Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. Our focus this week is Day of the Tentacle Remastered, the 2016 remake of the classic 1993 LucasArts point-and-click adventure. WARNING: This article contains spoilers.
Adventure games have been a core part of my computer gaming experience since back when I used to waste my days off of school in my dad’s office, playing Infocom games like Zork off of 5¼” floppy disks on his Compaq PC. As graphics and game design in this genre grew more sophisticated, I had mixed experiences with Sierra franchises like Police Quest, Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry (!), but my enthusiasm was unequivocal for the Lucasfilm/LucasArts classics I began discovering in 1991, like Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Grim Fandango. So much so that the quote I chose to place under my senior yearbook picture was the timelessly eloquent dictum, “How appropriate, you fight like a cow.” Clearly, these games have meant a lot to me.
But all of that was in the last millennium. Now, after a long break in my video-gaming career, I have spent the past eight years or so catching up on video games in general, and point-and-click adventures in particular. I’ve explored excellent cult classics like the Blackwell Legacy series; Thimbleweed Park, Ron Gilbert’s triumphant 2017 return to the genre; a few really dreadful misfires like the execrable I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream; and lots of other games in between. But plenty of gaps remain: I still haven’t played classics like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Full Throttle, or even the post-2000 Monkey Island games.
Day of the Tentacle — originally released in 1993 as Maniac Mansion II: Day of the Tentacle — was also one of those missing links, of course, and it’s the one I’ve chosen to explore (in its Remastered edition) for this article. And frankly, despite my love for Lucasfilm/LucasArts games in general, I would describe my expectations as I prepared to get into this game as “low, but open to convincing”. First of all, I should admit that I did start on this game briefly, not too long after its 2016 release, but turned it off pretty quickly because I found its old-school take on “adventure-game logic” to be baffling and annoying after such a long time away from games of that era. So I had already developed a poor first impression of the game.
But in returning to the game for this article, I felt that my critical perspective (such as it is) had changed since my first pass at DotT. For example, I did finally get around to playing another long-neglected 1993 LucasArts classic, Sam and Max Hit the Road, back in February of this year— and after playing all the way through that game, I had much the same sense of disappointment in experiencing a widely-hailed classic which, while incredibly funny, didn’t seem to have aged well at all in terms of gameplay. But it was still a positive experience overall, in no small part because playing through Sam and Max from start to finish, and evaluating my lackluster experience against its seemingly unassailable Hall of Fame status, offered me a few new insights into what makes an adventure game “good” or “bad” in my mind.
The ways in which issues of tone, character, story, and of course gameplay and other game design issues played a role in how I felt about these games were starting to come into clearer focus, and that enriched my experience of other adventure games going forward, and even retroactively. Then, at the start of this summer, I also played a pair of hilarious homage/parody games by Zombie Cow/Size Five Studios, Ben There Dan That! (2008) and Time Gentlemen, Please! (2009), which cleverly deconstructed, lampshaded, and hono(u)red any number of point-and-click clichés, thereby heightening my awareness of those tropes (because now a specific wry joke came to mind when I encountered each one– “We’ll need a corkscrew to open this bottle, simply smashing it on the ground would never do”, etc.) while also reminding me of how fondly many gamers remember specific weird “moon logic” puzzles and their sense of triumph upon finally solving them. So I was curious to see how this newly expanded perspective would apply to my experience with Day of the Tentacle.
DotT‘s predecessor, the legendary Maniac Mansion (1987), was groundbreaking in a number of ways. As the first LucasArts game to use the SCUMM engine, it marked the transition from forcing players to guess what kinds of interactions would be accepted by a free-text user interface (Infocom, Sierra) to a limited set of verbs that players could choose from with on-screen point-and-clicks. The ability to switch between multiple playable characters was another major innovation. And with those cutting-edge developments a few years (and Lucasfilm games) in the past by the time DotT was released, the new game was again hailed as a substantial step forward for the genre. For example, a review in Computer Gaming World in November 1996 argued that it “completely blew away its ancestor […] with its smooth animated sequences, nifty plot and great voiceovers.” And it’s here that my 2019 opinion begins to diverge from the starry-eyed takes that were common closer to the game’s original release.
While the animated cutscenes are fine (and we’ll get to the question of plot later), my very first impression of this game was that the music and voice work were… well… deeply annoying. Together with the rather garish art style, the overall impression is of an Animaniacs cartoon with no comic timing and a lot more standing around and listening to the same short musical refrain repeated over and over. As for the voices, suffice it to say that my immediate reaction was to turn subtitles on so that I could read each line quickly and skip over the voice performances, which ranged from “serviceable but forgettable” (Bernard) to “please kill me now” (Hoagie). But when it comes down to it, my primary interest here is in story and gameplay, so let’s focus on those instead.
The game’s basic premise is established quickly enough: Purple Tentacle (a minor bad guy left over from Maniac Mansion) drinks some toxic waste flowing out of mad scientist Dr. Edison’s basement lab, and (of course) becomes an insane super-genius as a result. He immediately sets out to take over the world and has surprisingly fast success. Dr. Edison calls on random teenagers Bernard (the nerd), Hoagie (the roadie) and Laverne (the mentally unstable pre-med student) for help, sending them back in time in his time-traveling porta-potties (or “Chron-O-Johns”, as the game would have it) to stop Purple Tentacle from drinking the toxic waste. Naturally, his cut-rate technology fails at a critical moment, leaving the three teens stranded in three different time periods: Hoagie is stuck 200 years in the past (in the late 1780s), with the U.S. Constitutional Convention conveniently taking place at the mansion for some reason, while Bernard returns to the present and Laverne lands 200 years in the future. Hoagie and Laverne have to find some way to power up their Chron-O-John units by plugging them into a socket (uh-oh! power sockets didn’t exist in the 1780s!), while Bernard has to somehow acquire a 4000-carat diamond to power the whole time-travel system, replacing the fake diamond that broke during the original time-travel attempt. Let the puzzling commence!
And commence it does… quickly unraveling into a morass of parallel and occasionally interlocking puzzle tracks that feels overwhelming and unmanageable almost instantly. An initial sense of fun and excitement about the possibilities of multi-character, time-travel-based adventuring is replaced by a sense of chaos and confusion in the face of way too many kooky early-90s moon logic puzzles, compounded not only by the presence of multiple characters, each with their own “local” puzzles to solve, but also by the ability to directly send certain objects back and forth through time and/or to leave others in the environment to “naturally” change over the 200 years between time periods. To take just one example (WARNING: the hidden section below contains massive spoilers, and the rest of the article was prepared on the same equipment and may contain traces of spoilers):
Bernard needs to grab a set of keys from a hotel room door so that he can hand them to a crook trying to break into a car outside. In exchange, the crook will then hand him his now-unnecessary crowbar, which Bernard can use to pry a piece of gum off the floor inside the hotel and chew it up to free the dime stuck inside. Dropping that dime into the coin slot of a “Magic Fingers” device on a hotel bed will shake the catatonic hotel guest off of the bed, revealing a sweater that Bernard can then put in a dryer for 200 years (using a huge pile of quarters acquired in another obscure location), at which point Laverne is able to recover the severely shrunken sweater and use it to warm up a cold, wet hamster (also sent to the future by Bernard, by sticking it in an ice chest) so that it has the energy to run on a treadmill and generate power to activate her Chron-O-John again.
There are many different threads like this, involving various preposterous “storylines”— which are really just sequences of dominoes, rubber bands and mousetraps in the huge Rube Goldberg machine that is Day of the Tentacle— that (in no particular order) require you to push an old lady down the stairs, ruin a mentally ill man’s stamp collection, trick Betsy Ross into changing the design of the American flag, cause a Looney Tunes-inspired panic involving a fake skunk, change history so that a certain object made in the past is oriented in a slightly but crucially different way in the present, win a dog-show-like beauty contest between humans in the Tentacle-dominated future, steal George Washington’s false teeth, and on and on and on. Now, obviously I understand that this is a point-and-click adventure game— one of my favorite genres!— and that a certain amount of this is par for the course. So why does Day of the Tentacle feel so much more frustrating than other games in the genre?
As I grumbled my way through the game, I identified four key ways in which DotT comes up short against my own (admittedly “modern” and highly subjective) criteria for a good point-and-clicker:
Unnecessarily “extreme” adventure-game logic. Some of my more recent favorites in the genre, like the Blackwell series, Lamplight City, and Unforeseen Incidents, seem to operate according to a more-or-less real-world sort of logic: You talk to people, learn things and act on them, and manipulate ordinary objects in generally ordinary ways. Even older Lucasfilm/LucasArts classics like Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, with their more fantastical settings, seem to have a relatively down-to-earth logic to them in most cases. But in DotT, as in Sam and Max Hit the Road, there’s a sense that anything can combine with anything, while certain other combinations are illogically ruled out (“simply smashing it on the ground would never do”), which makes puzzles feel random and unconstrained. It doesn’t help that the solutions are mostly rather poorly signaled, making the eventual solution feel less like a reward for the player’s logical brilliance and more like a grim nod to their persistence through a lengthy process of trial and error.
Everything is happening at once. OK, this is an exaggeration, since some puzzles logically depend on others and are not revealed until others are solved. But I still had a strong sense throughout much of the game that there were too many options, too many currently-active puzzles, too many inventory items to keep track of at once. Combined with the unpredictable logic and poorly-signaled puzzles mentioned above, this left me really feeling like I was looking for a needle in a haystack as I hunted for solutions.
There’s no sense of a developing story. Related to the previous point. After the initial setup, what passes for plot in this game is really little more than: Get everybody’s time machines working, then quickly zip through a highly-constrained final 10-minute sequence to defeat Purple Tentacle once and for all. Sure, there are logical dependencies between puzzles that add a little bit of structure to it all, but those are just the structures of the individual puzzles, not plot structure per se. Compare this to games like Blackwell Legacy, Grim Fandango, Thimbleweed Park, or even Gemini Rue (which I saw as an admirably ambitious failure), which break their structure into chapters or other “vignettes” that make you feel like the characters are actually achieving important things and/or experiencing events unfolding around them. DotT‘s “news flashes” and brief cutscenes seem intended to provide a semblance of story, but simply don’t measure up.
Unattractive environment, unfriendly interface. In my opinion, the music and voices are mostly just annoying (especially Hoagie’s), and the art style is generically cartoony without much real character. The characters walk slowly and there’s no option to double-click for “fast travel” to the next room, etc., a feature that I have apparently come to rely on in this genre when traipsing back and forth to try different solutions. Even the dialogue-skip option is a bit broken: I turn on subtitles in these sorts of games so that I can read the text quickly and skip over the slower spoken dialogue, but this game has an irritating habit of breaking one voice line (i.e. one audio file, i.e. one unit of “dialogue skip”) into multiple lines of on-screen text, so that skipping a line of dialogue will frequently skip past words that have not even appeared on screen yet. I do have to give the game a thumbs up for not actually forcing you to walk to each character’s Chron-O-John location and drop items into it in order to hand them off to other characters (since that’s nominally the way that this kind of transfer is happening in-world). Instead, you can simply grab an inventory item and drop it on the other character’s face in the inventory screen for an instant transfer. Other than that, though, the interface to this game seemed a bit dated considering that it’s a recent remaster— and that seems less forgivable than its arguably “dated” (but authentically old-school) look and sound.
Admittedly, my sense of DotT’s gameplay and tone (and my objections to it) were mostly set in stone within the first couple of hours of the game. And admittedly, once I started to finally get some of the huge number of threads under control— with one reference to a walkthrough (for what turned out to be an embarrassingly silly oversight on my part) and one unsolicited but extremely helpful hint from our own Shingami Apple Merchant (about how to get the talking horse to part with his dentures)— the game started to pick up some momentum and I started to feel some sense of motivation about actually finishing it up. Maybe by then I had even started to internalize whatever mutant logic this game might actually have going for it. But by then, the die was cast.
As appropriate for its time-travel theme, Day of the Tentacle Remastered feels like a strange anachronism that doesn’t quite fit into today’s gaming landscape. While it clearly played an important role in the history of the point-and-click genre, I didn’t find it particularly enjoyable to play in a modern context. And while many players may be able to find a way to enjoy it by adjusting their expectations accordingly, for me, simply cracking it open and playing it “at face value” would never do.