Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, Commodore 64

Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is the 1988 successor to Maniac Mansion. Successor in the sense that it uses the same game engine and gameplay style, but does not exist in the same universe.

You play a jaded reporter called Zak McKracken who wakes one day after having a surreal dream involving aliens. This dream proves to have a profound effect on Zak’s life, and he meets another person – a girl, called Annie Larris – who’s also had the same dream.

As a graphic adventure game, Zak McKracken is noticeably more refined and complex than Maniac Mansion, although it might not appear that way initially. It takes some effort to reach the part of the game where four individual characters become playable. The game also contains a few situations where – if you do the wrong thing – you can’t complete it. So can be frustrating.

That said: I think Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is brilliantly designed and great fun to play. Especially with a walkthrough, because some of the puzzles are relatively difficult to solve.

Compared to other SCUMM games Zak McKracken seems less about conversations and more about puzzles, and item and money management. And, of course, travel. You have to get used to buying plane tickets in this game – if you can first find your credit card…

Still available to buy on Steam and GOG.com today, Zak McKracken is arguably better even than Maniac Mansion. It’s all a matter of taste.

More: Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders on Wikipedia
Steam: Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders on Steam
GOG.com: Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders on GOG.com

Zak-McKracken-Cover

Maniac Mansion, Commodore 64

Released in 1987 for the Commodore 64 and Apple II, Maniac Mansion was the birth of SCUMM (Story Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), the game engine that defined LucasArts point-and-click adventures for a decade. Actually, back then they were called Lucasfilm Games, and they were breaking new ground in a number of different places.

For starters: you can play Maniac Mansion as one of seven playable characters – and switch between them at will (at least when the game lets you), and the game has puzzles that can either only be solved by one character, or have multiple solutions to one problem. Pretty groundbreaking for the time.

Maniac Mansion was also the video game that defined “verb lists”, or verb charts – lists of verbs that can be clicked-on, then used to carry out certain actions. This was an interesting new development in the graphic adventure genre back in 1987, and one that still reverberates to this day, with games like Thimbleweed Park.

At its heart Maniac Mansion is a tribute to late-night horror films, such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street, but with a humorous – almost Richard O’Brien-like – twist. The game cuts away to other characters doing things, like a TV soap opera, and the dialogue is self-referential and funny.

The graphics in Maniac Mansion are pretty basic, but work very well and are colourful and full of character. The big heads of the main characters are very distinctive and somewhat reminiscent of the main character in Labyrinth. The backgrounds are ‘interactive’ and sometimes change when clicked-on (the fridge for example). A lot of this was very innovative back in 1987 and it really made the gaming world sit up and take notice.

There are better-looking versions of Maniac Mansion around, but this original Commodore 64 version is still well worth a play any day of the week. The MS-DOS, Amiga and Atari ST versions all have updated graphics and mouse controls, and are all excellent. There’s also an NES version too. And – as the eagle-eyed will already know – the full Maniac Mansion is also available to play as an Easter egg in the 1993 sequel, Day of the Tentacle.

More: Maniac Mansion on Wikipedia

Maniac-Mansion-Cover

Labyrinth, Commodore 64

The actual, full title of this 1986 adventure game from Lucasfilm Games is Labyrinth: The Computer Game, but I’ll refer to it from now on as Labyrinth.

Labyrinth was the very first Lucasfilm Games adventure game and is based on the fantasy film of the same name – the one written by Terry Jones, directed by Jim Henson, and starring David Bowie in a big white wig.

Labyrinth is a fairly simple character-based adventure with puzzles, and mostly involves walking around talking to the various ‘beings’ that you meet, trying to solve various problems and unlocking the route forward.

It doesn’t have any of the complex puzzles or character interactions we see in later LucasArts adventures although it does establish a basic graphical style for the point-and-click genre to come. It also has a rudimentary menu system that feels a bit like an early prototype of SCUMM.

Playing the game now, it’s obviously not one of Lucasfilm Games‘ best, even though it was quite innovative for the time. Unless you’re a big fan of the film, or are interested in the evolution of LucasArts adventures, Labyrinth probably won’t hold a great deal of interest for you.

More: Labyrinth: The Computer Game on Wikipedia

Labyrinth-Poster

Simon the Sorcerer, Amiga

Simon the Sorcerer is a very fondly-remembered, British point-and-click adventure game published by Adventure Soft for the Amiga in 1993.

It looks and plays similarly to the classic LucasArts adventures of the late 80s and early 90s – Loom, Monkey Island, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis – and has the same verb/icon system as pioneered by those games.

It also has a similar, dry, satirical sense of humour to the aforementioned LucasArts games, which is somewhat surprising because Simon the Sorcerer was written by a teenager – specifically Mike Woodroffe‘s son, Simon. Mike was the director of Simon the Sorcerer and Simon, his son, was the writer. His “big break” you could say, and he didn’t let his dad down…

Simon the Sorcerer has a lot of great scenes in it – all beautifully drawn and coloured by pixel artist, Paul Drummond. All the characters are nicely animated too. Overall it is a top quality production. A ‘talkie’ version (with full voice acting) was later released on CD-ROM and I would say that that’s the one to play if you’re going to play this game. Word of warning though: it’s quite a difficult game, so be prepared for some frustration, unless: A. you’re an adventure game genius and have no fear, or B. you’re happy to use a walkthrough

A 25th Anniversary Edition of Simon the Sorcerer was released in April 2018 to mixed reviews. I haven’t played it yet so can’t comment. These screenshots are from the original 1993 Amiga version.

More: Simon the Sorcerer on Wikipedia
Steam: Simon the Sorcerer 25th Anniversary Edition on Steam
GOG.com: Simon the Sorcerer 25th Anniversary Edition on GOG.com

SimCity, Super Nintendo

The 1991 Super Nintendo version of Will Wright‘s classic SimCity was developed by Nintendo themselves, so is somewhat different to previous versions. It’s actually one of the best versions of SimCity around.

SimCity is about city-building, land/power/transportation management, taxation, and dealing with natural disasters. Basically: keeping your growing (or maybe even declining) population happy.

The viewpoint is overhead, and you build your city by clearing land and laying tiles on the scrolling landscape. You build roads, rail tracks, residential areas, industrial areas, and commercial areas – not to mention your own house – and must attract people to come live with you. When you reach a certain size you can then build more advanced structures, such as airports and sports stadia. Of course, you need power stations and police departments, and maybe even a port if you’ve got some coastline.

Nintendo‘s involvement added a lot of nice touches to SimCity on the SNES that aren’t in other versions, not least of which is a Bowser attack on Tokyo! Aping the Godzilla attack of the original game… Or the golden Mario statue awarded for reaching a half million population. Or the special buildings that are awarded for reaching certain milestones, such as casinos, amusement parks, and expo centres. Some of these ideas were incorporated into SimCity 2000 later, so it was prudent of Maxis to approve Nintendo‘s own development of their precious game, in exchange for new ideas.

A regular game of SimCity is an open-ended ‘sandbox’ affair, where you choose a random map and just build on it until you run out of steam. There are also six different disaster scenarios to “beat” – earthquake, pollution, crimewave, nuclear meltdown, coastal flooding, and the aforementioned monster attack.

Not as boring as it looks, SimCity is a classic SNES game and still a lot of fun to play.

More: SimCity on Wikipedia

The Great Escape, ZX Spectrum

Denton Designs made this smart little POW game for Ocean Software in 1986.

It basically re-enacts the risky life of being a Prisoner of War during the Second World War, with a planned escape being top of the list of things to do.

Prisoners have to comply to a strict prison timetable, but can ‘go walkabout’ in-between compulsory attendances. Meaning: if you miss roll call, they’ll notice and come after you. So you have to be careful. The flagpole on the left indicates your current morale. Each time you discover a new part of the camp, or each time you find or do something useful, your morale will increase. However, getting any of your items found and confiscated, or getting locked in solitary for attempted escapes will severely damage it. When your character’s morale reaches zero you lose control of him and he then just follows routine and it’s game over.

Like most isometric action/adventure games on the Spectrum, The Great Escape is relatively slow to play, but also quite absorbing. The sparse graphics do a good job of creating a good atmosphere and the controls are responsive enough to at least give you a fighting chance. Puzzles are mostly timing, lockpicking, outfit changes, and basic item juggling problems, although there are a couple of alternative solutions to escaping.

You can play the game as a POW ‘sandbox’ game if you like, and not bother trying to escape. And if you’re really lazy you can leave the controls alone and the prisoner will just go about his daily routine! I’m not sure how far you can get doing that, but it demonstrates that Denton Designs at least tried to create a self-contained, ‘living world’ inside this little 48K prison camp.

More: The Great Escape on Wikipedia
More: The Great Escape on World of Spectrum

Eye of the Storm, PC

Eye of the Storm was the first game released by Rebellion Developments in 1993, and also the first video game designed by Jason Kingsley, co-founder of Rebellion and current owner of 2000AD comic.

Back in 1993 I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Rebellion, in Oxford, England, to see Eye of the Storm; to have it demo-ed to me by Jason himself, and then to take it away for review. Luckily, at the time I was working in Oxford (at Maverick Magazines), so it was only a short walk from our offices to theirs. I spent probably three or fours hours with Jason, playing the game, discussing it with him, and later being given a sneak peek of the Aliens vs. Predator game they were also working on for the Atari Jaguar… It was a memorable day.

Playing Eye of the Storm now I have the same feelings I had when I first played it back in 1993. It’s a clever, playable and absorbing game (identifying alien lifeforms for cash in the atmosphere of Jupiter and shooting down poachers); initially a little confusing (easily sorted with a little bit of effort), and it could easily be dismissed by those who just don’t ‘get’ it.

The basic premise of Eye of the Storm is that in 2124 life is discovered (by a probe) in Jupiter’s great red spot, and there’s a mad scramble by mercenaries to bring back specimens for cash. Except you’re no mercenary – you’re a representative of the Interstellar Conservation Executive (ICE) and you’re there to document these lifeforms for posterity. Not kill or catch them, but identify them. And you’ve got a small, blue spacecraft in which to do it in. And not get killed. So you’re a conservationist of the future, with homing missiles and lasers, of course. And you are encouraged to blow the poachers out of existence!

The ship’s Heads-Up Display (HUD) is nicely designed and each instrumentation module can be turned on or off using key commands. The 3D graphics are simple by today’s standards, but are fast and reasonably colourful. The 3D models are comparable to Star Fox on the SNES, which came out the same year. Not as complex, sure, but only a couple of people made this game – not a large team. The random explosions when you die are quite nice. Kinda weirdly kaleidoscopic and unique…

The mouse and keyboard controls work very well and flying around is fairly relaxing, when you get the hang of flying in a 3D space with a limited turn speed. If you want to play Eye of the Storm seriously: there is a very good game in there to be had. With missions and objectives (watch out for messages that come up). Exploring and marking landmarks will help you find your way around the seemingly featureless “gas giant” although a lot of people may be put off by the lack of ground-based landmarks. There is no ground! There is a mysterious monolith though…

Eye of the Storm is a good concept and a decent game, nicely executed, but with limited appeal. And, while I wouldn’t rate it as a “must play” game, I would recommend you try it out if you’re interested in space cockpit games that are different from the norm. Personally: I really like Eye of the Storm; I enjoyed revisiting it and remembering how to play it properly. In fact: I’d love to see Rebellion bring it back with a few new ideas and features… Extra-terrestrial conservation will be a future trend, I feel. 🙂

Eye of the Storm was released on only two platforms: on the PC, in MS-DOS (the version shown here), and also on the Amiga. I’ve actually never played the Amiga version, but aim to rectify that soon.

More: Rebellion on Wikipedia
More: Eye of the Storm on Mobygames