Monday, December 15, 2014

Maniac Mansion - Wrapping Its Tentacles Around Me
The Edison's mansion served as portal into an alien world full of weirdness and wonder.

It's not that I was actively seeking out conduits through which I could escape the shackles of my unadventurous disposition. No--I was firmly stuck in place and happily oblivious to other options. Instead, I owe much of my growth as a video-game enthusiast to my brother, whose guiding hand opened many a door for me and shoved me straight on through, headlong into the wilderness of foreign lands whose exploration I'd soon realize was both exciting and intoxicating. Though, I didn't yet possess wisdom enough to understand or appreciate how my destiny was being so helpfully shaped--how my path's newly formed branches were being rendered by the glowing light of the many beacons that were suddenly appearing one after another throughout the landscape, staked by those wished to bring an expanded world into my focus.

The surprisingly captivating Shadowgate, to which my brother introduced me in the early months of 1990, was one of the trail's shiniest markers. For certain, it was the most appropriately titled game I could have played at the time, since its theme of bravely trekking through the shadowy unknown to access the curiously attractive light of untraveled spaces closely mimicked my quest to press past longstanding mental barriers and explore new horizons. In fact, when I think back to that indelible title screen--with its illustration of a castle entrance whose pushed-open doors gave preview to an endlessly mysterious darkness--I realize that Shadowgate, itself, literally was my "gateway" into a whole new world of imagination and adventure. I don't even want to think about where I'd be without it.

My great affinity for ICOM Simulations' masterwork in turn broke down more barriers and allowed me further entry into the world of point-and-click adventure games, which were limited in number on the NES but included well-regarded favorites like Deja Vu and Uninvited. But there was a more proximate release that jad managed to garner my attention--a peculiar-looking PC conversion that Nintendo Power couldn't stop raving about.

Now, I already had a pretty measurable interest in Maniac Mansion, since previews revealed that it was similar to Shadowgate with its cursor-driven action and castle-like setting, but it was the game's feature-story treatment in Nintendo Power Volume 16 that really pushed it into must-buy territory. For one, the magazine continued to make a big deal out of the game's new, groundbreaking storytelling device called "cut-scenes," which were described to be scripted sequences that would unfold at regular intervals throughout the course of your game, the build-up to and fallout from these scenes allegedly happening in real time. 

"So I could actually interrupt a programmed conversation or bump into family members as they move about the house and execute vital tasks?" I theorized. "That's insane!" In video games, it was usually that a character would promise to meet you somewhere and then just magically appear at the rendezvous point.

Also, I was intrigued by the prospect of the game's team-based system, wherein you could choose a pair of characters from a pool of six and team them up with the main protagonist Dave; each character was said to possess a unique set of abilities that when overlapped could create an untold number of combinations for successfully navigating the mansion and thwarting the evil ambitions of Dr. Fred. Really, it all sounded too good to be true. "How could the ol' NES handle that many advanced calculations?" I wondered. I wasn't terribly informed about the processing power of all these disparate gaming platforms, but I knew for sure that the NES couldn't replicate the performance of a modern PC.

If I was a bit skeptical, it was because it appeared to me that Maniac Mansion was some sort of adaptation of the Family Channel's new television series (it was the other way around, as the game predated the show by three years), and the magazine had a penchant for hyping up licensed properties regardless of quality. Was this preview an accurate portrayal of a next-level game, or was Nintendo Power guilty of marketing a hot property to kids who couldn't discern between sincere enthusiasm and salesmanship? I was just going to have to find out for myself. 

So in October of 1990, a few weeks after the game's release, I purchased a copy using whatever was left of my undeserved birthday money.

Before I'd even gotten my hands on Maniac Mansion, I'd already decided that I was going to choose the nerdy Bernard as my second in command, since the previews mentioned that he was good with electronics and could contribute the greatest number of viable game-completing permutations. I choose Michael as my third wheel because, well, I took a liking to his funky theme as I surveyed the character-select screen. If there was one thing I was known for, after all, it was having solid criteria for choosing my heroes. [slaps gum]

The opening scene did a great job of showcasing everything that was unique about Maniac Mansion--including its quirky visual design and the characters' bizarre brand of humor (they had a fondness for calling each other "Tuna Head," which was apparently an all-purpose insult)--but I was more taken by the whole feel of it. Everything about this scene, from the washed-out color scheme to the oppressive backdrop to the eerie silence that somehow powered its way through even upbeat rock music, created for an atmosphere unlike any other I'd ever immersed myself in. There was a clear air of foreboding, that maybe Maniac Mansion was from an advanced culture of point-and-click games for which I wasn't emotionally prepared.

I liked in particular the image of a ridiculously disproportionate blue moon seen hovering on the screen's top-right, where it served as the only distraction from a night sky that was touching uncomfortably close to the game's playing field. This rescue attempt was surely taking place somewhere on Earth, yet such visuals contributed to my sense that this game and its entire landscape were somehow alien territory. I mean, on what planet is it normal to have a posted warning that reads "trespassers will be horribly mutilated"? Though I was entranced by its every aesthetic, Maniac Mansion was weird in a way I couldn't express. (Of course, I wasn't accustomed to LucasArts' patented comedic style, which hadn't yet entered the mainstream, so this new brand of eccentric humor was largely lost on me.)

"Is this how modern PC games feel?" I wondered. "Because no other NES game has ever evoked from me this type of apprehension and uncertainty." Here I was trying to figure out what the hell I'd gotten myself into, and I hadn't even moved past the opening three screens. 

I wasn't completely in the dark, since I had advanced knowledge (thanks to Nintendo Power) that the key to the mansion's front door was hidden underneath the doormat. Likewise, I knew that getting caught by Edna in the kitchen was no big deal, since I understood the encounter to be an unavoidable introduction to Maniac Mansion's means of scripted storytelling; also, I already knew that you could escape the mansion's prison by having one of the kids pull on the wall's loose brick, which might have been undetectable without such foreknowledge.

In retrospect, I wish I hadn't read too deeply into Nintendo Power's big feature, since it spoiled a lot of the game's early surprises. At the least, it robbed me of the fun of having to scan every pixel of every wall looking for suspicious protrusions.

It took me a while to get used to the interface, which was different from Shadowgate's in that the characters were visible onscreen and had to be guided to specific points using the cursor. I found that moving characters from one screen to the next was often cumbersome, since rooms were so large and the characters moved rather slowly; a normal procedure could entail, say, moving one character from the mansion's third floor to the first, handing off an item, and then retreating back, which could wind up taking two minutes at a time. I assumed that the existence of these plot-advancing cut-scenes was suggesting a time-limit, so I felt pressured to cease meandering and make the most out of every action. That fearful sense never left me even in successive play-throughs when I knew how to clear finish the game economically. 

Still, I thought the three-man system lived up to its billing, and I was impressed with how the game could bounce between the characters as they engaged in their separate activities while in completely different locations. It was either that Maniac Mansion was the "advanced" game Nintendo Power advertised it to be, or I had underestimated the power of the NES. Whatever the case, I was pleased to find that the cut-scenes, or at least the setup to them, could indeed be interrupted; I thought it was amazing how you could intercept NPCs as they made their scheduled routes (like Weird Ed moving from his room to the front door whenever the doorbell would ring) and draw out flustered reactions. Though, there was an element of fear to my experimentation, and I was always worried that the run-up to a cut-scene could possibly take place in a room where one of my idle characters was lingering. No place felt safe.

I couldn't help but be astonished, as if all these possible permutations amounted to the NES pulling off some type of advanced algebra. What wizardry was behind all this?

My first session with Maniac Mansion was more about taking in the sights and getting to know the blue-fleshed Edison family and their face-sucking friends. "Are they supposed to be zombies?" I wondered. I couldn't tell. From what I could gather, though, they were either under the influence of some outside force or out of their damned minds. The only thing I was able to befriend was a more reasonable tentacle creature, which would ordinarily be in the market for brains but fortunately settled for plastic fruit.

The bulk of my time thereafter was spent rushing about the mansion and collecting every possible item in hope that the solutions to puzzles would become evident. Maniac Mansion had the usual arcane point-and-click conundrums (like having to develop a picture by first soaking up developer fluid with a sponge and microwaving a bottle of water to open a sealed letter) while other challenges required working around and distracting the NPCs (preoccupying Nurse Edna, for instance, by calling her on the phone so a friend could sneak into her room undetected).

I figured out a lot of it on my own, but I admit that I had to turn to Nintendo Power for help--particularly for solutions to those like the aforementioned developer-fluid and letter-opening puzzles, whose processes demanded the application of scientific techniques that a kid like me wouldn't have known about.

That was the thing about so many of Maniac Mansion's puzzles: They weren't about simple tasks like picking up a key to open up a corresponding door; there was a complexity to their resolution beyond even what Shadowgate and the like stipulated. If the challenge was to retrieve a key from safe, that is, you'd have to first lure a character away from its habitat and then swiftly sift through their possessions in search of the four-digit password--a plan of attack that would usually entail keeping tabs on two or more characters at a time, using their talents in conjunction to cause the diversion and subsequent infiltration (like having Bernard temporarily switch off the mansion's power so that Michael could fix the attic's damaged circuitry without being fried). 

Complex tasks like draining a pool to procure a radio and a key required careful timing and little in the way of wasted motion, since it was possible to get captured and even killed if you dawdled around. It was a lot for a nervous little fellow like me to handle. I mean, I was able to complete the game and do so far quicker than I did Shadowgate, which stumped me for months at a time, but I found it so much more intimidating; for that reason, I rarely strayed from the safe pairing of Bernard and Michael in my successive play-throughs, since their tribulations were tough enough and I really wasn't interested in subjecting myself to the stress of having to figure out the seemingly infinite permutations for all of those other possible character combinations. There was just so much content--a great deal of it weird and inexplicable--and so many possibilities that my brain would shut down at the thought of exhausting every outcome, which I definitely would have been tempted to do in detriment to my mental stability.

So that's the way I played Maniac Mansion, my strategy for victory ever-consistent: I'd put Michael's expertise in photography to use and develop Weird Ed's plans in order to recruit him to our side and eliminate the Purple Tentacle, then I'd have the electronically inclined Bernard contact the Meteor Police after opening the way to Dr. Fred's lab. I eventually realized that this was a redundant method (you didn't need to utilize Ed's services if you picked up the Meteor Policeman's dropped badge, which could be used to scare off the Purple Tentacle all the same), but I was a creature of habit and forever bound to the originally successful formula.

What brought me back to Maniac Mansion again and again was its amazing sense of atmosphere, to which I established a strong connection. More than actually finishing the game, I loved exploring every inch of the house--imagining how its antique furnishings might look from a first-person perspective--and observing all of the weird and interesting background details that provided so much personality to a setting that was superficially mundane. Also, I loved the feeling of being a silent trespasser in a hostile environment, able to stealthily sneak my way around the ill-intentioned inhabitants and find safe haven in places I suspected they would never visit (like the long den with its old fashioned radio and its old-world candlelit chandeliers). 

It was the kind of game that was finite in scale but always had the power to convince me that there was much more hiding beyond the surface. Take the library, for instance: Even though it was likely that the "out of order" staircase was presented as such simply to provide the place some character, I couldn't help but try to find ways to access it ("Maybe I can get Bernard to 'fix' it, or use one of my items to plug the gap?"). I regarded it much like that permanently sealed door in Shadowgate's well room, certain that a whole secret wing of the mansion lay just above, its sacred ground sanctuary to unknown treasures as seen by only a select few. There was no way to climb these stairs, of course, but nothing was going to stop me from imagining what might have been waiting there for me atop those steps.

Ruminating about what could be up there reminded me of that dream I'd always have where I'd find a secret passage in my house that led to a room I never knew was there--usually an inexplicably pristine living room setting or an underground arcade. The more I played it, the more it seemed that much of Maniac Mansion's design was culled together from the foggy images of my unconscious fantasies. In time, that's how I came to best describe the game's atmosphere: a journey into the minds of childlike developers who weren't afraid to tell us, "Yeah--we have those dreams, too."

Oh, and the mansion, probably not coincidentally, indeed had its own arcade! You couldn't actually play any of the machines (outside of that one scripted sequence), but it was still one of my favorite rooms to visit. Considering how I viewed disparate gaming platforms, the whole idea of this arcade room was actually crazy to me; here you had an arcade machine within an NES game that was a conversion of PC title. Talk about worlds colliding! I thought it was a nice touch how Super Mario Bros.-sounding fanfare would play whenever the high score screen would appear in Meteor Mess, an homage to the system that was now hosting it.

Whether I was racing toward victory or leisurely exploring in search of means for stairway repair, I always felt compelled to stop and listen to the Green Tentacle's sob story. No--not because it was at all interesting. Rather, I knew I'd feel bad if I left the room before it got the chance to finish its spiel, as if my doing so would break its heart (or its most proximate organ). I could imagine a ditched Tentacle standing there at the top of the ladder, a tear in its eye as it realized its words were ineffective and its plight had gone unappreciated. I couldn't do that to the slimy little fellow.

I just thought you'd like to know that.

I'd arbitrarily cut down Maniac Mansion's replayability factor, yes, but I still found ways to extract a whole lot of enjoyment out of it. I had fun, for instance, perfecting my technique for evading Nurse Edna in that first kitchen scene; in time, I became pretty good at rushing to the exit before she could capture me. Otherwise, I'd try to interact with every possible object to hopefully discover new and interesting ways to blow up the mansion. And once I discovered that the playable characters could die (after, say, microwaving radioactive water), I'd attempt to kill all of them off in pursuit of the useful goal of lining the mansion's lawn with three tombstones. Yes--this was what I thought was the best use of my time.

Even though I knew how to pull off the dirty deed, I refused to microwave and kill Weird Ed's hamster, as I was appalled by even the notion of it; I think I tried it one time out of curiosity (since it was, after all, a unique way to get one of the characters killed), but I felt so bad about it that I never considered doing it again. What kind of sick freak would even make something like that an option? I mean, besides those highly disturbed Shadowgate authors? (Really, I think all of these PC developers were a little sick in the head.)

When I returned to Maniac Mansion a decade later, now a seasoned veteran of the genre, I continued to be blown away by the sheer scope of it; I found that there were so many amusing ending sequences and permutations for victory I foolishly ignored, like publishing the Green Tentacle's album and making him a star in the process, returning the meteor to space using the garage's modified rocket engine, and even reforming the meteor and booking it a spot on a talk show. I still wonder how the designers were able to map out and keep track of so many character configurations and limit any potential game-killing conflicts; even thinking about it is maddening.

One thing I've never been keen on is 90s-era Nintendo of America's ridiculous censorship policies and how they affected the game's conversion. Tampering with a well-known property--demanding that LucasArts alter what was already an established masterpiece--was an insult not only to Ron Gilbert and friends but to any player who unknowingly missed out on the creators' original vision. Now, I wouldn't go as far to say that NOA's meddling "ruined" the port, since it turned out to be a high-quality release regardless, but it does make the final product a bit less than it should have been. For a game of this caliber, though, even a "little bit" is too much.

Looking at it from NOA's perspective, I guess the company felt that it had no choice but to protect the kids from the original version's gratuitous violence, allusions to cannibalism, and gross depictions of human anatomy. Cruelly blowing up hamsters in microwaves, though? Oh, that's fine. Carry on.

Like the other NES point-and-click conversions, Maniac Mansion was a game that invited the use of my imagination and dared me wonder about what was lurking behind its walls. Such pondering wasn't limited to the game, itself, as Maniac Mansion worked to pique my curiosity in terms of what was going on in the world of modern PCs--how they'd changed since the early days of the Commodore 64 those IBM machines on which we'd play simple games like Oregon Trail. Maniac Mansion, Shadowgate, and their ilk provided me a much-desired glimpse into that world, which I unfortunately wasn't able to experience at the time.

Still, Maniac Mansion and its contemporaries gave me just enough of a taste of the modern PC's wonderful aesthetic sensibilities and uncompromised creativity to make me envious of those who were lucky enough to own one. Above all, they helped open the door for my eventual entry into the PC space in 1998, when I was discovered the world of DOS and enthusiastically began dipping into its rich history.

That was Maniac Mansion--a game whose greatest contribution to my life was how it acclimated me to an alien worlds I could happily explore forever.

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