Reviewed: September 4, 2007
Released: August 1, 2007
Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s there were only two major players when it came to making adventure games – Sierra Online and LucasArts. Sierra had all the “Quest” games while Lucas diversified with original franchises like Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and perhaps everyone’s favorite crime fighting duo, Sam & Max, freelance police officers. Their first adventure - setting out across America in search of Bigfoot.
It didn’t really matter that Sam was a loveable mutt who spouted lines of verbose exclamations, or that Max was a hyperactive rabbit always getting into trouble. All that mattered was that the script was hysterical and the game was totally fun to play, and gamers around the world have been waiting nearly 15 years for these guys to return.
Thanks to Telltale Games, Sam & Max have returned in what many might consider an experimental delivery system. Released over the past year as a series of “episodes” on GameTap, instead of one large adventure we got several installments that lasted anywhere from 2-5 hours each. If you’re like me, I don’t have the time to deal with “scheduled programming” on TV or my PC, and since a lot of people usually just wait for the DVD box sets to come out for their favorite TV shows it only made sense that The Adventure Company has packaged all six episodes from the first season and released Sam & Max: Season One.
Now you can get all six hilarious adventures on a single disc – no more downloading individual episodes, plus, like most DVD box sets you also get a bonus disc full of extras like:
Before we dive into the synopsis for each episode let’s talk about the general gameplay. The original Sam & Max was one of those third-person, point and click adventure games and these new episodes follow the same design. You won’t even need to use the keyboard really, just point anywhere on the screen and click and Sam will move there. Max will always tag along when possible and occasionally get in Sam’s way, but Sam will just casually swat him aside.
This new episodic version of Sam & Max has really streamlined the interface, almost to the point of being too easy. It is certainly accessible to kids and younger teens but adult gamers, especially veteran adventure games will find these games way too easy. In the old days each item in an adventure game could be interacted with in numerous ways – you could look, smell, taste, use, etc. and most of the incorrect commands prompted humorous responses. In this new style of adventure game there is only one response for each clickable item in the level – the correct one. This eliminates a lot of the exploration and discovery we normally associate with these types of games.
There is also an inventory system that allows you to collect various objects during the adventures and use them at specific points to further the story, but even these puzzles are fairly limited and usually totally obvious, and when they do throw in something tricky (like ketchup icing on a birthday cake) it can bring the game to a screeching halt. Often you'll need to exhaust branching trees of dialogue before revealing the clue you need to proceed.
There is a great cast of characters ranging from Bosco, full-time store clerk, part-time inventor, Sybil, who’s career changes with each new episode, and Jimmy the rat, who lives in your office. Those are just the recurring characters. Expect lots of new and crazy personalities to interact with in each new episode as well as a few character crossovers.
While each episode is fully standalone, there are enough subtle (and not so subtle) references to previous episodes that you will want to play them in order, otherwise a few of the inside jokes will just go right over your head. There is an overarching story that ties all the episode together, albeit quite loosely.
So how about those episodes? In Episode 1: Culture Shock, you’ll need to unravel a hypnotic plot of mind control through fitness tapes and figure out how three child stars factor into the evil plot. In Episode 2: Situation Comedy, Sam & Max try to rescue the audience of a TV talk show being held hostage by Myra Stump, but before they can get into her studio they’ll have to star in a sitcom, cooking show, and a singing talent search.
In Episode 3: The Mole, The Mob, And The Meatball, you’ll have to infiltrate the Toy Mafia, find the police mole who has gone missing, and unravel the Mob’s nefarious plot. It’s off to Washington D.C. in Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! when Sam & Max must find out why the President has started acting all crazy, and end up running for President themselves.
In Episode 5: Reality 2.0 Sam & Max go cyberpunk as they infiltrate a VR world created by a villain known as The Internet. This new high-tech story allows for new types of puzzles and a new visual flair that makes this episode the best so far. The first season concludes with Episode 6: The Bright Side of the Moon, and yes, Sam & Max go to the moon for their latest case that involves the funniest script of the season and some of the best puzzles in the series.
As much as I would love to elaborate on all these episodes and share my favorite moments, I fear anything I would say would spoil the fun and comedic enjoyment you will have when you play these games yourself. Sam & Max is all about the sight gags and clever references to pop culture, not just from this decade but going back ten or even twenty years. There are political jokes, regional jokes (like Celine Dion being on Canada’s money), and even jokes targeted toward gamers, especially in the Reality 2.0 episode.
I’m usually not one to laugh aloud, at least when I’m alone in front of my computer, but these six games had me laughing so often and so loud my two parrots (who also reside in my office) started to laugh as well. You know you have a funny game when you can get two birds to laugh at your jokes.
Telltale has done something quite clever with this series as far as milking the same environments for six different titles, but what actually might seem like the perfect opportunity to merely reuse old sets, these guys have turned into an opportunity for all new clever sight gags. It’s really fun to watch all the subtle changes that take place, not only in your office but Sybil’s business and Bosco’s Inconvenience Store. Some things never change, but if you look closely you will find all sorts of subtle variations from episode to episode.
Then you have all sorts of episode-specific locales like the WARP TV studio, the White House, the VR world, or even the moon. The designs do a great job of spoofing Threes Company, Oprah, American Idol, and any of those lame cooking shows you might find on public access. They have hilarious sight gags all around Washington, and clever visual jokes targeted to gamers in the VR world.
The characters are larger than life with great 3D models, lots of curves and very little texture detail, which just makes the whole thing look like an animated TV show. The levels are large and colorful with wacky shapes and odd angles for common objects. The designers make great use of cinematic camera angles when necessary, but for the most part the game is purely a scrolling adventure with the exception of at least one driving sequence in each episode.
Sam & Max supports a large range of screen resolutions and can be run in full-screen or windowed mode, so regardless of your system specs, you’ll find something that is playable and still looks great. I should also mention the cool opening and closing monochromatic credit sequences that totally jive with the classic 70’s cop TV dramas like Starsky and Hutch, only set to some funky jazz.
There is more than three hours of catchy music that ranges from jazz to just about anything else you’d hear on a TV show. The music varies from episode to episode to include themes specific to the locales and situations. A good example would be all the unique theme songs to the various TV shows in Episode 2: Situation Comedy.
The voice acting is what really sells this game…well that and the funny scripts that only get better and better with each new episode. I was amazed at how fresh the jokes and interactions were for Sam & Max as well as Bosco and Sybil. Just when you think the writers had played these characters out, they found some new angle to work. And you can count on just about every line that comes out of Max’s mouth as being solid gold. Funniest rabbit since Bugs.
There are six episodes that range anywhere from 2-5 hours each. Each adventure has about the same level of storytelling so the length actually varies with the number and difficulty of the puzzles and how much backtracking you end up doing. You also have to factor in how much time you will spend clicking on non-critical objects and scenery just to hear the humorous results.
There are lists of Easter Eggs for each episode that you might have fun exploring after you have finished each story. The episodes also do a good job of autosaving in key locations; such a good job in fact that I never even used the menu save function until halfway through my third episode. It’s probably a good idea to save more often than that, although it is impossible to die or get yourself in a position where you cannot win.
Purchasing the entire season makes total sense when you consider that each episode is $9 if you download them individually, or you can get all six adventures for $35 plus the bonus disc. And if you already purchased any of the individual episodes you can upgrade to the complete season for only $26. Now that's nice customer support and good marketing, plus it helps lower the overall average cost per episode, since some episodes are shorter than others.
Sam & Max: Season One is the hysterical rebirth of one of gaming’s most beloved crime fighting duos. While I probably wouldn’t have got sucked into the whole pay-per-episode thing on GameTap, having the entire season at my disposal on a single disc all at once makes owning and playing this series a no-brainer.
Whether you are diehard fans of the original or even if you are new to the Freelance Police force, this is the funniest adventure game of the year. It might not have the deepest gameplay or even last more than a few hours, but the time you spend with Sam & Max in all their hilarious adventures will be the time of your life.