An Almost Playable Classic: More on 'Maniac Mansion'

Maniac Mansion is not as unplayable as I first thought, and its instruction manual has a lot of interesting things in it, but the game still isn't fun to play.

On Monday the Moving Pixels podcast crew, myself included, talked about how old games compare to modern games. I mentioned my experience with the classic adventure game Maniac Mansion and said the game was practically unplayable by today’s standards despite the interface update provided by the fan-made deluxe edition. As a fan of adventure games, I was dismayed at my total dislike of this supposed classic, so when Chris Williams suggested that I missed a lot of information by not having the instruction manual, I resolved to track one down to see what I was missing. It was actually quite easy; there are a surprising number of websites dedicated to providing documentation for older games that have scanned the whole book and posted it online. After reading through the manual, I don’t think that it makes the game any more playable, but despite this, the more that I learn about the history of Maniac Mansion, the more impressive it becomes.

The manual is helpful in explaining how to play the game. It offers hints like “read the sign” or “check the door” and then describes in detail how to perform each action. It spends several pages explaining the systems and mechanics that govern this world, and here it does counter one criticism that I made during the podcast: that there is no indication the cut scenes are important. The manual directly states that these cut scenes offer hints about what to do and that would naturally make a player more attentive. But for the most part, I already know how to play the game, so the manual offers nothing new. Maniac Mansion is a point-and-click adventure game, and it plays like a point-and-click adventure game, especially the deluxe edition with its immediately recognizable interface.

What’s most interesting about the manual is that it includes what is essentially a step-by-step walkthrough written in the first-person from Dave’s perspective. It’s easy to follow and fun to read, breaking up each room into its own section. It works like a modern day hint system, just one not implemented in the game itself. Knowing that the original game came with a walkthrough certainly counters some of my criticism of it lacking direction, but I also had a walkthrough at my disposal while I played, and it didn’t suddenly make the game intuitive. Like any hint system, the walkthrough is something to fall back on, not something to be relied upon, and I relied on it every step of the way.

Overall, I can safely say that I wasn’t missing out on much by not having the manual. Since most point-and-click adventures are built around the same mechanics as Maniac Mansion by playing and understanding how those games work I also understand how Maniac Mansion works without needing step-by-step instructions. Speaking generally, since games are built on the mechanics of their predecessors, I believe that playing any current game will give you an intuitive understanding of its predecessor.

But the more I look into Maniac Mansion. the more I come to respect its design and the achievement it was when it first came out. A few days ago, I would have written that its biggest flaw is its lack of direction, but in retrospect, this isn’t true -- not just because of the walkthrough but because being directionless doesn’t necessarily make a game unplayable today. I think of Maniac Mansion and Myst as two sides of the same coin. Both are directionless, open-world puzzle adventures, but Myst hold up surprisingly well, whereas Maniac Mansion does not. This isn’t because the latter is older or because Myst has better graphics or more intuitive puzzles (in fact I’d argue the opposite) -- but because you can’t fail in Myst.

You begin Myst with no idea of what you’re supposed to do -- in that way it’s even more vague than Maniac Mansion, which at least tells you to “save Sandy.” You can wander the island, find various puzzles, start a puzzle then abandon it, and you can do things out of order and not screw yourself over. By contrast, Maniac Mansion thrives on player failure. It doesn’t tell you what to do (which isn’t a bad thing by itself), but if you miss a once-a-game opportunity necessary to progress, the game just lets you keep playing your now-impossible-to-beat game. It’s this constant failure and need to restart that makes Maniac Mansion excessively frustrating.

Despite its one major flaw (by today’s standards), Maniac Mansion is surprisingly modern in its ambitions. It lets you choose multiple characters with unique abilities, it has multiple endings and multiple solutions to puzzles, which is more than what most modern adventure games offer. But it’s not accessible, not anymore, not without more signposts and warnings that give the player a better sense of progression. The game itself is still very playable, despite my first impressions, but I still don’t think it’s fun -- at least not for a gamer of the Playstation Era.

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