Halloween MadNESs: Maniac Mansion (1990)

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In the 80’s, Lucasfilm Games (later to branch off in the 90’s to who we now know as LucasArts) had built up a reputation as a quality games studio and were growing in fame for a number of adventure and puzzle games.  Maniac Mansion was the brainchild of one Ron Gilbert, who is now a legend in the annals of game designers having led the development of some of LucasArts most famous point-and-click adventure games including The Secret of Monkey Island and would also become lead designer at PC game house Humongous Entertainment.  Before all of these big leaps though, he made a strange horror/comedy adventure game inspired loosely by concepts from horror films from the 50’s and 60’s, drawing ideas from many of the same sources as his famous colleague, Double Fine’s lead designer Tim Schafer.



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Maniac Mansion was ported to our favorite plastic grey toaster in 1990 amidst a bit of controversy.  PC games generally did not translate well to consoles, especially then.  The development process was different, controls were more complex on the PC, and the hardware was generally more powerful.  So, a lot of PC games never saw ports to consoles.  In fact the bevy of ports we see today is a trend that is relatively recent, due to the blending together of PC and console gaming over the years in terms of design and control structure.  Back in the early 90’s though, this was a big, scary deal.  Now, if you were to ask me, I’d say a point-and-click game with a controller is a failed idea at conception.  I personally hate moving a cursor around with a D-pad and even some games that I like do not implement this very well (I’m looking at YOU SNES SimCity).

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Controller complaints aside, the conversion is actually quite good in Maniac Mansion.  Compared to the Commodore 64 version of the game it is a lot slower, and clunkier, but it is a more-or-less faithful recreation of the game from a design perspective.  The writing is the same, albeit somewhat toned-down to meet Nintendo’s stringent content standards, and there is a somewhat unique feel and mood you get from playing the game on the TV, as opposed to the old-school, yellowing 80’s monitor with that awful on-board sound chip (Sound Blaster gods be-praised!).

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The story follows Dave, who resolves to enter the mansion of the mad scientist Dr. Fred to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend.  You can bring along two allies from a group of friends outside, each having their own skills.  The different skills allow the characters to interact with objects in different ways, and allows those characters to open different paths.  This forces you to base how you play through the game around the skills the allies you bring with you possess.  Like Sweet Home, it allows you to switch out allies, but only of one of your cohorts dies at the hands of the mansion’s many horrific baddies.  If an ally is captured and thrown into the dungeon, you are able to rescue them, if you can risk it.  Run out of allies and it’s game over!

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When it comes to visuals, Maniac Mansion looks great and I would contest it is one of the top games on the NES when it comes to graphics.  There is an attention to detail you do not see in a lot of NES titles, especially in ports.  Innocuous background dressing has lines and shadows that go above and beyond what is really needed, making the world feel more real.  The soundtrack is also top-notch, as to be expected from a LucasArts game, but there is something more sophisticated to everything aesthetically, as though it belongs somewhere outside the library of schlock movie licenses and cheap knockoffs in the NES library.  Everything sounds great, and the layers to the sound keep things from being too repetitive.  It never elevates to the level of a title like Castlevania III, but it is a well-made game and there was obvious effort put into making this things look, feel and sound as close to the PC version as possible.

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The good news for collectors is this game is pretty common.  It’s trending up in price due to some newly-found demand, but you can still net a copy of Maniac Mansion in solid condition for about $15.  There is a lot of interest in recent years due to the original’s 30th anniversary, and also because of the recent resurgence in popularity of the point-n-click adventure genre.  Still, if you’re looking for a fun adventure game that will make you think, laugh and even occasionally panic, you can’t really go wrong here, barring the slow-moving cursor doesn’t grate on you too much.