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Thursday, 3 November 2016

Maniac Mansion (Lucasfilm Games, 1987)

Originally designed and scripted by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick for the Commodore 64.
Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion (SCUMM) designed by Ron Gilbert, Aric Wilmunder and Chip Morningstar. Art and animation by Gary Winnick. Programmed by Ron Gilbert, David Fox and Carl Mey. Music by Christopher Grigg and David Lawrence. Sound effects by Christopher Grigg. Special support for the Apple ][ conversion by F. Randall Farmer.
Released for the Commodore 64 and Apple ][ in 1987 by Lucasfilm Games.

Converted for the IBM-PC compatibles by Ron Gilbert, Aric Wilmunder and David Fox, with sounds by David Hayes and David Warhol. Released in 1988 by Lucasfilm Games.

Converted for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST computers by Aric Wilmunder, Edward Kilham and Steve Hales. Sound effects for the Amiga version by Brian Hales, and for the Atari ST version by David Warhol and Daniel Filner. Released in 1989 by Lucasfilm Games.

Converted for the Nintendo Famicom by Jaleco in 1988, and released only in Japan in 1989.

Conversion for the Nintendo Entertainment System by David Stifel. Re-scripted by Ron Baldwin. Graphics by Harrison Fong and Mike Ebert. Music by Psychadelic Brie, George Alistair Sanger, David Govett, David Hayes, David Warhol, Christopher Grigg and David Lawrence. Released in 1990 by Jaleco in USA and Europe.

NOTE: In the above list of credits, you only see the most directly involved personnel. If you are interested to see a more thorough list, visit MobyGames.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS


In the light of Lucasfilm Games' first actual graphic adventure game having its 30th anniversary this year, I decided to write about their next game in the line, because Labyrinth turned out to be a bit impossible to write about due to its versions for Japanese computers. Also, I was planning on writing about Maniac Mansion for this Halloween, but due to unforeseen circumstances, things got delayed. But also, it could well be, that SCUMM also celebrates its 30th anniversary this year - it hasn't been documented that well, really: the only known facts are that Maniac Mansion was released in October, 1987; the idea of the game was conceived around 1984-85; and that its actual development took 18-24 months. Make of it what you will. So, while I'm running late on getting a second game for the Halloween theme, I thought I might as well extend this season a bit.


Of course, anyone who can consider themselves even the least bit serious gamer, who has ever been alive in the 1980's, will know of Maniac Mansion as one of the most exciting and important graphic adventures of its time, not least of all because of the Script Creation Utility that would be upgraded and used in various other unforgettable graphic adventure games to come. For all the dark humour, cutscenes and pacing, Maniac Mansion also offered an openly structured storyline, which allowed the game to be played properly non-linearly for probably the first time ever in a video game. Indeed, the game was praised for being a "step toward computer games becoming a valid storytelling art" by sci-fi novelist Orson Scott Card. The simplified point-and-click interface, the more interactive elements and characters than in any previous adventure game, the seamlessness of events that would happen almost regardless of your own actions, multiple ways to complete the game, and, perhaps most importantly, the atmosphere surrounding the mansion and its inhabitants made Maniac Mansion an effortlessly winning combination of charm, wit and madness. Perhaps for mostly nostalgic reasons, though, Maniac Mansion is still considered to be one of the best adventure games of all time, but it does still work for its advantage in most areas.

Currently, the original C64 version is rated a full 9 at Lemon64 by 374 voters; the Amiga upgrade has a score of 8.45 from 184 votes at LemonAmiga; the ST equivalent has a score of 8.03 from 73 voters at Atarimania, and the NES version has been rated B+ at Questicle.net. The other scores of the moment had to be taken from MobyGames, where the Apple ][ version has a score of 3.1 from 14 votes, and the DOS version has 3.9 from 143 votes. Overall, not too bad, but since the Famicom version isn't as well known as its western equivalent, I haven't found any reviews or ratings for it.


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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


Maniac Mansion is a point-and-click adventure from a time when point-and-click adventures weren't yet labeled as such. As you might already know, this is the game that properly made the genre into how it is mainly considered as. Before Maniac Mansion, there were only a few awkward prototypes of fully joystick- or mouse-operated graphic adventures, such as Deja Vu, Labyrinth (based on the Jim Henson movie) and Murder on the Mississippi. This game worked the concept into a very small lot of chosen verbs and combine them with things you can only see in the action screen - they are not mentioned separately below the graphical section until you find and pick them up.

The plot goes as simply as this: your girlfriend Sandy has been kidnapped by a scientist called dr. Fred Edison, who has been subjected to the evil influence of a murderous purple meteor. Sounds like something you saw in Creepshow, right? Well, Dr. Edison has, of course, taken Sandy to a traditional horror movie-like mansion, where she will be experimented on and sacrificed for the purple meteor. Our protagonist, Dave, has to select two from a group of his friends with different abilities to help him save Sandy and save the world while at it. All three characters can interact not only with things and people around the house, but each other as well, which makes all the difference in solving certain puzzles in the game. Seasoned Maniac Mansion players will be able to run through the whole thing in less than 2 hours, but from what I recall from my youth, without good hints and ideas on what to do, especially with bad language skills, you could easily get stuck in the mansion for ages. At least unlike in Sierra adventure games of a similar age, it's not nearly as easy to die of unexpected things. As expected, you can save and load a game in progress, which is handy, since there still are a few things that can make you stuck with no hope for progress.

While the mansion itself isn't nearly as big as the latter Lucasfilm Games' adventures are, there are so many events to get through, funny graphics, memorable quotes, multiple endings and even a jumpscare or two, so that Maniac Mansion will entertain any adventure gamer for quite a long period of time, and is suitable for beginners as much as old-timers. But be not mistaken - there are certain differences that make some versions more suitable for certain kinds of gamers, and vice versa. Whichever your choice, Maniac Mansion should be in every gamer's list of games to play before they die or quit playing, whichever comes first.

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PLAYABILITY


By the grace of some holy entity, Maniac Mansion was built so much more complex than Lucasfilm Games' previous attempt at an adventure game, that it couldn't have been made for cassette. So, you will only be able to play it from some sort of a floppy disk, a cartridge or hard drive, depending on which machine you are playing Maniac Mansion on. But weirdly enough, the non-linearity requiring a non-linearly accessible media is the most complex thing about the game. Just in case you have the option to use two disk drives, the AMIGA and ST versions support it by default, but the C64 requires changing disk sides (unless you're using the recent EasyFlash version) and the APPLE version has to be instructed to use two disk drives by pressing CTRL+D during the team selection screen, provided you have done as the manual actually suggests you do, and copied side 2 of the original disk to another formatted floppy.

For most of the time, the game is controlled with a joystick or a mouse, or if you're playing the NES version, you don't have much choice apart from the pad. At any point in the game, unless you are watching a cutscene, you can access the game menu by pressing the required key/button, which is the Start button on the NES, and F5 on the 16-bits, SHIFT+F1 on the C64 and CTRL+L on the APPLE ][. The game menu doesn't do much, but it allows you to save and load your progress from the menu, or continue as you were. The FAMICOM version uses a horrid passcode system, with the codes stretching up to 104 characters using both Hiragana and classical Latin alphabet, so that already drops it down to the least preferred choice.


After an introductory cutscene, you start the game by selecting two friends to join Dave on his quest. Bernard is good with electronics, Razor and Syd are good with musical instruments, Wendy is a novelist, Jeff is a surfer and Michael is a photographer, so they all have their different uses in the game. My favourite pair was always Bernard and Razor, but you should be able to complete the game with any combination of friends. After choosing your team, a meteorite drops, the house becomes alive and the game title is shown in all its glory.

Once the game truly starts, it's played in a certain manner from start to finish. You point the cursor to words and objects in a manner that suits the task the best. To get from one area to another, just "Walk to" the chosen edge of the screen or double-click the cursor on an open doorway. Picking up items or otherwise interacting with them is no less easy: just click on the item on the action screen you wish to do something with, and then choose your preferred action and double-click it.

The commands are pretty self-explanatory, for the most part. "Push" and "Pull" will be useful for interacting with levers and such. "Give" will offer an item to either another playable character or a non-playable character. "Open" and "Close" are useful with doors and such. "Read" can be used for notes, books and other writings. "Walk to", or "Go to" in the NES version, is the default command, so if you're not planning on doing anything else, you will walk to your pointed spot. "Pick up", or "Get" in the NES version, will pick up items into your inventory, whenever possible. "What is" acts as a finder of sorts, with which you can use your cursor to identify items in the current room for you to interact with. "Unlock" can be used to unlock doors or lockers with keys. "New kid" allows you to switch between the three playable characters. "Use" is a generic word for using any object in your inventory or in the room. "Turn on" and "turn off" can be used for light switches, faucets and such. And finally, "Fix" is not a word that can even be used by all characters, but you can fix broken things by using this verb.

All that is fine and well, but if you happen to be a Japanese-speakingly challenged person, the FAMICOM version is practically out of the question. This should be of some interest to you, as it is considerably different from the other versions in certain significant ways, although apart from a lack of scrolling in larger areas, which most other versions have (this inconvenience only shared by the APPLE version), there isn't much of difference in gameplay itself. The biggest differences concern culturally appropriate redesigns and some little humorous details that make the game so enjoyable in the first place, but if you're not very appreciative of the humour in the original, you won't be missing much of that here. Then again, if that were the case, why would you be playing it anyway? But if you want to dig into the Japanese version, you might as well go and take a look at this fine little article by Jeff at Listen To Me, featuring a picture of a list of commands and items translated from Japanese to English.

Of course, there are plenty of "cultural" differences in the western NES version, most of which have to do with Nintendo's quality control and obsessive need to not offend any group of people. We'll get to that later on in the Graphics section, because for the most part, it has nothing to do with gameplay apart from the overall enjoyability of the game. However, there are also some differences in the list of commands on the NES: the "Unlock" and "Fix" commands are completely removed, the "What Is" command is replaced by having the hotspots show whenever the cursor moves over them, and for additional convenience, you can cycle through the "Use", "Get" and "Open" commands with the Select button. While the Start button gives you the Save/Load menu in the NES version, the FAMICOM version just pauses the game, and it's the Select key instead, which gives you the current passcode.

On the keyboard-assisted versions, the controls are as good and comfortable as they can possibly be, if you can bother to learn a few more keyboard commands. Aside from the aforementioned way to get to the Save/Load menu, different versions utilise different keys for other things. To switch characters from the keyboard, you can find the assigned keys for them as thus: F1 to F5 on the C64 version; F1 to F3 on the 16-bits, and numbers 1-3 on the APPLE ][ version. You can bypass a cutscene by pressing F7 on the C64, ESC on the APPLE ][, or if you're playing on the 16-bits, the right mouse button will accomplish that. Every version apart from the NES version will pause from the Space Bar, and similarly + and - (plus and minus) will change the message line speed accordingly. SHIFT+F7 will prompt to restart the game on the C64, CTRL+R will do so on the APPLE ][, and the 16-bits have assigned it for F8. Singularly, the APPLE version allows you to toggle the sound with CTRL+S.


My experiences of Maniac Mansion had so far centered on the AMIGA and DOS versions, and to some much slighter extent, the C64 and NES versions, but I have to say, it took me by a bit of a surprise to notice, that the copy protection requiring you to input a small code of graphical symbols is not featured on the C64, NES and APPLE versions. While this gives a certain freedom for anyone to play the game as a successfully pirated copy, it somehow seems to take away from the integrity of Lucasfilm Games, who would later on use a similar copy protection system in pretty much every adventure game up to at least Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit The Road from 1993. But still, no copy protection codes was how they did it for the 8-bit versions of Maniac Mansion, so I'll just have to deal with it. For those of you less familiar with the 16-bit versions, the code needed to be input when you went up the first set of stairs and use the keypad to get through the Steel Security Door. If you got it wrong, the house and everything else within a five-mile radius would be destroyed in a massive nuclear meltdown.

There are a few scenarios, which give certain versions the upper hand over some others, but... as the NES and APPLE versions scroll only when you come to the edge of the current screen (and in the APPLE version, it's really in a flip-screen method), the kitchen is a much more hazardous place to visit at the beginning of the game. As you will likely know, Edna will be digging through the refridgerator for the first 5-10 minutes of the game, so if you happen to visit the kitchen while she's at it, and she notices you, you'll be locked into the dungeon, unless you manage to run away from her and out of the house. On the NES and APPLE versions, running away is not possible due to the non-scrolling flip-screen method they use, as Edna will only notice you when you are standing next to her. This sticky situation can be easily avoided by not entering the kitchen until a bit later on, but it does take away from the freedom of gameplay and any fairness of chance. The FAMICOM version handles quite differently, as your characters walk much faster than Edna, and you can also freely walk around the house even while the inhabitants are making their rounds, since you will never meet them while they're at it, unless you are practically required to. Although this makes the Famicom version considerably easier than the rest, it takes away from the balance of difficulty, and at least in my opinion, from the effect of slight horror that the original gameplay balance has. The best thing I can say about the two NINTENDO versions is, that they're rather quick to play, which I'm happy about considering my self-obligated manner of blogging, and the worst thing about the APPLE version is the exact opposite - it's really awfully slow to play. So slow, in fact, that it's actually more difficult to get the timed missions completed in time.


Apart from the differences in loading times, the primary control methods and the copy protection systems, I haven't really noticed much of notable differences between the C64 and the 16-bit versions. Just some minor alterations in the point'n'click system itself, but nothing that really takes away from the whole experience, and only one important alteration to the proceedings at the end of the 16-bit version of the game, requiring you to do everything with a single character from the point you enter through the double door to the Seckrit Lab. If you want to aim for comfort and quality of gameplay, you might as well choose the DOS version, because at least with that one, you can easily install on hard drive, so you won't have to hassle with switching disks all the time, and the latter DOS release even features 10 save slots. For a better option for the original C64 game, there's the EasyFlash version, which gives you two save slots instead of one, and the loading times are as non-existent as if you would be playing it from a hard drive.

Since Maniac Mansion, and as a rule, most point'n'click adventures are based on looking around, catching details, following dialogue and solving puzzles, the basic style of gameplay doesn't really alter too much from any version of the game. Only the differences in some of the finer details really make all the difference here. This is why the scores are as follows:

1. IBM-PC / COMMODORE AMIGA / ATARI ST / COMMODORE 64
2. NES
3. APPLE ][ / FAMICOM

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GRAPHICS


In case you already didn't know, there are two graphically different DOS versions: one that looks more like the C64 version, and an enhanced version that looks very much like the AMIGA/ST version. And yes, the AMIGA and ATARI ST versions look so precisely the same, that I have no intention of including screenshots from both machines into this comparison.

Now, I have to be honest - I haven't really bothered to play the game through on all eight versions, because getting through the game even with English text takes about 2-3 hours, depending on the loading times. Perhaps even more. While playing through the APPLE and NES versions, I made some mistakes that could have been easily avoided, but as it has been many years since I played it, I forgot about a few details, and so I couldn't get to the end in either version. In the case of the APPLE version, the savestates didn't work, as I think I already explained, and in the case of the NES version, I mistakenly only used one savestate slot throughout the game and managed to botch things up near the very end. *facepalm* So, I will only go through some of the graphically most important scenes in the game, just to show the differences you need to see without spoiling too much of how the game will end. Of course, we start with the first thing you see of the game, which is the character selection screen, in most cases.

Character selection. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1. Rightmost: Nintendo Famicom.
Bottom row, left to right: Commodore Amiga/Atari ST, NES, DOS v2.


It's clear from the start, which versions are of the first batch, and which of the latter. The original game logo was a relatively simplistic affair made in large yellow capital letters with a pink shadow behind it. The FAMICOM version by Jaleco still follows this tradition, although instead of a shadow behind the letters, it has a subtly glossy effect. I think the new almost-sprayed logo with looks much better, although on the NES version, it's just a horrible mess because of the unnecessary colouring. The APPLE version is also a bit of a mess due to the default video mode, so you're just going to have to bear with that one, because while the TV mode looks considerably better, it's also unclearer, and doesn't fit in with the other screenshots.

The FAMICOM and the first DOS version act as the in-betweeners here, as the FAMICOM version was made during the same time period as the original DOS version without much of input from the original development team, and you can still see the original blocky character design in the original DOS version. The FAMICOM version also shows all the playable characters in their full glory in the character selection screen, and like the later NES version, the characters are in a very different order than how they are in all the other versions, and they are almost unrecognizable from their  non-Nintendo counterparts.


Opening sequences from the normal versions, top to bottom:
Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1, Commodore Amiga/Atari ST, DOS v2.


"Twenty years ago today..." is likely just a reference to the Beatles, but in addition to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", it's also the phrase Maniac Mansion starts with. What happened twenty years ago in the game's timeline, was that the murderous slimy purple meteor crash landed near the Edison family mansion, and woke up the house. I haven't the slightest idea, whether or not the Edison family were dead before that, or just strangely coloured to begin with, but at least in the game, they are all fairly blue and zombie-like in their looks. But I'm getting ahead of myself again - the intro shows the near vicinity of the mansion in a short scrolling cutscene, with the meteor dropping from the sky, and the house waking up with lights turning on all over it, after which the credits are shown above or below the action screen. After the credits have passed, the game logo in its full glory scrolls from right to left on an otherwise blank screen, unless you're playing the APPLE version, which is the only version not to feature this bit.

Opening sequences from the Nintendo versions. Top row: NES. Bottom row: Famicom.


The two NINTENDO versions start quite a bit differently, although both versions feature the same meteor-dropping intro at a certain point, as well as the huge old-style title logo scroller. The Japanese FAMICOM version starts with an animation for the Jaleco copyright, and has a separate title screen (featuring a Japanese subtitle) before the character selection comes on. The non-Japanese NES version boots up to a separate title screen with some bloody mess above the game title, and the obligatory licensing info below it all. This is followed by the classic Lucasfilm Games logo - curiously, this is the only version to feature this, even though most of the previous Activision-published Lucasfilm Games' titles featured the logo. I guess they weren't happy with the old logo, and tried to come up with an enhanced version of it, but didn't get it done until Zak McKracken. Who knows. Anyway, of the two Nintendo versions, the newer non-Japanese version shows clearly more attention to detail and colouring, even though bits of it are still a bit garish compared to the original.

Starting point. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: NES, DOS v2, Amiga/ST, Famicom.


After another brief cutscene of our three playable characters going through their well rehearsed dialogue, the game finally starts. You find yourselves just outside the gates of the Edison family mansion, an area which in all versions is just this one screen's size. The screen in its regular form features a part of the fence, with a plaque on it with a cautionary word, and a large moon in the backdrop. The FAMICOM version differs here by featuring a mailbox for outgoing mail. The mailbox on the other side of the house is for incoming mail, although in all the other versions, it is used for both purposes. As for the usual decorations: the fence is clearly skewed and broken from the end in most versions, while the NES version of it merely looks unfinished; and the moon is very large and unrealistically close in the background in most versions (exaggeration always works in a horror setting), while both NINTENDO versions have it much further away in the sky. Also, the NES moon is decidedly blue compared to the nice light blue shading on the 16-bits, and its fading effect makes it look like the unfinished Deathstar. I'm not very comfortable with the overly impressive amount of stars in the sky there either, nor am I particularly impressed with the badly situated stars in the FAMICOM version. The less stars there are in the sky, the more ominous the large moon looks.

But before we move on to the front porch, let's take a quick look at the command panels. The NES version looks a bit lazily made, as it uses only uppercase letters instead of both upper- and lowercase letters, like all the other non-Japanese versions. Regarding colouring of the command panel, the APPLE version is the only one of the non-Japanese versions that has every bit of text in a single colour (white). There are also some slight differences in the order of the commands between the 8-bits and the 16-bits, to say nothing of the amount and order of the commands in the NES and FAMICOM versions.


Front porch. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS v2, NES, Famicom, Amiga/ST.


The front porch of the house is still fairly basic in appearance, and there shouldn't be anything too complicated to make it all look presentable enough in any version, right? Well, the bushes by the stairs look rather rectangular in the NINTENDO versions (more so in the NES version), and the doormat is almost unrecognizable as such on the NES, but I do like the porch railing poles at least. The doorbell is also very different on the NINTENDO versions, but that's not something I'm too concerned about, since I never really thought the doorbell was in a particularly logical place in the original version either. Of course, the textures and colours of the non-Nintendo versions are very much more realistic and in-tune with the house in the opening cutscene, and the 16-bits look as upgraded from the 8-bits as 16-bits should.

Stepping through the front door. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: Famicom, Amiga/ST, NES.


From this point on, the upgraded DOS version shall be dropped from the sets, because its closeness to the AMIGA/ST graphics has been established already, so it will only be included if absolutely necessary. The entryway, or the foyer, whatever you might want to call the first room you see as you enter the house, is a large space containing a staircase leading to the second floor in the middle of it all, as well as seven different doors, if you count the three doors up the stairs. Also, perhaps one of the most iconic, yet the most seemingly useless piece of furniture in the entire house is in this area - the grandfather clock. The importance of this seemingly useless item is, that it was reportedly the first thing that was animated for Maniac Mansion. Curiously enough, the clock isn't animated in the APPLE ][ and FAMICOM versions.

The other decorations aren't nearly as important, but there's a plant on both sides of the rather curvaceous staircase in all versions except for the FAMICOM one, and the staircases on the two NINTENDO versions are not nearly as curved as those in all the other versions. The FAMICOM version is also the least colourful and least detailed, in addition to having the entire downstairs area squeezed into a single screen.

You might have begun to see a pattern here. One of the main adventure gaming related innovations that Lucasfilm Games used for both Labyrinth and Maniac Mansion was, that there were screens big enough to scroll some way to the left and right. Sierra adventures, which were Lucasfilm adventure games' primary point of comparison, as well as a rival to some extent, didn't get to using scrolling "rooms" until much later on during the 90's. So, what Jaleco's team for the FAMICOM version did, was strip the game's graphical purpose to a bare minimum. 


In the kitchen. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: Famicom, Amiga/ST, NES.


Okay, let's focus on some more interesting details for a change. The kitchen has an almost identical basic structure in all versions - only the NES version has a bit of extended table area after the sink-and-window bit, before you reach the refridgerator. I'm a bit impressed, that both the Nintendo versions left the chainsaw and the blood splatter in the room, so I could almost give some bonus points for that. Almost. The most interesting detail here is Edna, if you happen to stumble upon her here; and in fact, this little detail concerns all of the Edison family. In the original C64 version and its closest equivalents, the Edison family are coloured like normal people. Astonishingly, the FAMICOM version copies the original in this sense. The 16-bit versions and the NES version (although you can't see that one here) have all of the Edison family coloured in an almost flourescent cyan/turqoise/blue colour. I'm more into the unnatural blue kind of colouring, when it comes to the Edison family, because it fits the game's horror-comedic style better.

In the library. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: NES, Amiga/ST, Famicom.


Damn it, I shall have to skip the living room and some other less comparison-wise important rooms, because there's too much graphical content in the game for me to do a comparison of each little bit. In any case, the library is very likely to be the first room in the game you shall see with lights out, although there are five other such rooms in the game. I'll get into the dark bits next, but the library itself is another point of interest in the game's graphical design, since it was modeled after the library at Skywalker Ranch, much like the exterior of the Edison family mansion is modeled more or less after the main building at Skywalker Ranch. The main gimmick here is the spiraling staircase, which has been taken off use for maintenance. On the FAMICOM version, the whole room has been reorganized, and the staircase is a straight-style one, at the other end of the room, but I have no idea if the message left on the Famicom stairs says the same thing. Also, Chuck the plant isn't featured in the Famicom version.

Random dark room with the flashlight turned on. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, NES.
Bottom row, left to right: Amiga/ST, DOS v1, Famicom.


Here we have one of the more interesting, if not necessarily the most obvious or even the most important differences in graphics. When in darkness, you can only see yourself and any other character that's either playable or non-playable, including the Man-Eating Plant. In the C64, NES and first DOS versions, you would be shown in greyscale, while the other versions show you in colour. However, when using a flashlight in the C64 and first DOS versions, the things shown in the flashlight's lighted area are shown in colour, while the NES version shows everything in greyscale, when the room is not fully lighted. As you can see, all the other versions show both the characters and the lighted areas in colour.

Up the first stairs. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: Famicom, Amiga/ST, NES.


Up the first set of stairs, the most obvious difference is the middle door leading to the hallway with the statue, which we will get into a bit later on. The door is really the essential bit here, since the look of it depends mostly on when the version in question was made. The original C64 version, as well as the APPLE ][ and FAMICOM versions only feature a regular door, but the first DOS version and anything made after that feature a Steel Security Door, which is a really complex looking piece of work with heavy rotating levers, a keypad and all sorts of metallic protruberances. The NES version has a more simplified version of the security door, but then it doesn't even use the security codes. Once again, the differences in colouring, wallpapers and certain smaller details make a surprising amount of difference in creating - or to be more precise - maintaining a proper mood.


Combined images of the music room. Top left: Commodore 64. Top right: DOS v1. Middle: Apple ][.
Bottom row, left to right: Amiga/ST, Famicom, NES.
If you go right from the top of the stairs, you will enter the music room, the centerpiece of which is a huge grand piano. There is also a Victrola (tm) and a stereo sound system with a cassette recorder, as well as a big screen television. Well, at least it was big for its time. Apart from the pillars on the 16-bit versions and the square objects that look like sound proof panels on the NES, there's not much of notable differences here - at least nothing you wouldn't have expected already.

Cutscenes from all the Edison family-occupied rooms. Middle left: NES. Middle right: Famicom.
Other versions, top to bottom: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1, Commodore Amiga/Atari ST.


If you have made it this far, you will have seen at least one of the cutscenes in the game. Cutscenes were a relatively new idea back then, as I can only recall Jordan Mechner's Karateka from 1984 having featured sort of similarly timed cutscenes prior to this. The basic function of a cutscene here is, of course, to progress the plotline without interaction, and the only thing you can really do during a cutscene is to skip it, or in the FAMICOM version's case, only make it go faster by tapping your controller's buttons wildly. The way cutscenes are shown in Maniac Mansion is basically the same way everything else happens in the game, but all the text from under the action screen has been taken off for the duration.

In the above set, you see three of the most common cutscene locations: part of Dr. Fred Edison's laboratory, Weird Ed's bedroom and nurse Edna's bedroom. Apart from the obvious differences in detailing and colouring, there's not much worth noting here - only that Ed's room has been reorganized a bit for the FAMICOM version. If you want to find some real differences here, you need to look past the graphics, as the NES version's dialogue has been heavily edited due to censorship. This information can be found elsewhere on the internet, such as Douglas Crockford's "Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for the NES" page.

The reclining nude statue on floor 2. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: NES, Amiga/ST, Famicom.


Now we start getting into the area, where the NINTENDO versions really start to show some results of censorship and other limitations. The statue of a nude woman in a reclining position, which is heavily based on Michelangelo's "Dawn", was cut from the NES version due to potential indecency, but the Japanese public doesn't appear to have been as prudent as that. Otherwise, the hallway looks more or less squeezed on both NINTENDO versions. On another note, I found it strange, that the first DOS version has a regular door on this side and a Steel Security Door on the other side - perhaps I have a slightly faulty version?

The arcade room. Top left: Commodore 64. Top right: DOS v2. Middle: Commodore Amiga/Atari ST.
Bottom row, left to right: Famicom, Apple ][, NES.


The arcade room can be accessed through the last door in the nude statue hallway. This room's NES version has also suffered from some censorship: the more blatantly violently titled games were taken out, and replaced with a game called Tuna Diver, which was originally supposed to be called Muff Diver. The FAMICOM version has four Japanese games with no discerning titles written on them, and the air hockey table has been replaced by a pinball table. One of my all-time favourite details in the game is the poster on the left wall, which is Star Wars in most of the 8-bit versions - only the NES version doesn't have a poster on the wall. In the 16-bit versions, the poster is of Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, and there's also a dart board on the other end of the room. Anyway, Meteor Mess is the only machine with any real relevance to the game's proceedings here. Too bad you're not allowed to play it yourself. I guess that would have been too Sierra'esque.

The Green Tentacle's room. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: NES, Amiga/ST, Famicom.


I'm sure this will come as no surprise, but the Green Tentacle is my favourite character in the game. GT's room has a pair of hugely oversized speakers, which the room was probably built around, and a green bed, a hatch, a yellow key hanging on the right wall, some posters, a record of Tentacle mating calls and the Mondo Stereo system. For some inexplicable reason, the two NINTENDO versions took out the "DISCO SUCKS!" poster, as if that would have offended some disco loving gamers. What if someone was offended of it being cut out? Anyway, the real oddity here is the colouring of the Green Tentacle on the NES version - it has a white pigment with greenish blue shading. It looks very unusual and certainly not green enough.

Dead cousin Ted's rooms. Top left: Commodore 64. Top right: Apple ][. Middle left: DOS v1. Middle right: NES.
Bottom left: Famicom. Bottom right: Commodore Amiga/Atari ST.


Dead cousin Ted's rooms were some of the most censored areas in the NES version. In all the other versions, the first room features a swimsuit calendar on the wall (removed from the NES version), a display shelf of internal organs (also removed), a sarcophagus with a small TV inside it, a Hunk-O-Matic and a large poster of a female mummy (also removed). Curiously, in the FAMICOM version, the mummy poster has a differently posing female mummy, probably due to size restrictions. Ted's bathroom has one more object of censorship on the NES: the text behind mummified cousin Ted in the bathtub. Still more curiously, the window has been removed from the FAMICOM version. A really obscure redesign choice, if you ask me.

The room with the Man-Eating Plant. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: Famicom, Amiga/ST, NES.


The room at the end of the fourth floor contains four useful things: a typewriter on a table, a potted Man-Eating Plant, a hatch above it and a door hidden by a blotch of paint on the wall. On decorative side of things, there's the garish retro wallpaper, an empty fireplace, a large family portrait, a less interactive plant and a carpet. In the first three versions, the family portrait looks almost exactly the same, with Fred and Weird Ed grinning like maniacs and nurse Edna looking like she doesn't know how to pose for a photograph. The two NINTENDO versions follow this pattern, but the faces don't have as much of expressiveness, particularly the FAMICOM one. On the 16-bits, Fred looks particularly evil, Weird Ed looks like he's supposed to, nurse Edna looks in the wrong direction as if she has missed her cue, and the Green Tentacle has performed a successful photobombing. The FAMICOM version doesn't have any particular kind of a wallpaper, nor does it have a carpet, and the dark brown look of the room is a bit too dark. Surprisingly, the fireplace looks almost good on the NES, but the most organic look to it can be found on the 16-bits. As for the Man-Eating Plant, well... it was clearly based on Audrey in the Little Shop of Horrors, but this one has a red head. In its fully grown form, the plant has a Pac-Man-like look to it, with sawblade fangs. On the NES, it looks more like a blue nutcracker on a stick. But at least nothing was taken away this time.

Combined images of the dungeon. Top left: Commodore 64. Top right: Apple ][. Middle left: Amiga/ST. Middle right: NES.
Bottom left: DOS v1. Bottom right: Famicom.


For the final room I'm going to show you of the house, I have chosen the dungeon, because of its importance near the end of the game, and because it's very likely a place most of us visitors of the Maniac Mansion have been to at one point or another. The dungeon has two secure doors: the right one, which leads to the power management room, and the left one, which leads to the doctor's laboratory. Graphically, though, the doors offer little of interest. There's the hand-written direction to "Seckrit lab" on the left wall (strangely enough, corrected for the FAMICOM version), the chained skeleton hanging on the floor (removed from the NES version), and the low-budget chandelier, of which there are two on the NES version, both of which are almost unnoticable. Also, the number and placing of barred windows is a bit odd in the NES version.

Bad ending. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, NES, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: Amiga/ST, Famicom, Apple ][.


I shall let you attempt to see the endings and other key locations for yourselves, because this comparison is getting too long already due to the stupid and unnecessary little differences made for the NINTENDO versions. At least you should have enough of visual material to see, which versions look the most suitable for the game's overall atmosphere, and which don't.

Although Maniac Mansion hs a few select methods of getting your characters killed (which will result in a tombstone be placed beside the house), there is only one type of a bad ending, which can be achieved through many different means. What happens is, there's a nuclear reactor meltdown and a mushroom cloud emerges from below the house, destroying the house and everything in five-mile radius, as the text above the picture says. The colour of the mushroom cloud differs more or less between versions, but the FAMICOM version is the only one to feature a separate Game Over screen after that. As you see here, the Famicom Game Over screen shows the three chosen playable characters as angels, flying upwards in the clouds. 

The Save/Load and passcode screens, where applicable. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Apple ][, DOS v1.
Bottom row, left to right: Amiga/ST, Famicom, NES, DOS v2.


Because the game content is so tightly scripted, there isn't much room for alterations. However, there are some small occasions, when the content can be changed to make certain versions stick out more clearly from the rest, and in this case, it's the Save/Load screen that has gone through the biggest changes. In the original and its most direct ports, the picture in the Save/Load menu screen shows Dave running away from the Green Tentacle chasing after him. The newer versions feature the Green Tentacle's band GT & the Suction Cups in full rock star mode. Only the NES version shows the game title on the screen, as if you had forgotten about it while playing, and the "Continue playing" button has another altered text, now saying "Back to the mansion." Naturally, since the FAMICOM version uses passcodes, the whole screen is nothing but white Hiragana and alphabet mixed together on top of a black background.

All in all, the main differences are mostly in the colouring and details. The general quality of graphics is blockier on the first three versions, and clearly prettier on the 16-bits; the enhanced DOS version only has less colours in use than the other 16-bits, but it's such a small inconvenience, that I'm not going to take any points off of that. The two Nintendo versions fall between these two groups, having not only graphics on a higher resolution, but also more awkward colouring and clearly different design on the characters (more normal-sized heads instead of slightly larger ones in proportion to the rest of their bodies) and less details. Due to the lack of scrolling, awkward colour choices and lack of detail, I have to give the two Nintendo versions a shared last place. The APPLE ][ version looks better when viewed in TV mode, so in that sense, it can look similarly good to the C64 and first DOS versions, but the lack of scrolling and slow animations is really off-putting. Therefore, we have a clear order again:

1. COMMODORE AMIGA / ATARI ST / IBM-PC v.2
2. COMMODORE 64 / IBM-PC v.1
3. APPLE ][
4. NES / FAMICOM

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SOUNDS


All the Lucasfilm adventure games have always had an interesting approach to a game soundtrack. In the early years, you would only get music whenever absolutely necessary, just to add to the atmosphere, while the latter day adventures would add much more music, but keep it more subtle not to interfere with your thought processes. In my opinion, they really perfected the artform in Zak McKracken, and kept at it nicely for a few years, but Maniac Mansion was still a bit of a work-in-progress in this sense, and only featured music in the cutscenes. At least, most versions have it so.


The C64, APPLE and DOS versions only feature two songs, from what I know. The title theme tune is a sort of a heavy bluesy horror-like tune with weird noises and a beat similar to the underground theme in Super Mario Bros.' Super Nintendo version, and it is also featured in the demo tape made by the Green Tentacle. The only other tune is a rocking piano tune, that is played by any playable character with musical tendencies. The APPLE and DOS versions differ from the C64 version only by using a basic beeper as the sound output, which is pretty horrendous compared to the SID chip.

Of course, the game wouldn't be much fun playing, if there were no sounds in the background at all. Happily, you get cricket chirping noises, ticking of the grandfather clock, the occasional door slam and the doorbell, the less occasional meltdown alarm, as well as various other beeps, shuffling noises and whatnot, whenever appropriate. You know how it is, though - beeper vs. the SID chip.


How about the AMIGA and ATARI ST versions, then? It's quite simple, really: AMIGA uses sampled sounds throughout the game, whether it's music or sound effects, and it all sounds slightly muffled, while the ATARI version sounds a bit crispier, but the music is closer to what you would hear on Amstrad or the 128k Spectrum. I do like most of the sound effects more on the ST, but the music feels the most at home on the AMIGA version, and I can't claim the sound effects to being bad as such, just a bit softer than on the ST.

Both Nintendo versions feature a different soundtrack. The NES version has a different theme tune for not only every playable character, but every inhabitant of the house as well. There's classical-style music, funky music, rock'n'roll, even something bordering on heavy metal. For those of you who rather enjoy a constant soundtrack playing in the background, this might be a good option for you. I'm not part of that group, because the relative lack of music and the rarely played sound effects keep you on your toes, and make the whole experience more atmospheric. Happily, you can turn off the music by turning off the CD player each playable character is carrying, but you still get to hear the music for the non-playable characters. Better than nothing, I guess. The FAMICOM version is more my thing, because while there's plenty enough of music in it (although not nearly as much as on the NES), most of it is not nearly as intrusive as the tunes in the NES version. I'm sorry to say it, and my opinion may not be the most popular one among general gaming public, but while both NINTENDO soundtracks are very good for what they are, they'd be better used in some other game, or just listened to separately from the game.


As for the sound effects, the FAMICOM version has the more impressive set, although I'm not entirely comfortable with the loud walking noise that takes up almost the entire soundscape, nor with the loud click sound everytime you click on things. The NES version is more faithful to the original in this regard, but the sound effects feel more hastily programmed and are of clearly lesser quality. Still, better than beeper.

1. COMMODORE AMIGA
2. ATARI ST
3. COMMODORE 64
4. FAMICOM
5. NES
6. IBM-PC / APPLE

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VIDEO LINKS


For a change, we have a nice little video comparison to go with all these text and still pictures. Once again, the video is provided by Gaming History Source, and it is a rather large one, clocking at 45 and a half minutes. However, the enhanced DOS version is missing, as is the FAMICOM version, so you will just have to click on those other links. Instead of those, the video includes footage of two remakes I shall talk about briefly after the Overall scores.

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OVERALL


Took us long enough to get here, but it's time to add up the scores again, and see how predictable the results are. To be honest, the gameplay value of a graphic adventure game depends surprisingly much on the ease and speed of gameplay, which is why the APPLE version is so obviously going to score low, were it not for the bad sounds as well. The two NINTENDO versions are quick enough to play, but these sorts of games are so much less comfortable played with a control pad than with a mouse, or even a joystick, and having taken certain elements away from the final product is an absolute disgrace. A ridiculous passcode system even more so. But are the overall mathematical results any more reliable than your own perception?

1. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 3, Graphics 4, Sounds 6 = TOTAL 13
2. ATARI ST: Playability 3, Graphics 4, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 12
3. COMMODORE 64: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 10
4. IBM-PC v2: Playability 3, Graphics 4, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 8
5. IBM-PC v1: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 7
6. NINTENDO NES: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
6. NINTENDO FAMICOM: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 5
7. APPLE ][: Playability 1, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 4


Not necessarily. While I enjoy the graphics and sounds immensely on the AMIGA and ST versions, the enhanced DOS version is the one I usually come back to when I do, because of the quickness of play and great graphics. Still, I have to recommend you to find your own comfort zone with Maniac Mansion, because whatever your preferences regarding controllers, sounds and graphics, it's an experience you should have because of its historical importance. The original C64 version is a good place to start, particularly the newest EasyFlash version, which has two save slots, super fast loading and mouse support.

As I'm sure we all know, Maniac Mansion is not a perfect adventure game by any standard. At the time of release, it was groundbreaking, but as Ron Gilbert has said about it himself, it was a huge mess and practically impossible to make it completely bug-free in the manner they developed the game. There are many actions in the game left uncleaned, which can render your game incomplete-able, but at the time, there was no established way of bug-testing, nor did they even have a proper plan for the game from the beginning - they just winged it and connected the ever-increasing dots after the SCUMM was ready for use. For all the unexpected trouble Maniac Mansion caused both its horde of fans and its creators, it was the first game of its kind, and holds up surprisingly well, not counting a few outdated items and ideas.

Screenshots of Meteor Mess 3D, an upcoming remake of Maniac Mansion.
If you wish to have a more modernized experience of Maniac Mansion, there is a fan-made remake called Maniac Mansion Deluxe, which is fairly faithful to the original game, and has enhanced graphics and sounds, but has a diminished set of commands. The group responsible for this remake, LucasFan Games, also made a fan-fiction-type sequel to Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, also worth checking out. In addition to MMD, there are two other Maniac Mansion remakes that have been in the works for years, but it looks like at least one of them, Meteor Mess 3D might be up for a release within the next few months. But personally, I'm waiting for Night of the Meteor by Edison Interactive with a lot more excitement, because it takes the graphical style from Day of the Tentacle, and seems to turn the silliness level up to 11 and the soundtrack style finally to where it's supposed to be. Of course, I might be wrong, but take a look at this trailer to see what I mean.

Screenshots of Night of the Meteor, another fantastic upcoming remake of Maniac Mansion.

That's it for today, I hope that was worth the wait! I'll be a bit too busy this month with other things, so I'm going to have to do something of smaller scale to get at least something else out this month. Until then, enjoy your Halloween aftermath!

6 comments:

  1. Maniac Mansion, nice. At least Zak McCracken didn't have as many versions (C64, DOS [original and enhanced], Amiga, Atari ST, and FM Towns).

    Here's something very interesting: a game that originated from the Thompson series of computers, but is best known as an Amstrad game.

    It is called "The 5th Axis", or its original French title "Le 5eme Axe". It's a pretty unique game, featuring elements of both a beat-'em-up and a RPG, despite being released in 1985. It was also ported to the C64 in 1986. Here's a video of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnzZvk2bOow (Skip eight minutes to avoid a wall of French text.)

    Fortunately, the Amstrad version also had an English version, and the C64 version is English only.

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    Replies
    1. Interesting that it originated on Thomson! 5th Axis is not a game I have ever really bothered to check out, but I might take a look at it later this season. Although I can't promise to write about it, if it has versions of it I can't play due to language barriers. Maniac Mansion was barely possible to finish thanks to Jeff's article at Listen To Me that featured the translations. But hey, thanks for the suggestion, let's see what happens.

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    2. It's one of those games that do not require knowledge of the language to play.

      The creators of the game later released Sapiens in 86/87: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwrCJs982TM (ST version shown).

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    3. And the creators are still active today, developing software for musicians: http://www.myriad-online.com/en/site/team.htm

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  2. Very well! Thanks for the information.

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