Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Grim Fandango

Year: 1998
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Platform: PC
Metacritic score: 94
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

Death is the one certainty in life.  Ok, Benjamin Franklin thought taxes were another but he was born before tax fraud became enshrined in our system as loopholes.  But no amount of Swiss bank accounts can stave off death, sooner or later it comes for us all.  Death is a daily occurrence, as sure a bet as the sun rising in the East each day, and yet it never feels mundane or everyday even when it doesn't effect us personally.  When death recently came for LucasArts it was a blow to many gamers because the studio has created some classic gems during its heyday, perhaps one of the greatest of which being Grim Fandango.   

The game draws many themes from the Dia De Los Muertes festival in Mexico including both design and story elements.  Souls of the recently deceased must travel through the Land of the Dead (no relation to the Romero flick) to reach the Ninth Underworld.  Those who lived good and honorable lives ride the express train and make the journey in just a few minutes.  If your life was, shall we say, a bit more raucous you have to travel on foot which adds about 4 years onto the trek.  These souls are represented as calaca figures and many of them decide to take up permanent residence in limbo.  Some of them become Grim Reapers, agents who help ferry other souls to the Ninth Underworld, but many of them fill more mundane jobs.  You'd think someone already dead wouldn't have a lot to worry about, but it's possible to suffer a more final death if you fall victim to 'sprouting'.  This is caused by toxic darts that make flowers grow from your bones (literally pushing daisies) and it makes for a powerful incentive for the souls to stay in line.  Within this setting, Tim Schafer (who you may remember from a previous feature) has crafted a neo-noir crime thriller that's straight out of Hollywood's silver age.

The Land of the Dead is a surprisingly lively place
Manny Calavera is the stories hero and serves as a "travel agent", ferrying souls along their journey to the afterlife for the Department of Death.  Things aren't going well for poor Manny, he's long since given up hope of making the trip himself and seems to be stuck with the worst clients, always assigned to journey on foot and never possessing a ticket for the express train.  His boss Don Copal is sick of it and threatens to fire Manny if he doesn't get some better clients so he steals one he's sure will earn a ticket from fellow agent Domino.  The plan goes south in a hurry as the client, Mercedes, is mysteriously denied a ticket leading Manny to investigate further.  The conspiracy he uncovers connects all the way up to the highest reaches of the criminal underworld and will send him on an adventure lasting multiple years and spanning the edge of the world and of death itself.  To go any deeper into the plot would deprive you of the immense enjoyment of watching it play out.  This is a story that does more then just reference film noir classics like The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Chinatown, it succeeds in capturing the gritty style and tone those films helped establish.

Don't worry if you're not as suave with the dames as Bogart was, if you botch a conversation you can still try again until you get it right
This is a classic adventure game focusing on collecting items and using them to solve puzzles.  Much of the action is scripted and you are only controlling Manny to interact with items or engage in conversation with AI characters.  Grim Fandango is similar to other LucasArts titles of this era in that it is meant as more of an interactive story then a test of reflexes or flashy set pieces.  It also follows suit in safeguarding your character from anything that would result in a 'game over', so you don't have to worry about overlooking a critical item or making a fatal mistake when solving a puzzle.  The game does offer a unique mechanic in that there is no HUD.  Manny rummages through his pockets to access his inventory and instead of a quest tracker his head will automatically look toward nearby items or people of importance.  In some games this could easily be a hindrance but it most certainly compliments Grim Fandango's gameplay and showcases the visually arresting design.  The static backgrounds are built from detailed 3D models and heavily influenced by art deco style while the animated characters draw their inspiration from traditional Day of the Dead themes and decorations.  It's almost like Mad Men if Don Draper was a government-appointed Grim Reaper who stumbles upon a vast crime syndicate and resolves to take it down, which sounds like the most awesome thing ever when you think about it.  

Also like in Mad Men, the characters are constantly smoking.  The instruction manual helpfully points out in very tiny print that they are all dead already and thus not good role models.
The gaming landscape is constantly shifting over time, partly the result of consumer tastes and partly thanks to advancements in the necessary hardware and software.  Grim Fandango's 1998 release came at a pivotal time as the year marked the release of multiple titles that would come to define the current era of gaming.  Metal Gear Solid and Thief gave birth to the stealth action genre, Half-Life redefined first person shooters and Ocarina of Time highlighted just how far adventure games had evolved beyond their interactive story origins.  Each of these games could only be possible because the technology supporting them had advanced far enough to allow for the improved environments, AI and gameplay mechanics they were built on.  The result was that players could take a greater level of control that previously didn't exist, letting you direct your character to perform more complex actions directly instead of watching them play out in cut-scenes.      

As action oriented games began to fully dominate the market, graphic adventure games found themselves thrust into the Land of the Dead and heading towards the afterlife.  Grim Fandango can be thought of as the earliest death rattle of the genre as it sold poorly despite considerable critical praise and a sincere marketing push.  Despite LucasArts' insistence that Grim Fandango met sales expectations, the company decided to drastically scale back their focus on similar adventure titles.  The Sam & Max series was mothballed, a planned sequel to Full Throttle was scrapped, and Tim Schafer, the man responsible for designing most of LucasArts' stable of adventure games, left the company to found his own studio Double Fine.  Rival studio Sierra, the other big name in adventure games, looked at the poor sales of Grim Fandango and, seeing the writing on the wall, decided to exit the genre also.  In a cosmic twist of irony, Grim Fandango became the reaper for the entire graphic adventure genre.

Sure reaping seems like a sweet gig, but you'd be surprised how rarely you get to wear the robes and the benefits are terrible
The real tragedy of this outcome is that by any measure Grim Fandango is an incredible game.  Contemporary reviews absolutely loved the game and despite the incredible number of instant classics released in 1998 Grim Fandango still took home multiple Game of the Year awards from sources like IGN, GameSpot and the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences.  The passage of time has only increased the public's respect and admiration for the game as it graces multiple all-time best lists.  The unique artistic design and 3D engine are responsible for making it better looking then any decade-plus old game has the right to while its morbidly dark sense of humor and the earnest delivery of the voice talent ensures the story resonates just as soundly as it did the day it was released.  Like a fine wine, Grim Fandango is a vintage that has only improved with age.     

Is it possible for a Grim Reaper to return among the living?  There are a lot of people hoping that will happen and they'll accept it in just about any form.  That's because we haven't seen so much as a pinky bone from Manny since his original debut, LucasArts owns the rights and hasn't shown any interest in making a sequel.  Some might say that's a wise decision since Schafer was such an integral part of its tone and without his input it would be impossible to recapture that.  But gamers who missed out in 1998 haven't gotten an HD re-release or even a straight port to console.  You can't even download it on Steam, the only way to get your hands on a copy is by begging a friend or scoring one online where used copies still go for around $50.      

If you want an unopened copy you have to stand before the Gate Keeper while he stares deep into your soul and judges whether you are worthy of the honor.
But every death creates more of the elements that create life.  After buying George Lucas's mind, body and soul, Disney also took ownership of LucasArts and all the IP's it held.  As they shut out the lights at the studio, they announced their intention to license their existing properties to other studios.  Maybe that's just corporate double talk for "We're firing everyone and handing their stuff to Disney Interactive", but they have shown a willingness to form hands-off partnerships with other studios.  Kingdom Hearts is developed entirely by Square even though they share credits with the House of Mouse and the series has been successful for both parties.  Even though Tim Schafer and Double Fine are fiercely independent by nature, perhaps they'd be interested in revisiting the Land of the Dead.  The graphic adventure genre has even made somewhat of a comeback lately thanks to the efforts of Telltale Games, a studio of ex-LucasArts developers who left to reanimate the Sam & Max series.  How fitting is that?  Death in one studio leads to life in another.  Perhaps there's hope for Manny to pull a resurrection act of his own, I just hope he books a ticket on the express train when he makes his return.

    What is dead may never die, but rises, harder and stronger
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else has heard of it?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!


  1. This game is a huge masterpiece, I always loved the story, charaters, and graphics. Soundtrack is pretty retro too! :)