Retro Renegade: Maniac Mansion (PC, 1987)

Any fan of adventure games should at least know of Maniac Mansion.  The second adventure game to ever be released, with the first being Labyrinth: The Computer Game, Manic Mansion revolutionized the adventure gaming genre and made it cool, funny and entertaining.  This couldn’t have been done without industry luminary LucasArts (who went by the name LucasFilms until 1990), one of the most important companies to tackle the point-and-click genre.

Later known for other games like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Sam & Max Hit the Road and the sequel to Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, LucasArts knew just how to capture that sense of childhood in their games. The whimsy behind each of their works made it feel like you were interacting with your favourite Saturday morning cartoon — full of slapstick humour and colourful characters.

Maniac Mansion is the first game to offer that heady sensation.  The first to use LucasArts’ SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) game engine, this game offered a unique and explorative take to the genre. Maniac Mansion tells the story of a teenager name Dave whose girlfriend Sandy has been kidnapped by the evil Doctor Edison and imprisoned in his crazy mansion.  Intent on sucking out her pretty brains (later revised in the Nintendo version, check out the hilarious The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for more of the story), Dave and his group of ragtag friends must stop Edison before all hell breaks loose.

Before Maniac Mansion begins you’re asked to pick three out of the six characters and alternate between the three while playing.  Each has their own unique abilities so experimenting is key to finding out all the secrets of the game.  Although it lacked the dense narrative you see in most adventure games today, Maniac Mansion expressed it in real-time, letting you unveil the story as you progress and explore to your hearts content.

Of course that comes with some slight shortcomings. Maniac Mansion‘s open-ended, multi-ending premise gives way to some “walking deads”, where missing a vital piece of inventory would make it impossible to complete.  There’s really not much that can be done about this irritating flaw, unfortunately, it’s simply a matter of trial and error.  It’s also possible to die in the game, unlike most other LucasArts games. Even so, each of these deaths is pretty fun to see thanks to the game’s lighthearted nature and are worth experiencing.

I can see how the gameplay might be a little uninviting for some because there is no distinct purpose right away, but the accessible aesthetic, awesome music and goofy premise make up for all that.  It offers us a bizarre plot full of even more bizarre characters, and does so in the most original way possible.

While text adventures were an inspiring and imaginative precursor to adventure games like Maniac Mansion, they lacked a certain human element that I’m sure many of us would have dreamed of at the time of inception.  That question of “what if” has driven many to create so much more, expanding the adventure game genre into what it is today — still just as interactive, but with even more potential to grow and change.

Maniac Mansion is a fine example of what adventure games have the potential for, even if it does suffer a few shortcomings.  It still manages to offer enough style and individuality to firmly stand on its own even when compared to today’s standards. While LucasArts is no longer the company it used to be in the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s paved the way for other development companies driven on creating adventure games that revisit that part of our lives like Maniac Mansion did so many years ago.