It was a boring weekday night when I stumbled across what I thought was a relic from my youth: a Sam and Max video game, fully restored and buyable from the Playstation Network store. But I was wrong. Delightfully wrong. The game I had found was Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, a new, funny and immensely entertaining episodic adventure by Telltale Games starring everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic dog and bunny detectives.
For those unfamiliar, the original 1993 DOS-based game Sam & Max Hit the Road hit the shelves during the heyday of point-and-click adventure games. Games like the King’s Quest and Space Quest series were all the rage, Myst was blowing the minds of gamers nationwide, and there seemed to be nothing video game lovers liked more than advancing a game’s storyline through the clever, semi-logical and/or pun-based use of objects found in a 16-bit atmosphere.
See, back then games didn’t have much going for them graphics-wise. State-of-the-art processors had less power than an iPod, and game designers had to think of creative, gameplay- and storyline-based ways to provide an entertaining experience for gamers.
So you had games like Space Quest V requiring you to reference the manual for a hint as to how to solve a puzzle.
The genre was filled with misses, but Sam & Max Hit The Road was by all measures a hit. One of the first games to hire talented voice actors (the horrible acting in certain older games is hilariously amateur), S&M won over audiences with wickedly funny dark humor, detailed cartoon landscapes and addictive gameplay. It instantly became a cult classic.
Sadly, as graphics improved and games requiring less puzzle-solving skill became popular, the point-and-click adventure game faded in favor of first-person shooters and massive role-playing games. But Steve Purcell, creator of the Sam & Max comic books and the brain behind every video game version, has valiantly kept the genre alive, and his new five-part series Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse is a breath of fresh air for gamers burnt out on the clichés haunting the video game industry these days.
The series is now in its third installment, and each one so far is fresh and fun, utilizing actual comedy writing, a rare find in video games. The whole series feels like a throwback to the early ’90s adventure games — you point, you click, you hear snarky and clever lines from the characters, you solve ridiculous puzzles, and you beat the game. The end.
Episode one, “The Penal Zone,” finds our heroes in a Twilight Zone-style vision, using newfound psychic powers to fight off an invading space ape. The game continues in a pleasant style that’s firmly grounded in the conventions of the genre.
Things get interesting in the second episode, when Sam and Max find a magical film projector that allows them to dive into the action. The film shows how their ancestors, Sammus and Maximus, go to Egypt and raid the tomb of Sammun-Mak. There are five reels players can navigate in and out of, and to solve the puzzles, you have to watch the story unfold out of order. There’s a hilarious moment of self-reflexivity, as Sammus and Maximus must exchange a bestselling toy idea with Santa’s wise-cracking, entrepreneurial elves for a key item needed for the game. After the elves shoot down ideas for Monopoly, a Slinky and others, Sammus suggests a point-and-click adventure game. The smiles evaporate from the elves’ faces, the background music stops, and it becomes clear how profitable the elves think that option would be. You can’t help but laugh.
The rest of the game is the same way. It’s fiendishly clever, fresh and entertaining. I’d recommend buying a copy as soon as you can.