The Glorious Return of Sam and Max

Sam: “Where should I put this [bomb] so that it doesn’t hurt anyone we know or care about?” Max: “Out the window, Sam. There’s nobody but strangers out there.”

For many years now there has been no shortage of commentators willing to opine about the death of the adventure game. This, of course, is despite the fact that there have been no shortage of adventure games continuing to be made, from amateur text adventures through to graphical indie efforts and even A-list titles. What people mean when they say “adventure games are dead” is that LucasArts-style adventure games are dead.

In other words, they really mean “Nobody is making Monkey Island V: BladeHunt: The Revenge”.

Sam: Aww… It’s a cute hypercephalic kitten. Max: I’ll call him “Mittens”, ‘cause I think he’d make a fine pair of them.

The LucasArts games all had style, were professionally produced, and promised many hours of involved entertainment. They were engrossing and unique. One of the crowd favorites of the genre was Sam and Max Hit the Road. Based on the comic book by Steve Purcell, Sam and Max were a phlegmatic dog and a hyperviolent bunny rabbit whose adventures might have been scripted by the love-child of Salvador Dali and Lucille Ball.

Max: I feel lightheaded, Sam. I think my brain is out of air. But it’s kind of a neat feeling.

Sam and Max was not actually a very good game. It had some of the worst puzzles ever seen, even today. Despite this, it was so strongly written that, at times, it could have you doubled over in pain from laughing so much. To this day I can’t think of the words “Cone of Terror” without giggling. Let alone “Trixie the Giraffe-Necked Girl.”

For years rumors of a sequel to the Sam and Max game swirled. LucasArts formally announced that a sequel was in development in 2002, but then announced that they had killed the project in 2004.

[![Sam and Max]( content/uploads/2007/02/samnmax.jpg)

You crack me up, little buddy

]( “Sam and Max” )

Now, Telltale games has brought back to life a franchise that many of us thought was gone for good. And they’re doing it in a particularly interesting way: episodically.

The first episode of what Telltale calls “Sam & Max: Season 1” was released late last year (you can read my review of the first episode in Issue 301 of Played to Death, and the second episode in this month’s upcoming issue). Three of the six planned episodes have been released, with more on the way on a monthly schedule. You can buy the game in several ways: a subscription to all 6 games is $34.95, a single episode is $8.95, or the game is available “for free” to GameTap subscribers. Telltale has release episodic games before — their games based on Jeff Smith’s Bone comics are available on both Windows and Mac — but the scope and ambition of the Sam and Max games is, at least to me, exciting, for a few reasons.

Max: Mind if I drive? Sam: Not if you don’t mind me clawing at the dash and shrieking like a cheerleader.

First, the games themselves are well-polished and show off Telltale’s 3D adventure engine superbly. The music is enjoyable. The UI is simple and easy to use. I don’t have to manage the camera (the wonderful, cinematic camera movements during transitions is just one of the nice little bits of polish that shows they thought about this).

But more importantly, to me, is that Telltale is doing something unspeakably great: they’re making small games that don’t suck. I’ve heard a few people grumbling that $9 is too much to pay for a game that “only lasts a few hours.” All I can say is that I feel pretty damn good about the idea of spending $9 on a fun game whose ending I will actually see. Especially compared to spending $50 on a 36-hour drudgefest of pouty teenage avatars and random encounters with cave rats that I will stop playing and sell on eBay after the second miserable hour.

Think I’m exaggerating? The trailer for the third episode, below, gives a pretty good feel for what the game is like when it’s firing on all cylinders.

There are things about the games that one can critique. The first half of the first game tries a little too hard to be funny at every line and doesn’t always succeed. But of all the criticisms that one can make, “It’s too short” has the least resonance with me. It’s a better game than its spiritual predecessor, and now that they’re in their writing groove I’m actually enjoying it more than the original. The puzzles are generally clever — no Towers of Hanoi here — and they’re told with style.

It’s hard to talk about Sam & Max in too much detail without giving away the jokes. Nonetheless, one thing that makes this game work as a series is a strong supporting cast. There’s Bosco, the paranoid genius who runs the corner bodega, and Sybil, a woman clearly modeled on my friend Elise who has Multiple Career Disorder. Both Bosco and Sybil develop and change in each episode, something that really wouldn’t have worked had they told their story in one monolithic game. And they’ve been given lines just as good as that of our gleefully thuggish protagonists.

Max: That story warms the cockles of my heart. Sam: So do car crashes.

The first episode, “Culture Shock”, and the second episode, “Situation: Comedy” are available to everyone now. The third episode, “The Mole, The Mob, and the Meatball” will be available for download on February 8th. If you want to try the game out a free demo is available. The games are currently available for Windows only. When asked about a Mac port, the company’s response was straightforward: “We are considering a Mac port of Sam & Max but haven’t made any decisions yet. The success of the Out from Boneville port will probably influence that decision.” So all of you Mac users who want Sam & Max on OS X have your marching orders.

Additional Notes