics and Fishwrap productions he published his very first Sam & Max comic in 1987.
Sam & Max are a crime fighting detective/vigilante duo who have drawn their visual, speech and behavioural properties from a mixture of classic North American black & white detective shows, early 1900’s Hollywood movies and the infinite possibilities of comic books where literally anything is possible. Sam is an anthropomorphic dog that dresses in a suit and Fedora in order to make people more cooperative with a 6 foot tall talking canine.
A walking, talking encyclopaedia of information he is exceptionally clever with a deep rooted sense of justice, though his right from wrong component is not completely centred or anchored in normality. He sees himself as the leader of the duo who needs to convey a sense of professionalism and have a total grasp of everything surrounding him. Whilst he is very intelligent he lacks understanding of many things that surround him such as his beloved car that he simply never maintains, often leading to it not performing as he expects it too.
His partner, Max, is an anthropomorphic and hyperactive 3 foot tall rabbity thing. A keen observer of people, creatures, things and events he is exceptionally intelligent but lacks both an attention span and a regard for either his or others safety. Max is unhinged, uninhibited and borderline psychotic who both enjoys violence and it’s use to solve problems and to gain a conclusion faster. Whilst every bit as important in the duo as Sam, Max is unpredictable to the point where he can never be confused with someone acting professional. Think Good Cop, Bad Cop with Max being very much the Bad Cop and you describe him perfectly… from a certain perspective.
Together they take cases from an unseen and unheard commissioner who gives them the work nobody else can, or indeed will do. They work out of a run down office in a building that has seen better days in New York City and have the classic stereotypical attitude you would expect from people in that location.
Sam & Max: Hit The Road, released in November 1993 on the PC DOS format was the first game in a small but exceptionally well loved franchise. After seeing strips of the characters in a magazine and after the success of previous adventure games such as Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion Steve Purcell was given the go ahead to bring his superb characters to the videogame screen by Lucasarts, the company he worked for as a graphic artist and designer.
Using the legendary SCUMM engine (script creation utility for Maniac Mansion) it would be the 9th game released using this game making tool. In order to really bring the characters to life the iMUSE audio system was also used which allowed the game to incorporate full speech. At the time it was one of only a small number of games to do this making it instantly stand apart from 99% of it’s genre. During the early 1990’s gaming had exploded in popularity thanks to the console wars but now technology was promising completely new and more breathtaking experiences thanks to the CD-ROM format. Lucasarts were very much at the forefront of this new wave of gaming experiences and the point ‘n click adventure was massively popular on computer formats such as MS DOS, Atari ST and the Amiga.
With new ideas, new technology and a trusted game engine Sam ‘n Max evolved the way an adventure game both looked, felt and controlled. Unlike it’s company predecessors the game itself was bigger due to the usual text boxes or icons being mostly removed from the screen. Instead of moving the mouse pointer to an object then onto a work to best connect to it the player simply cycled through icons using the mouse buttons. This created a sense of genuinely playing an interactive cartoon thanks, in part to the graphics style, but also because there was less on screen to indicate it was a game.
This combination of speech and interactivity style would have been enough to make it stand out from the crowd but the coolness didn’t stop there. As well as being a point ‘n click adventure game Sam & Max: Hit The Road also contains several mini games that act as both part of the story telling and also a lovely distraction to break up any feelings of repetitiveness. The single biggest selling point of the game however was it’s absolutely perfect comical timing and execution of the lead characters partnership qualities.
The story, taken from a 1989 comic book strip called Sam & Max On The Road tells the tale of the two freelance police detectives / vigilantes being called in their run-down office by the commissioner who directs them to a nearby carnival. The owners of this carnival have reported that their star attraction, a Bigfoot called “Bruno” has been freed and fled the tourist attraction with the second biggest box office draw, “Trixie“, the Giraffe-Necked Girl. The duo are hired to find these two entertainers and return them to the carnival and here’s where the adventure truly begins. The reason I used the word “truly” is because prior to this you see the end result of a previous where the level of Max’s lust for violence is played out with a mad scientist and how the crime fighting team get this case assigned to them. You also get to explore their office and have a strange conversation with a cat. From the second you start the game you are immediately shown reasons as to why this is special.
With a story that could only ever make sense in a comic book or a videogame you travel across North America taking in numerous sights in order to get to the bottom of this mystery. In true adventure game style you interact with a whole host of bizarre folk, solving puzzles with items found / taken and engaging in conversations. Whilst almost all of the Lucasarts games have humour attached to them in some form or to a certain degree, Sam & Max: Hit The Road is built from the ground up on it.
Some of the puzzles are tricky, some have the most ridiculous solutions but all of them are superbly executed with a superb mix of wit, charm and genuine style. A great game, a classic is usually indicated by how all the small things, the small details are taken care of. Sam & Max has but 2 drawbacks. The first is that it doesn’t last forever and the second is that it didn’t come out on every format at the time. It really is that good! Looking like a cartoon, playing like an episode of your favourite crime show on TV and with the madness that only a comic book can replicate it really was the wedding day bride ritual of the videogame world. Sam & Max: Hit The Road is something old, something new, something borrowed and absolutely something blue!
On release gaming magazines and journalists lavished praise upon it, rightly so and it sold very well. Unfortunately though it never kick started a continuous stream of sequels that it deserved too. Whilst Monkey Island, Leisure Suit Larry and Space Quest gained a steady stream of new games Sam & Max has had a more long winded and spaced out love affair with the games industry. In 2001 and 2002 sequels on the Xbox console and PC were scrapped. It wasn’t until 2006 after the license for the series was moved to Telltale games that gamers finally got more adventures staring the freelance police! Released as three seasons, in episodic sizes.
With all the charm you would expect from a Lucasarts release Sam & Max: Hit The Road is an exceptional game. A product of some very talented people at a time when games development was constantly taking risks and embracing new technology. It fused everything that was already great with new things that would go on to become everyday videogame essentials. It’s a game based completely on humour which in itself was a bold risk, after all one person’s funniest joke is another persons tumbleweed rolling through a desert. A game who’s lead characters are every bit as memorable as characters in books, comics, films and on TV. If you struggle to connect with Sam & Max: Hit The Road then you probably might need to call up a couple of freelance police / vigilantes to track down your missing funny bone. A fact and piece of irony not lost on the game itself as it often breaks the 4th wall to mock itself.
An anthropomorphic Dog and Rabbity type thing walk into a carnival looking for Bigfoot! Sounds like the opening line to some bizarre joke doesn’t it? Not for those who have played this 1993 classic it doesn’t, for us it sounds like we are about to have our minds blown and our ribs tickled. Take a bow Steve Purcell and take a bow Lucasarts because not only do they not make them like this anymore but in all seriousness very few got close to ever making one like this… ever!
There’s never been a better time to jump into your Desoto Adventurer automobile and go on the best Road Trip of your life! Mystery promised, thrills expected… hilarious violence guaranteed!