Population 81 (strike that) 80

In 1987 at the tender age of 10 I had owned a Commodore 64 for a few years, falling in love with Infocom, Sierra, Tellarium and other individual games in the adventure genre. It was in October of that year that like many others my mind became warped, disturbed and happily pushed on a path of no return with the release of Maniac Mansion. The SCUMM system developed Ron Gilbert, Garry Winnick, David Fox and the rest of the team at Lucasarts changed gaming as we know it so many ways. My love for adventure games and point and click grew from that day, getting my hands of everything from LucasArts as it came out, but I’d actually follow Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick as closely as I could as they moved onto other works. Humongous Games was for kids, but dang it if you couldn’t find enjoyment in Freddi Fish, Pajama Sam and Spry Fox you didn’t like fun. Especially fun, while less a Ron Gilbert game and more Dave Grossman, was Moop & Dreadly. The Cave was definitely something new, different and unexpected, but Ron’s concepts were still clear. His out there thinking for puzzles and his abstract writing. Yet still nothing he had done ever felt like it captured the spirit of his early work.

That all changed with Thimbleweed Park; and not just because it literally feels like a lost Lucasfilm game from say 1992 (the game takes place in 1987 but Pixel art was definitely not at this level yet) right after Lechuck’s Revenge but before Day of the Tentacle with Double Fine’s Tim Schafer. Having the team that developed Maniac Mansion come back together to devise a truly new, but old classic point and click adventure born from the new fundraising and therefore self publishing platform of Kickstarter has allowed for something that was probably just like Broken Age was once envisioned into something bigger, prettier, more vast and more impressive then ever imagined when originally conceived. In fact as I played through the game I could not believe how epic it became. While only taking place in a small town, the scope of the story and the way it is told will blow you away and catch you off guard in surprising and wonderful ways.

Thimbleweed Park is beautiful. Every inch of it despite being pixels is dazzling. The characters truly become alive with powerful animation, true detail and grit. Helping this is of course the scripting of Gilbert and David B. Fox. Making these characters truly real is the amazing cast though. Thimbleweed Park is through and through a true puzzle game in which hard mode, your brain will get twisted and twizzled to the point of maybe being fried, but at the same time, you are never truly stuck. The solution is probably staring you in the face. You must remember this a game of five distinct characters and you play them all and can switch between one. Like Maniac Mansion you rely on each other to solve certain puzzles. It’s a fun and exciting thing that can really only be experienced in a video game. Helping yourself out by helping yourself but as two people? In the real world or in most video games that involves another actual human, but in adventure games, you get to be both people. It’s amazing… and as I said while it’s a game through and through, the cast really brings it to life.

Acclaimed voice director Khris Brown put together some amazing folks for this. Nicole Oliver, an anime American adaptation legend, who most recently is known for her work My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and has worked on another Ron Gilbert game in Death Spank plays the tough as nails FBI agent. Ian Garret, the most popular voice of Dragon Ball’s Goku and the voice of multiple characters on Ninjago and a long list of roles brings Ransome the Clown, the game’s most interesting, funniest, and wildest character to life invoking a bit of Norm MacDonald, Gilbert Gottfried, Bobcat Goldwaith and Sam Kinison to create a guy you can’t but love to hate and hate to love. Our wayfaring ghost without a chance, who whines and whimpers but is a joy to play as is given a bit of gravitas and sympathy by Alex Zahara, a longtime character and voice actor of stage, small screen, anime, games and most recently Amazon’s hit series Man in the Highcastle as Diehls. Rounding out our main cast are Javier Lacroix, a Spanish actor with a long list of commercials to his credit as deceptive to his actual age, as he sounds perfect as the young, seemingly mysterious other FBI agent and Elise Kates, a sound designer who has worked on Girls Makes Games The Hole Story as what could be considered our lead protagonist Delores, a game developer who returns home to Thimbleweed Park just as the mystery begins who is right in the middle of it all.

One of the cooler parts about Thimbleweed Park is once it’s said and done there are so many reasons to go back, especially on Steam as there are a few wonderful achievements. Yet, on top of that, unless you plan to sit through them all on a first play-through drastically causing pacing to the story to go to a crawl there tons of books to read as well as phone messages to listen to for the completest in you. They just add another layer to the actually to the game and it’s creation from day 1 to release and should truly not be skipped to feel fully immersed in the town and world created.

Thimbleweed Park is available for $19.99 on Steam, GOG, Xbox Live, and Mac App Store as of Launch, with other platforms coming in the near future.

(This review was built from an advance copy of Thimbleweed Park, which I finished days before launch and has kept my mouth shut about even though I want to talk and hear from everyone about it. Go play it folks, beat it, then talk talk talk talk talk and then talk some more)

 

I hope I can afford an Afterlife train ticket (Grim Fandango Remastered overview)

In 1998 I was in third year of college and working hard. I’m not even sure how I found time for video games, but I did and on top of that heap was Grim Fandango. Up to that point I was a Lucasarts adventure game for lifer starting back with Loom. When Grim Fandango came out I can’t really remember the marketing at all, but I knew the Day of the Dead plot and that it was from the mind of the same person who made Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle and that was enough for me to grab it up for whatever probably outdated PC I had at the time.

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Truthfully though I don’t think I ever beat it. I do remember being amazed by the music though. Peter McConnell at that point had cemented his abilities with various LucasArts games but he seemed to become super inspired through Fandango’s mexican jazz and noir influences. That music would stay with me for years past ever actually touching the game. What also got me was that voice acting. At that point the lead, Tony Plana was a pretty established character actor with multiple film and TV appearances and an impeccable voice for comedic timing while still coming across as serious. Equally Alan Blumenfield who at the time was also one of those character actors who fell under the “hey, it’s that guy” was just perfect as the super energetic bounce off Plana’s cool and collected. The rest of the cast was full of known acors as well, but what stood out for me then and NOW was Pamela Segall. That was the coup of the voice casting, she was a former child actor and known cartoon voice actress at the time so hearing that she would be part of Grim was exciting. Honestly though I don’t know if I ever got far enough in the game to actually hear her in 1998. Those tank controls were… well, like controlling a tank. A headache and a half. I don’t care what Tim Schafer thinks… they aren’t fun. They’re a new device never used in an adventure game adding to the difficulty, but they also took away from the fun and ability to enjoy his clever script, engaging puzzles and curious plot.

Thankfully, in 2015 that all got fixed with Grim Fandango Remastered. Over the years I’ve tried using the fan made systems to play Fandango on new windows and even tried the fan made P&c scheme, but it just never felt… right. Multiple crashes and other doohickey annoyances made it nigh impossible to finish… even more than the the old tank controls.

While Remastered allowed me to finally play Fandango from start to finish without having to rely on tank controls even then it wasn’t completely easy. The game is difficult and has certain puzzles that were more annoyances then puzzle solving (ex: the section getting past skeleton tigers, and in the same general area, following an arrow). So it wasn’t the game I loved. In retrospect now as I sit here thinking of the experience, the game is actually not fun… but the acting, the script, the characters really just propel you to go forward. Some of the logic puzzles are equally obtuse as any adventure game, but the way they play out are either funny or justified in a way that made me continue and nod in a “allright, that works”.

What really makes Remastered special isn’t being able to play in a new game style way though. It’s the extras and bonuses. The commentary tracks are amazing and cover so much ground. There are interviews with not just Tim or Peter, but also the designers, the programmers, the casting & voice director and everyone in between. The making of the game is truly explored in fun and interesting ways along with a large gallery of design art including unused cut scenes and a full storyboard. On top of that the amazing soundtrack has truly be remastered and in cases re-recorded using a symphony guided by McConnell. It’s a wonder to hear and behold and makes playing so worth it.

The only thing not included (as far I could tell) was the original puzzle document. Fortunately that wondrous piece is still on the internet. Don’t read it till you’ve beaten the game though.

GRIM FANDANGO Remastered is currently available on PC/Mac and Linux DRM-Free and Steam as well on PS4 and PS Vita for $14.99.