I love adventure games. There’s probably nothing in the realm of electronic media I enjoy more than a point-and-click adventure. Unfortunately I’m a reviewer of consoles, and consoles rarely get any of these for one very good reason: It’s a bitch to point and click with a gamepad. So it was, in my opinion, pretty gutsy for LucasArts (then LucasFilm Games) to take its first PC hit and license it for the NES. Sure Maniac Mansion was already a success, but the limitations of Nintendo could have easily marred the reputation of this classic. Luckily, they didn’t, and the cart is almost as good as the original.
Let me get you up to speed. Maniac Mansion is about a kid named Dave whose girlfriend Sandy is kidnapped by the unbalanced mad scientist Dr. Fred. Dave’s got to grab two of his buddies and head over to Fred’s mansion to free his gal before he uses her in whatever sick plot he’s cooked up. Like any good adventure game, the important choices begin right away. You’ve got a whole bevy of pals to pick from, each with different skills. Some can fix things, some are musicians, some are writers, etc. Each of these talents will come in handy during the game, and you’re stuck with whichever two you pick. Don’t fret, though, the game can be beaten in different ways with any combination of teens.
And that’s what made both the original and its NES counterpart so unique. There are a ton of ways to beat it, a quality that was rare in computer games, and even rarer in cartridges of the day. Suppose you need to win the favor of someone in the house to protect yourself from the advances of the evil Purple Tentacle. If you picked Razor, she can wow the Green Tentacle with her musical skills. If Michael’s on board, he can do a little photo developing for Weird Ed to get on his good side. Or if you’re working with Bernard, you might just be able to avoid the situation altogether. It’s complexities like that that make this game stand out. Of course, it’s these same complexities that will drive some gamers up the wall.
Because of its PC roots, Maniac Mansion has got to be one of the most open, free-roaming NES games ever released. That’s great, but if you aren’t expecting this ahead of time, you might spend hours trying to crack a puzzle that you can’t possibly solve due to the party you picked. There’s always a workaround, but if you don’t know to look for one, you may never find it.
Additionally, this was before LucasArts pioneered their “you can not get stuck or die in our games” policy, making this one of the few console games in which you can find yourself in a no-win situation. There are actually quite a few boneheaded things you can do to cause this, but the most obvious method is to accidentally kill one of your kids. You can still beat the game with only two teens, but if the dearly departed was carrying an item you need, then you’re out of luck. If the game was to somehow let you know this, and force you to restart or load a saved game, that would be fine. Instead, it allows you to continue to play for hours before you realize your mistake. Definitely a turnoff. Don’t get me wrong. I’m aware this setup was fairly standard for adventure games of the time, but you’re not likely to expect it in a Nintendo game.
So how does a game rise above this issue? It’s clever, addictive, and damn funny. Maniac Mansion is full of zany miscreants who will both aid and impede your rescue mission. There’s the Edison family: Dr. Fred, who labors in his lab making broad mad scientist threats; flirtatious Nurse Edna, who sits in her heart-adorned room; Weird Ed, who is planning a revolt; and Dead Cousin Ted, who, as you might have guessed, has a limited role in the game. Dr. Fred’s henchman is the pompous Purple Tentacle whose brother Green Tentacle is lethargic over his failure as a rock star. Finally, there is the ominous purple meteor that lands at the beginning of the game and seems to be somehow involved in the strange going-on of the mansion..oh, and he’s writing his memoirs.
Humor also abounds in the gameplay itself. One of the first items you pick up is a large bloody chainsaw that would help you greatly in your fight against the residents of the house. The catch? Nowhere in the entire game is there gas for it. LucasArts even referenced this joke in their PC game Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, where you find chainsaw fuel, but no chainsaw. And should you manage to ham-handedly kill one of your party, it will no doubt be in a hilarious way. My personal favorite is the mad death jig your character does when encountering radioactive fumes. As a final bit of fun, if Dave happens to get himself killed before reuniting with his sweetheart…well…as you can see from the screenshot, Sandy will be well taken care of.
But let’s get down to how the NES handles this game. And, yes, I’m about to make further comparisons to the PC game, but trust me, they’re relevant. When porting a game that relies heavily on the mouse to a system that doesn’t have one, control becomes a big issue. Indeed, it takes some time to acclimate to moving the cursor around with the D-pad and selecting with A, especially because you’ve also got to select from a verb list before clicking on an object.
However the designers came up with a clever way to counter this inconvenience. Hitting select allows you to cycle through the most common verbs. This makes everything go much faster, and is actually a feature that would have been quite welcome in the PC version. Also, the interface has been streamlined a bit to eliminate redundant or unnecessary verbs, arguably another improvement over the original. The NES version automatically displays the name of the object the cursor is over, whereas the PC game had an annoying “What Is” verb that players had to select if they couldn’t tell what they were looking at. These little time savers were a very smart addition. Oh, and you won’t have to feel guilty about using your emulator’s save state feature. You’ve got the built-in option to save anywhere in the game.
Graphically, the NES version surpasses the original, which came out years earlier. Characters and backgrounds are engaging, and on par with cartoon-style games of the time. Colors are occasionally too loud or too dull, but they fit the theme of an eccentric doctor’s mansion. Music is handled quite interestingly. Each kid carries a CD player. The tunes are standard midi fare, upbeat and appropriate, but nothing to write home about. However, if you get tired of them, just instruct the kid to turn the player off.
There is one area, unfortunately, in which the game falls quite short of its predecessor: edginess. Apparently, Nintendo wasn’t happy about certain sexually suggestive and/or violent humor showing up on their family-friendly system, so they asked the designers to do some censoring. Tons of great jokes from the original were lost. “For a good time, call Edna” became simply “Call Edna”, a nude statue was excised, an arcade game called “Muff Diver” had to be changed to “Tuna Diver”, and the classic come-on lines Nurse Edna spouts when she catches you in the house were replaced with much tamer generic reprimands.
Also, for some reason, many of the rooms were made simpler and smaller so players could seem them in one screen rather than having to scroll. There’s a long list of other differences, but I won’t bother going into detail. You can find an article on the subject, written by one of the designers, floating around on several Maniac Mansion websites. The point is that, although the spirit is the same, the cuts force me to admit that this is not Maniac Mansion in its entirety.
Two years after Maniac Mansion for the NES was released, LucasArts did an enhanced PC version with sound and graphics that surpassed all previous versions. This is the game that I consider the best way to play Maniac Mansion. The NES port is great, and judging it by itself, it deserves a high score, but I wouldn’t feel honest if I didn’t knock off a few points for the stuff it omits. Think of it like seeing your favorite movie on television. Sure they chopped off the sides to fit the screen and took out all the swear words and nudity, but it’s still a great flick. However, if you’re looking for the entire story as it was meant to be seen, the enhanced PC version is the way to go. And since LucasArts is just about the only company who still respects its old games, you can actually still buy it cheap from their online store.
A fine rendition of a classic adventure, surprisingly good control considering the limitations, and even a few improvements over the original’s interface.
Censorship made this more of a network TV version of Maniac Mansion. If you didn’t have a computer and just had a Nintendo, this would be a great choice, but you’re reading this so you obviously DO have a computer…well, you get it.. Bottom line, this should not be your first trip to the mansion.