Grim Fandango has a reputation.
‘Best Adventure Game of the Year’ (IGN). ‘Best of E3 1998’ (GameSpot). ‘PC Game of the Year.’ All over the net, it is hailed as the best adventure game of all time, as someone’s favourite game.
And I’m left scratching my head in bemusement. (Or possibly fleas. But let’s say bemusement.)
The script is, it must be said, rather good. Each chapter of the game is set in a different genre: the Mexican Day of the Dead; film noir; underwater weirdness…
The game itself is, not to mince words, lousy.
I’m playing the new ‘Remastered’ version, which has the singular advantage of being playable. The original game isn’t. It boasts perhaps the worst controls in any game: ‘tank controls’: replacing the patented Scumm point-and-click mouse control with camera-relative keyboard controls. In theory, it’s meant to be intuitive and immersive. In practice, Manny Calavera lurches all over the place as though he’s been doing himself rather well all afternoon on champagne, port, whiskey, brandy, bourbon, vodka, and neat gin, and is on the mother of all blinders. Trying to get him to focus on anything is a nightmare. Start moving him in any direction, and he veers blithely off in the other, deaf to the player’s strangled and increasingly unprintable cries. If he comes across anything interesting, his head starts shaking with an attack of the DTs, as though he’s trying to dislodge the galloping herd of pink elephants. The new version lacks these little delights. Someone has decided that the game would benefit from mouse controls. Huzzah! That is one point in its favour.
As I’ve remarked before, I am not a fan of hotspots. They remove immersion. The background—however pretty (and the graphics are pretty)—is only that, a background: visually impressive, but static and empty. One of the strengths of the Sierra games was their immersion: one could interact with everything on screen, and get a detailed and often hilarious text description, rather than skimming the cursor across the screen to identify the two or three things that the designer wanted you to interact with, or a generic ‘I can’t open that’. The Space Quest series went even further, allowing the player to smell and taste everything they saw. (Want to lick the floor? Want to inhale a pool of seething acid? Sure!)
The puzzles are frustrating and bloody-minded. Too many of them are fiddly technical puzzles, the sort of thing which make games like Zork III or Spellbreaker unplayable unless one’s a MENSA candidate. Much of the first couple of years are fine: logical, fairly intuitive, puzzles relying on common sense and imagination. Then it goes downhill. From the start of Year 3, everything is aimed at engineers called Dave. Most of the puzzles are solved by pulling levers and pressing buttons: the anchor puzzle on the ship; the crane puzzle on the island… This is meant to be fun? And then the penny drops. This game came out in 1998. This is the age of glossy but empty games like Myst and Riven, in which you wander around…pulling levers and pressing buttons.
For the past few days, I have been staring at a wall, turning a wheel in a vain attempt to make tumblers line up. I have consulted walkthroughs; I have scoured the net for videos. And still I stand there, turning this wheel, like the OCD-ridden bastard son of Ixion and Sisyphus.
If, as Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then I am insane. I am lip-wobblingly insane, bughouse, off my chump, gaga, and a candidate for the padded cell and the natty white vest with the sleeves up the back.
And I give up. Life is simply too short to waste on this sort of thing.
Frankly, if you’re after a humorous film noir adventure game, go and play Discworld Noir.
In the meantime, here is a list of twenty adventure games which are better than Grim Fandango:
- King’s Quest IV
- King’s Quest V
- Space Quest IV
- Space Quest V
- Quest for Glory I
- Quest for Glory IV
- The Dagger of Amon-Ra
- Conquests of Camelot
- Freddy Pharkas
- Gabriel Knight
- The Curse of Monkey Island
- Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
- Sam & Max (Telltale)
- The Last Express
- The Gene Machine
- Discworld I
- Discworld II
- Discworld Noir
- Broken Sword
- The Book of Unwritten Tales