By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman
n the history of the adventure game, few games (if any) have screamed for a sequel as much as Sam and Max Hit the Road.
While I'm sorry to say there doesn't seem to be a Sam and Max sequel in the works, the original is still fun enough to play through again. Come to think of it, who needs a sequel? This game is perfect as is...and it never gets tiring. Don't believe me? Then you've obviously never played Sam and Max Hit the Road. Five years after this game first hit the market (can you believe that? I feel so old) this game is still fresh, hilariously funny, and a genuinely engrossing adventure in a genre where few titles stand out.
Sam and Max are the "freelance police", two joes for hire whenever the commissioner needs a hand. You'll note already that this isn't your standard superhero garbage...Sam and Max make no bones about their intentions. These guys are in it for the money...gotta respect that. Sam is a Bogart-esque dog ("play it again, Sam"...get it?) and Max is a gratuitously violent rabbity thing, and the two exist in a world populated by normal (well...relatively speaking) people. It's a weird premise to be sure, but it's pure cartoon all the way (unfortunately for Sam and Max fans, the cartoon series based on the pair, while occasionally funny, wasn't nearly as entertaining as the game...go fig).
The history of Sam and Max is an odd one indeed. Unknown to most, Steve Purcell, normally credited as the creator of Sam and Max, in fact did not create the freelance police...his brother Dave did. The legend goes that Dave Purcell used to draw Sam and Max comics and leave them lying around...Steve would come by, pick them up, and start working on them, ruining his brother's work. This continued until Dave finally got so fed up that he wrote up a little piece of paper officially giving Steve the rights to the characters. I can hear him kicking himself right now. Or maybe that's just my lunatic neighbors...hmm.
Regardless, Steve Purcell went on to create a few comics featuring the not-entirely-dynamic-duo (recently collected into the collection "Surfing the Highway"). Unfortunately for Sam and Max fans, while they did eventually get picked up by Epic, a subsidiary of Marvel Comics, he couldn't make a living drawing them. So, he went off to LucasArts where he slaved away on background art for other games (including the original Monkey Island). Fortunately for us gaming nuts, he was eventually presented with the opportunity to flesh the two out into their own game...and history was made.
The game uses the legendary SCUMM engine, the same engine that brought us everything from Loom to The Curse of Monkey Island. As engines go, this one has quite a track record, with only one real dud in the pack (The Dig, an embarrassment for all involved). One can only wonder if the Quake engine will have half the legacy this engine's had. But of course, I digress.
If you've ever played a SCUMM game (and chances are you have, even if you don't realize it yet) then you'll be able to pick up Sam and Max in an instant. Of course, if you've never played one, you'll probably be able to pick it up just as easily, as it's hardly the most complicated interface in the world. The engine's versatility lies in its ease of use, and like in all the SCUMM games, this one is a snap, with a simple conversational interface, and icons for "use", "pick up", "look at" and other necessary commands.
But Sam and Max's interface is only a catalyst for one hell of a game. The graphics, despite being five years old (I still refuse to believe that) are superb, which considering their 256 color palette is quite a feat indeed. The version you can pick up these days is the deluxe one, with full speech instead of text (which was great for the time, but the audio is superb). The music is still MIDI, and the whole thing is DOS based, which means if you've got one of those uber-deluxe MonsterSound wavetable cards...well, it's completely useless.
The DOS thing was a bit of a pain in the tuchus for me...I made a boot disk with the included utility, but the damn thing didn't include my CD-ROM drivers on it (since it scans your autoexec.bat and config.sys for them, and mine didn't have anything it recognized as a CD-ROM driver in it). I eventually discovered that by copying a few lines from my dosstart.bat (yeah, you've got one too...it's in your windows directory) I could get those drivers in there. Of course, no matter howhard I tried, I couldn't get the MIDI to work. The setup program detected both my audio drivers and my MIDI drivers, and the tests worked just fine...but when I started the game itself I either got just the speech with no music, or the music with no speech. After a few hours of attempting to fix this, I eventually gave up and moved on with my life. MIDI, even intentionally cheezeball MIDI like in Sam and Max, is annoying anyway. Besides...as long as I can hear Sam in all his swanky glory, I'm a happy camper.
So how does the game play five years later? Well, actually in truth, I last played the game about two and a half years ago, so it's not the full five...but, quite a bit has changed in those two years (for one thing, my nickname is now one word with no caps...but I suppose that's irrelevant, huh?). And guess what? The game not only holds up, it's just as fun now as it was then (although I swear I got the music to work then...of course, I only had one audio card, whereas now I have two). For what it's worth, I still laughed out loud when I was playing the game (my neighbors have come to recognize this as normal for my loony self, don't worry) and I even caught some of the more obscure references this time around.
Your only weapon is Max's psychotic tendencies, which actually come in handy a few times. For a little rabbity thing, Max sure knows how to wreak havoc. Of course, this isn't exactly Quake here..most of the game centers around your wacky conversations with people...and what a cast there is!
The characters range from a Woody Allen spoof (Sam says, "I love your movies...especially the early, funnier ones" a line from Stardust Memories) to an Amazing Kreskin type with a foul mouth (cleverly bleeped out for the kiddies...and humor's sake). But the real genius of Sam and Max lies in the smaller details...the drunken pigeons for example (which for all intents and purposes have absolutely no reason for being there...except the fact that drunken pigeons are really damn funny). Or thxe fact that no matter who you're talking to, you can always make a silly remark (there's actually a separate icon for it!). No matter what the circumstance, Sam and Max always manages to crack a joke...and even the puns are funny (how many games can claim that?).
If you're expecting a completely open ended game, you're definitely going to be disappointed...while there are a billion little jokes to be found in Sam and Max, the game suffers from a major lack of freedom. You can do certain things in different orders...but you'll always get the exact same outcome. Of course, it's tough to blame Sam and Max for that...this has been a major problem for the adventure genre, and one that up until very recently had gone unnoticed.
Despite its linear plotline, Sam and Max does have some replayability beyond your average adventure game. In addition to the fact that you can always go back and try to find something you missed, there are several mini-games thrown in for the heck of it. They range from the bizarre (the Sam and Max dress-up game) to the quirky (the coloring book) to the completely insane (in one game, Max is standing on top of your car, and the idea is not to get him killed by the oncoming highway signs). Are they brilliant? No...but they sure as heck are fun. Hell even the Battleship knock off ("The Sam and Max portable Car-Bomb Game", actually) is pretty damn fun.
And let's not forget the fact that you'll want to play the game from start to finish again and again...few games have the "rainy day" thing down as well as Sam and Max. It's a great game to have sitting on your shelf...believe me, you're going to be playing this one more than a few times. Sam and Max really is as entertaining as any cartoon, and in many ways more so, because of the interactivity. It ain't 3D accelerated, it doesn't use MMX or even redbook audio, and when it was made OpenGL was limited to uber-expensive SGI workstations, but it's one of the most entertaining games you'll find around. Add to that the fact that it's available in the LucasArts archives along with Day of the Tentacle, and Indiana Jones, both terrific SCUMM games, and you've got yourself one heck of a bargain for under $30.
- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman is the editor-in-chief here at loonygames.
|Credits: Bargain Bin logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Bargain Bin is © 1998 Jason Bergman. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and like, in poor taste, dude.|