Almost three years ago I was smitten with a Commodore 64 game that was unlike anything I had ever played before. It was a graphic adventure game that managed to push the genre forward with innovative controls, captivating characters, and funny dialog. Adventure games like Zork and King’s Quest are nothing new to the PC crowd, but Lucasfilm Games really wanted to make those games more approachable for a general audience with Maniac Mansion. They ditched the esoteric keyboard inputs and instead developed a new interface that entirely relied on moving a cursor and clicking a button. Not only did the game feel more interactive, but it made it instantly accessible to all ages of gamers. Now the game has arrived on the NES courtesy of Jaleco, but will lightning strike twice on a system known for its action-oriented audience?
My first introduction to Maniac Mansion came a couple of summers ago when my grandma called me up one afternoon because she had gotten a new game for her C64 and was stuck. She thought maybe I could help her figure out how to proceed, so I rushed on over to see what she was playing, and I had never seen a game like it before. It turns out she was stuck right at the beginning of the game, unsure of how to open the door into the mansion. It was locked and she didn’t have a key. I was immediately drawn in with the game’s premise: three high school kids were trying to rescue a fellow classmate from an evil doctor who lived in the mansion on the hill. As a big fan of horror movies, this was right up my alley, even though the game is more zany and eccentric than scary. Having seen countless movies and plenty of Scooby-Doo episodes, the first thing I asked my grandma was had she looked under the door mat for a key? She hadn’t thought of that. So I moved the cursor down to the bottom of the screen and selected “Pick Up” and then moved the cursor the door mat, clicked my action button and damn if there wasn’t a key underneath! My grandma was impressed, and I was hooked.
The NES conversion of the C64 version is a big upgrade visually and in the audio department, but most of the other things, including the majority of the puzzles, remain the same. So, if you’ve beaten the game elsewhere the $49.99 asking price for the Nintendo version might not be worth the coin. That being said, this game can be beaten several different ways and there are various paths of puzzles to unlock depending on which three kids are in your crew. You always have the default character Dave leading the charge since it’s his girlfriend who has been kidnapped by Dr. Fred. Each of the kids you can choose from has their own specialties and personalities. For example, if you choose Bernard, the class nerd of the group, you’ll be able to easily repair a radio or other electronics. Likewise, Michael is the expert photographer of the group and his skills will come in handy for a portion of the game. The game designers really went out of their way to make each character unique and beneficial in some way to solving certain puzzles.
While the baseline of the story is to sneak into the mansion, grab your girlfriend, and get out, there is so much more that unravels as you proceed. Each room is filled with various items to look at, collect, and manipulate. There are secret passages, strange characters, creepy hallways, and even a chainsaw hanging in the kitchen with blood splattered on the walls. Much of the game requires trial and error, but many of the puzzles you solve make logical sense. When I say puzzles, I mean things like solving how to get a key out of a chandelier that’s out of reach. You might think you need to find a ladder to reach it, but it’s actually much more involved than that!
Part of what makes Maniac Mansion so fun and memorable is that in addition to the zany inhabitants of the house (Nurse Edna, Weird Ed, and Dead Cousin Ted), there are fantastical creatures that no doubt are a result of Dr. Fred’s experiments. You’ve got tentacles, man-eating plants, and more just waiting to be discovered. Each room of the gigantic mansion is fun to explore and figure out the mysteries, but it’s the off-beat humor that really makes this game shine. There are all sorts of jokes littered throughout the game, from the way you solve the puzzles to the dialog between the characters, to the product placements, a lot of love went into the creation of this game.
One area of frustration with graphic adventure games of the past has been the instant deaths. If you don’t solve a puzzle just the right way or go the wrong way you might find yourself at a game over screen, really through no fault of your own. This game encourages you to try crazy things and oftentimes you’re rewarded with some funny stuff happening. That’s not to say you can’t get a game over screen – I managed to blow up the mansion on accident on one of my early plays, but for the most part the game goes out of its way not to punish you for trying things out. That makes it a much more rewarding experience overall since it’s not as punishing. That being said, you could very well still get stuck in multiple places throughout the game, but there’s always a solution just around the corner. Just try everything and eventually you’ll figure things out, and many times the answer to a problem makes total sense. Paying attention to the description of items will go a long way to succeeding as will exploring every pixel with your cursor to try and find hidden objects or buttons.
As I touched on earlier in the review, the NES version of Maniac Mansion looks and sounds better than its C64 predecessor. Other than the introduction music, most of the C64 version was silent with little to no background music playing throughout the entire game. While this did lend a certain eeriness to the game, I much prefer the way the NES version handles the soundtrack. Each character has a CD player that plays a different background music as you take control of the kid. This helps prevent saturation of hearing the same songs over and over again, but if you do grow tired of the music you can simply turn the CD player off and you get the same silence that was present in the C64 version. It’s the best of both worlds, but I must give props to the sound team because some of the tracks are simply amazing. Dave’s music in particular is killer and I could listen to that all day long.
The character sprites are bigger and more detailed this time around and the different rooms of the mansion are a bit spiffier as well. I’m not a big fan of changing the skin color of the “bad guys” of the game from normal flesh tones to a sort of blue tint. It almost makes them look robotic and I’m not sure why they went in that direction. Otherwise the game looks better on the NES than the C64, but when compared to other recent games like Ninja Gaiden 2 it comes across as slightly dated with no cool parallax scrolling or other visual effects.
When all is said and done, Maniac Mansion on the NES is a breath of fresh air. We’ve had graphic adventure games like Shadowgate appear on the system in the past, but this game is so original and funny and over the top zany that it really must be experienced as there’s nothing quite like it on the system. Some of the violence, gore, and sexual innuendos found in the C64 version have been removed, but it has very little impact on the overall experience. The Family Channel is set to air a TV show based on the game, so that might bring in a bunch of new players as well. New players are sure to be blown away by the clever puzzles and witty banter and I think this game is a great change of pace from all of the other Game Paks littering store shelves. Battery backup makes it easy to save your game and continue your adventure — of which I’d expect a newcomer to spend a decent chunk of hours figuring out the ins and outs of this adventure. Once you’ve beaten the game, try a different combination of kids to solve different puzzles and maybe even see different scenes and endings! While this game won’t be for everyone, I urge you to give it a try as you might be pleasantly surprised!
Maniac Mansion Review
- Graphics - 8/108/10
- Sound - 9.5/109.5/10
- Gameplay - 9/109/10
- Lasting Appeal - 8/108/10
Final Thoughts: EXCELLENT
The classic graphic adventure game finally gets a modern day makeover on the NES with intuitive point and click controls. Combine a creepy mansion with a zany storyline featuring memorable characters and funny writing and you have yourself a classic for the ages. Maniac Mansion encourages multiple plays thanks to a variety of characters with different skills, opening up new puzzles and endings. Take a break from hopping on Koopa Troopas and killing zombies and put a stop to an evil doctor trying to suck out the brains of a teenage girl!