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Game Name:  Maniac Mansion: Enhanced Edition
Developer:  Lucasfilm Games
Publisher:  Lucasfilm Games
PC Release Year: 1989 
Review Date:  July 17, 2013

Adventure games; reading it without any context, the term taps itself into a host of boyhood fantasies.  You expect the opportunity to play the part of a daring rogue, risking life and limb for some important artifact or doing some otherwise swashbuckling feat.  This is how I pictured the genre when I was growing up on platformers at the console end of the gaming spectrum, and it was an image that was hard to break.   Break it did though, when my wife suggested Maniac Mansion for my next retrospective.  Having played the greatest hits of LucasArts as a kid, she was trying to steer me towards something a bit slower and more methodical than I was used to.  While I caught glimpses of great design ideas in my playthrough that have me excited to try similar titles, this particular case is just a little too bizarre, outdated, and unforgiving to be anything more than a footnote in gaming history.

Bizarre is really an understated descriptor for Maniac Mansion, since it tries to emulate the clichés and wackiness of B-horror films.  The premise is that a meteorite, which actually turns out to be an alien, crash lands near the home of a scientist and his family where its influence drives them all insane.  Flash forward 20 years and the now mad scientist is attempting to make an army of zombies out of teenagers, to take over the world for his otherworldly overseer.  When Dr. Fred makes the mistake of kidnapping one particular girl named Sandy for his experiments, her boyfriend Dan springs into action and enlists the aid of his friends to explore the mansion, rescue his squeeze, and save the home’s creepy denizens in the process.

While this is innocuous on its own and silly touches like mummified cousin Ted’s portrait of a female mummy hanging on his wall are endearing to the gamer, at some point, the title crosses a line.  No game should allow you to steal someone’s pet hamster, put it in the microwave, and give the cooked remains back to the person you stole it from.  Equally so, no game should allow you to record alien mating calls on a tape to where if you play it back to an alien, it will attempt to have sex with your character and kill you.  It is kind of disturbing to think that this was marketed to kids, because while the M-rated titles of the modern gaming landscape are generally violent and ugly things, this is completely inappropriate territory and unheard of today.

Given the game’s setting, one would expect a moody atmosphere as the kids traverse Maniac Mansion’s grounds.  Unfortunately, the limitations of 24 year old gaming technology mean the best we get are blocky two-dimensional visuals that barely let you distinguish a room's contents, let alone establish any real sense of horror.  Where an eerie soundtrack could have helped overcome this flaw, we have sound effects and music used so sparingly that they may as well be nonexistent.  Dr. Fred’s creepy wife Edna, man-child son Ed, and mummified cousin Ted are the only way we are reminded as gamers that this title is supposed to have a Halloweenish vibe.  In the few instances where this is successfully conveyed, it does not ultimately matter because the interface is so archaic that you are too busy trying to put together the next sentence of text command to ever reach a state of suspended disbelief.  There is no better way to break a sense of immersion than to get stuck trying to find a particular verb in your command bar.

At least some of Maniac Mansion’s problems are overcome by components of solid gameplay.  Progression revolves around finding random objects scattered throughout the mansion, combining them in unique and clever ways, and using them to access previously closed-off areas.  Considering I had never played this style of game before, I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the mid-level puzzle design is very intuitive, and the game turns into more of a scavenger hunt than a headscratcher at such points.  As an example from my playthrough, one objective was to get a publishing contract in order to distract the mad scientist’s bodyguard and enter his lab.  Since I already possessed a poorly written manuscript, it was just a matter of logically following the process through from start to finish.  I would need to find some kind of writing implement to make the necessary edits, I would have to discover the address for a publisher, and I would need to find an envelope, stamp, and mailbox to send the book out.  Where it gets even cooler is that this puzzle is unique to the straight-A student named Wendy that I was playing as.  When you boot up the game, you are given the option to select two other teenagers who will help Dan rescue his girlfriend, and each has unique skills that allow them to complete the game in different ways.

Unfortunately, the rest of Maniac Mansion’s gameplay is not as strong because the metapuzzles are extremely unintuitive and the micropuzzles are unbearably punishing.  At a high level, how did I know that I needed to give Dr. Fred’s bodyguard the publishing contract to distract him?  The honest answer is that I had no idea.  I knew enough that everything else I tried to give him was useless, so there must have been something more to do with the manuscript.  I am all for non-linear progression requiring some amount exploration, but it was disheartening to see that there are very few, if any, hints in this game to get you moving in the right direction.  On the other end of the puzzle spectrum, how did I obtain the envelope I needed in order to send the manuscript to the publisher?  I had to steal a letter from Edna’s room and steam it open by sticking it in the microwave with a jar of water.  How did I know to do this? Here again, I had no clue other than the fact that I was forced to restart my game because I made the mistake of opening the letter by hand on my first attempt, which destroyed the envelope and my chances of completing the game.  Being forced into this type of painful trial and error, without any guidance on how to avoid a negative outcome, is a prime example of lazy game design and is my biggest complaint with the title.

I really wanted to like Maniac Mansion, as it was my first foray into the adventure genre.  Thankfully, I can say that that despite my overall disappointment, I am not turned off to this style of game altogether.  I loved the fact that different playable characters create a unique experience and there is not a completely straightforward march from start to finish.  Having said that, there needs to be some amount of direction in a game like this; especially when making a mistake comes with such severe penalties.  If your parents were too oblivious of this title ’s creepy contents to keep you from playing it as a kid, and you are looking for a little nostalgia, I suggest you try out Maniac Mansion Deluxe, which is a fan-made remake of the original with better graphics.  If you missed out on this game originally though, there is no point in picking it up unless you feel like punishing yourself for something. 

Verdict:  Not Recommended