|Source // Moby Games|
As far as attention-grabbing titles go, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders has to be up there with the best and is perhaps fitting for an otherworldly adventure starring a journalist fed up with his assignments.
I've not had the greatest of times with point and clicks adventures, perhaps because I didn't play these classics during my formative gaming years. Will my brain be able to think outside enough boxes to get past the devious puzzles the genre is notorious for?
I'm going to bet 'no', but let's find out.
Instead of the original Commodore 64 version, a rerelease of a later enhanced version for the FM Towns system (yeah, no idea what that is either. A Japanese PC, apparently) was made available on Good Old Games complete with scans of the manual, hint book and other physical feelies that came with it back in the late 1980s.
Knowing me, I stuck with Zak McKracken a lot longer than I might have done because of these welcoming enhanced graphics. It might still be pixel hunting, but at least we're looking at nice pixels. Graphics or not, though, the story is enough of a hook to get you on board and wanting to know more.
The game starts with a weird intro sequence, accompanied by awesome music, showing Zak's latest dream, one of Mars, aliens, and floating pairs of comedy glasses. Unfortunately, he has to wake up to the reality of an unsatisfying job and phone bills to pay, but he's determined to work out what it all means. Intercut with our exploration are cutscenes depicting aliens planning something, so we know there's something to work towards, but as to what, we must click around and find out.
Now I'm a man short on time, and while I want to struggle a little bit here and there, I don't want to struggle too much. I wandered around the first location, a small section of San Francisco that consists of your apartment and some shops, clicking on this and that and trying to use the right verbs on the right nouns.
There were the odd annoyances, like walking to a door then requiring you to mouse back to the menu, click 'open', mouse over the door and open it before walking through, but that's not exactly grounds to throw the game in the trash.
One of the first things I did in my room was to knock something under a cabinet, out of reach. "Oh, that'll be a puzzle then, I'll remember that". Turns out that was a credit card, and I needed to fish it out with a paper phone bill. Not like a stick or something, and not by moving the cabinet, no - by hooking it with a piece of paper.
"It's going to be one of those games", I thought. One where I want to see where the story goes but have to use a guide of some sort. The original hint book was scanned and included in the digital rerelease, and it is a marvelous thing to behold.
In order to not accidentally spoil multiple puzzles, each hint was hidden behind some text that could only be filtered out by a piece of red gel filter, the kind you get in 3D glasses. This, obviously, wasn't included in the digital rerelease. Luckily for me, I had a pair of glasses within reach, and they sort of work, sure, but I can't be playing the whole game like that.
Over to a walkthrough I went, following it as best I could.
Further Fun Times... and Further Frustrations
Zak McKracken contains puzzles that make some sort of sense, but a solution doesn't immediately present itself in many cases. Maybe it's just me, but I wouldn't have thought about ripping a piece of wallpaper from the wall and using a crayon on it to make a map. Do I even need a map? Surely I know the way around my neighborhood by now.
One puzzle had me pick up a knife from the kitchen that I didn't notice at first, take it to some loose floorboards that were hidden under a rug I didn't know you could lift, bend the knife on the floorboards because it's not strong enough to pry them open, then sell the knife in the pawn shop as a work of art - assuming you grabbed the credit card from underneath the cabinet using the phone bill.
If Zak McKracken was my only game and I was desperate to complete it, having plenty of time to do so then yes, I may well have cobbled together some parts of those puzzles over my playthroughs, or else looked at enough of the hint book to help me out, but using just my intuition and point and click puzzle smarts? I'd have no chance.
I had so much of no chance that even following a guide I cocked up a puzzle, simply for thinking the ESC key could pause the game while I read ahead in the guide. At that point in the game, the ESC key was used to essentially skip the section, and I'd have to buy a plane ticket back, complete the puzzle again - properly this time - before buying another plane ticket to get back to where I should have been had I not pressed ESC.
It was at that point where I watched it being played on YouTube, because for all the little niggles that caught me out - whether the fault of me or the game - I wanted to see where this weird story went.
Everywhere across the planet, and then on to Mars, it would seem, in an attempt to build a device to thwart the alien Caponians - the titular Alien Mindbenders - from using their own device to reduce the intelligence of humans.
That's not a bad plot. Wacky puzzles require wacky plots. The game wouldn't feel right if I was performing an elaborate chain of actions just to open a door or further the plot for the sake of it. It's perhaps not the best of plots or the most remembered and cherished by fans of the genre, or of Lucasfilm Games (despite the fan-made sequels), but for a grand adventure, it's not too bad.
There isn't yet the full range of wit and humour that tends to take place in titles like The Secret of Monkey Island, but Zak McKracken expands on the SCUMM engine used in Maniac Manson to show just what it is capable of.
If you like the genre and haven't checked it out, do so. If you don't like the genre and have been struck by the hums of the Caponian Mind Bending Machine like I have, then it's perhaps not the title for you, but there's only one way to find out, isn't there?
At least listen to the intro song.
The game is full of references and in-jokes to Maniac Mansion, Lucasfilm filmography like Indiana Jones as well as the significant others of the developers - the three female characters are all based on wives and girlfriends.
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, developed by Lucasfilm Games, first released in 1988.
Version played: FM Towns/PC rerelease, 1990/2015.
Version watched: Amiga, 1989 (World of Longplays)