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!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Year: 1988
Developer: Williams
Publisher: Williams
Platform: Arcade; later ported to Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, NES and ZX Spectrum
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

Ultra-violence is nothing new to entertainment, from modern cinema back to the gladiatorial fights of Rome it's clear that humans have a deep desire to witness bloodshed that goes well beyond our actual propensity for causing it (for most of us, anyway).  Just as old is fretting over the societal impact such violence supposedly causes.  In the 1950's there was a Congressional inquiry into whether comic books caused delinquency and Homer's Odyssey, composed sometime around 1200 BC, is best summarized as a tale of monsters, cannibalism and violent death that ends with the hero savagely murdering the hundred or so men who tried to sleep with his wife during his 10 year absence.  In one of the earliest recorded acts of political censorship the infamously sadistic Caligula attempted to ban it on account of its depravity.  NARC, a product of Williams' arcade division, was one of the first to confront this topic in video games and drew plenty of controversy at the time.  

It's no Breaking Bad, but back in 1989 this was a pretty sweet drug lab.  Look at the size of those beakers!

In many ways the game is a mashup of two distinctively 80's conventions: action films and Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign.   This heady concoction was then turned all the way up to 11, as evidenced by the license plate on the fake Porsche murder-machine that reads "SAY NO OR DIE".  That threat is backed up as you mow down waves of junkies and dealers to unravel a powerful cartel.  In the gritty dystopia which you protect and serve the streets are under constant threat by the drug network known as K.R.A.K. and NARC units patrol with Judge Dredd-like authority over crime and punishment. You and a color coordinated partner are given dual SMG's and a rocket launcher along with the aforementioned Mad Max mobile to clean up those streets in the most violent way possible.  You can also bust enemies when you get next to them which rewards you with more points, but it's certainly more entertaining to blow them to pieces with a rocket.  Enemies drop cash and drugs which adds on to your score at the end of each level, but the real reward is knowing your murderous rampage has made the city safe from the dangers of drugs.  Actually, your real reward is finally confronting the kingpin Mr. Big who [25 year old spoiler alert] is the massive floating head of a rejected Miami Vice villain.  

Are his initials ME, or does he actually have a framed portrait of a himself labeled "me" in case he forgets who he is?  
Underneath the extreme exterior is a fun side-scrolling run 'n gun game that feels like a mix of Contra and the classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade games from Konami.  The game was hard in the typical arcade way, meaning lots of cheap deaths and extremely difficult boss fights designed to suck down quarters.  The fight against Mr. Big is notoriously difficult, in part because you have to fight him while constantly resisting the urge to gauge your own eyes out.  NARC was also notable for the 32-bit processor that powered it, the first arcade game to do so, and the digitized graphics that would later be used in Mortal Kombat.  Both these factors have helped the game retain some visual appeal despite its old age.  It certainly hasn't lost any of its nightmare-inducing potential over time.  The knife-wielding PCP addict clowns are still just as terrifying as I remember, and perhaps those alone justify arming the police with an infinite supply of Porsche-mounted machine guns.  The driving segments are usually fun, but are occasionally hindered by weird design choices such as the obstacle laden streets where you first find it.  Even solo and on foot you pack enough firepower to gun down everyone who didn't just say no, which is apparently most of the city.  Seriously whatever city this takes place in makes Robocop's near-future Detroit look like friggin' Disneyland.  

This exists solely to terrorize the dreams of children

Unless the above image has traumatized you into a coma, you've probably already guessed why this game flew under the radar.  Despite its aggressively strong anti-drug policy, the game nevertheless attracted criticism because it still contained numerous references to drug use (even if all those references were "If you do drugs a militarized cop will blow you to smithereens").  When the game was ported to the NES by Rare in 1990, the instruction manual proudly proclaims it to be the first video game with a strong anti-drug message even though Nintendo insisted upon scrubbing all references to drugs from the game.  In the NES version, criminals no long drop backs of crack which implies that instead of taking down dealers, you're now just blowing away addicts wandering the streets in a drug-induced haze.  That's really more of a strong anti-rehab message, but either way the distinction was lost on angry parents.     

But it was the level of violence in the game that earned it the most criticism.  It wasn't the first game to give the player an automatic weapon and infinite ammo, but it was one of the first to include animated gore.  Blood sprayed from enemies when they were shot and a rocket blast would send bloodied limbs flying in all directions, not quite what we'd called realistic violence today but at the time it was more graphic then anything people had played before.  Williams seemingly knew well enough to try and skirt the controversy, as aside from the bullet holes and blood splatter across the logo the arcade flyers seem to intentionally downplay the amount of drugs and violence.  That strategy is probably what prevented the sort of all-out media backlash that greeted Mortal Kombat's commercial success, but it also ensured that NARC cabinets remained in the seedy shadows of the already incredibly sketchy arcade scene. 

Bullets, drugs and cash drop from almost every enemy but rocket ammo is very precious.   Explosions like this make it hard to not pull the trigger.

While attitudes regarding what level is violence is considered "normal" or acceptable in video games, it's unlikely NARC will ever rise from the ashes.  An attempted reboot of the franchise was launched by Midway in 2005 but it bombed spectacularly.  The game was billed as a direct reboot of the original, but the nonsensical plot was further hashed out in a vain attempt to not make the game seem balls out crazy.  Also, in a move that would have brought swift death from the original duo of Narcs the remake gave players the option of stealing the drugs they bust and using them to gain perks like increased fire accuracy.  Kind of lost the whole anti-drug message there, and it sort of calls into question the methods used to prevent the flow of apparently beneficial illegal narcotics.  Decisions such as this sparked an even more intense reaction then the original game.  Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich remarked on its release "These kinds of games teach kids to do the very things that in real life, we put people in jail for.", and he should know since he is currently serving 14 years in a federal prison for corruption charges

The reboot was probably destined to fail regardless of any controversy because the game is a true relic of the 1980's.  The shredding theme (which was awesomely covered by The Pixies), the radical biker getup for two cops that never use a motorcycle, and the hilariously incongruous stern anti-drug warnings delivered through extreme violence are all so uniquely 80's that anyone who didn't live through the decade would probably be completely bewildered by this game.  In that sense playing the game can be an exercise in cultural anthropology, trying to wrap your head around a simpler time when machine-gun toting cops who executed drug users on sight was considered preferable to the crack epidemic.  For that reason alone it's probably worth tracking down an original copy or the version ported to PC, Xbox and PS2 in the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 collection.  The more widely available NES version was hampered by the two-button controller scheme and noticeably inferior graphics, but still made for a fun two-player game.    But if you ever happen past a NARC cabinet it's definitely worth your time to plunk down a quarter or two.  Just make sure you keep your nose clean if you hope to survive the encounter, because as we all know Winners Don't Use Drugs. 

Anyone who played an arcade game between 1989-2000 remembers this title screen.  It may have kinda sorta worked too since teen use of weed and cocaine fell slightly during this period, though meth and ecstasy usage skyrocketed so make of that what you will.
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!