Sam & Max Hit the Road
(Note: reviewed as part of the LucasArts Entertainment Pack)
I'm currently going through a 'retro' gaming phase, which is all the more remarkable considering that I've just got a new PC with Windows XP installed. You'd think this operating system, which is no longer built around the venerable yet dodgy DOS, would incur even more difficulties in trying to get old games to run than Windows 95/98. Au contraire - it's proving to be easier than ever. No more twiddling with config.sys and autoexec.bat (although that can be a hobby in itself). Either a game runs, or it doesn't.
So it was with some excitement that I plucked the newly released LucasArts Entertainment Pack off a shelf in the run-up to Christmas. Four renowned adventure games that I had somehow never managed to play: Sam & Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, The Dig, and Grim Fandango! It gets better. Not only have LucasArts re-released these games long after most other companies would consider them to be abandonware, they have actually preserved their legacy. Incredibly, these titles have all been updated to run on: Windows 95 OSR2, 98, 98SE, ME, 2000, and XP! Just put one of the CDs in your drive, double-click on the executable, and away you go down memory lane.
I was toying with the idea of reviewing the Entertainment Pack as a whole, but Quandary already have reviews posted for 3 of the titles. So, I decided to concentrate my efforts on the one title missing from the archives: Sam & Max, originally released in 1993.
Sam & Max charts the exploits of the self-appointed Freelance Police, two (some would like to call them 'lovable', but I can't. More on that later) zany cartoon characters that were created by Steve Purcell and licensed by LucasArts for this game. According to the box, Sam is a 'canine shamus', and Max a 'hyperkinetic rabbity thing'. The latter turns out to be an incredibly apt description.
At the start of the game, Sam & Max have been tasked by the police commissioner with helping two carnival sideshow guys (well, more accurately, one guy with two heads) to recover their main attraction: a bigfoot named Bruno who has escaped with the aid of his giraffe-necked girlfriend, Trixie.
The central 'hitting the road' theme of the game involves visiting tacky tourist trap locations on a map of the U.S. that gradually open up to exploration one or two at a time as you solve key puzzles. Fortunately for them, the game designers didn't have to go too far out on a limb when it comes to thinking up tacky tourist trap scenarios for the U.S. In this case, the truth is probably stranger than fiction! And so you will encounter: the world's largest ball of twine (with a restaurant on top), a woman who grows vegetables that resemble famous people, and bungee diving through the noses of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore.
And all of this sounds like a great premise for a truly entertaining game, but they got one big thing wrong: the humour is just too juvenile. I don't know what LucasArts' target audience for this game was, but in my estimation, it will appeal mostly to players in the 10 to 14-year old age bracket. The problem lies mainly with that 'hyperkinetic rabbity thing', Max. You see, Sam plays the straight man, always setting Max up to throw a wild curve ball at you... but somehow it rarely hits the mark (for me anyway). If I laughed twice - no, if I even smiled twice during the whole game - that would have been it, tops. Your mileage may vary, but I can't see myself being too far off the mark here. For instance, I thoroughly enjoyed the humour in Day of the Tentacle, a similar offering from LucasArts.
There are three mini-games built in, and these weren't much fun either. Again, I question their appeal. One has you dressing up Sam and Max in 'funny' costumes. Another is an arcade game where Max has to jump over road signs. I spent very little time with these, and concentrated instead on solving the puzzles.
One point I must stress is that this is a solid inventory-based adventure. It's also moderately difficult. The folks that brought you Monkey Island are infamous for making you think 'out of the box' when it comes to puzzle solutions, and one might be inclined to think they honed their fine edge on this very game. Every single puzzle was well crafted, and there were a few that had me really stumped for a while. But you're never totally lost once you remember to try combining every object with every other one, and also to offer even the most seemingly irrelevant objects to characters with offbeat skills. They might be able to do something for you...
The interface is very slick, with icons you can cycle through using the right mouse button to accomplish the following: walk, look, take, talk, and use. I only found a few small interface problems while playing. You're supposed to be able to use F1 to bring up the load/save menu at any time, but this key did not always work. However, pressing Alt-F1 followed by F1 would work when this happened. There were also a few unobvious exits from screens, so you have to probe around a bit to find areas that Sam can visit. Max always follows.
I especially want to mention the music, because it is simply superb. Each location has its own ambient theme, most of them being as tacky as the locations themselves. However, the opening credits and first scene feature marvellously catchy jazz tunes. The overall sound quality is also excellent.
The original manual is on the CD in PDF format, and is very well produced.
This game does a lot of things right: solid adventure, no timed puzzles, no mazes, fantastic soundtrack, great animation, all dialogue is spoken with optional subtitles, and it takes the piss out of country & western music. If only the humour appealed to a broader audience, I'd recommend it without reservation. Manage to play this before your 15th birthday and you're onto a real winner; otherwise, it will depend on the way your sense of humour is leaning.
Copyright © Steve Metzler 2003.
All rights reserved.
100% DirectX compatible computer. OS: Windows 95 OSR2, 98, 98SE, ME, 2000, or XP. CPU: Pentium 133. 32MB RAM, 64MB for Windows 2000, XP. 2MB PCI/AGP graphics card, 4X CD-ROM, 16-bit sound card, mouse
Note: these specs relate to the Sam & Max version in this Entertainment Pack. Previous editions of the game will have different requirements.