This is actually happening, right? After so many years of misfires and heartbreak, it seems unreal to actually be playing a new Sam & Max. It's been over 13 years since LucasArts turned one of the funniest underground comics of all time into one of the best loved games in the adventure genre. Some of us might remember Infinite Machine's attempt to apply the license to an action game, and subsequent collapse before so much as a screenshot was released. More of us probably remember when LucasArts stepped up to show everyone how it's done with their first point-and-click adventure in the better part of a decade. And who could forget when a temporary change in management saw that game gunned down in the last leg of its development, because it "was not the appropriate time to launch a graphic adventure on the PC?" There's just no winning for adventure fans these days.
Perhaps it was for the best, though. Telltale Games was born from the ashes of the cancelled LucasArts project. They've had to start from scratch, and they lost their project leader, Mike Stemmle, but now they have something to prove. Championing an episodic format with new games delivered monthly, Telltale wants to give long-starved fans their fix of Sam and Max's legally ambiguous crime-fighting antics without fear of having to wait another decade.
The episodic thing seems to be a really good fit for this franchise, too. Sam and Max's adventures were originally 25 page comic books, and their animated adventures were only 10 minutes each, so it seems to make sense to give them a two or three hour game to take on a case. This first episode, Culture Shock, finds the freelance police at the whim of their (possibly imaginary) dispatcher investigating a gang of former child stars wreaking havoc in the familiar New York slum that the duo call home. It's a case that will take them up and down the block and through the murky depths of the unconscious mind, as they dispense their trademark brand of mercenary justice. There's a complete story told during its short time, but the ending hints that there will be a broader story arc as well. The small size does make Culture Shock a bit of a tease -- at least it left me hungry for more -- but it still feels complete for what it is. The low asking price and short wait for future adventures justify the slim offering.
The transition to 3D can be a rough one, especially for a franchise known for its cartoony hand-drawn art. To that effect, Telltale's effort is a mixed bag. The backgrounds are nicely detailed with crisp textures and cluttered with junk to interact with and examine. Even better is the animation, with great detail and a strong sense of comedic timing. Unfortunately, some of the characters appear dull and untextured, and a little more work on the lighting, shading, and shadowing really could have gone a long way toward giving the visuals a much needed layer of polish. That said, Sam & Max has made the jump to 3D better than the likes of Monkey Island or poor Leisure Suit Larry.
With seemingly impossibly high expectations to meet, this first episode has managed to nail [Sam & Max's] unique brand of dialogue and deranged humor.
More importantly, though, I'm as happy as I am relieved to find that Culture Shock has it where it counts. With seemingly impossibly high expectations to meet, this first episode has managed to nail the unique brand of dialogue and deranged humor that are the heart of what makes Sam & Max work, on the pages of a comic book, in the Saturday morning cartoon, and in a point and click adventure. The "freelance police" premise that made for so many goofy one-off stories in the comics translates perfectly to the episodic format, too, and it feels like a self-contained story, while still setting up a broader arc (and leaving me all too hungry for more).
The voice cast is all new, and, like any replacement voice actor in your favorite cartoon, it's probably going to rub fans the wrong way (I know the actors in the cartoon series bothered me, too). Max's voice in particular has an annoying squeak to it, but I was surprised how quickly I got used to it. There's still no doubt that I prefer the original actors, but it didn't ultimately get in the way of my enjoyment of the lines the new guys deliver. While I didn't much care for the remixed theme song that played during the stylish red and black opening sequence (which came off more as a sideways version designed to sidestep copyrights), I loved the rest of the music. It's a jazzy score that's true to the 1993 game, and lends a slightly noirish vibe that was always present in the series. Between his work here and in Bone Jared Emerson-Johnson is proving himself to be an enormous talent, and I prefer his work here to the score of the LucasArts classic. One can only hope that Telltale releases the soundtrack.
The game design is up to snuff, as well. While it was certainly the writing that made Sam & Max Hit the Road a classic, having a solid grasp on the puzzle design is very much a necessity. Everything is still driven by a point and click interface, but, as in the Bone games, verb-based interaction is gone. You no longer have separate means of picking up, examining, using, or talking to things in the room, but just a universal "interaction" with the click of the mouse. I've never liked this sort of streamlining in newer adventure games, but the architects of this game make it work better here than in past efforts. There's some pretty clever puzzle design, and for once Telltale seems to have hit the right balance with puzzles that challenge the player's ability to think creatively, but never get frustrating. A good thing, too, since the built-in hint system from Bone is no longer there to help players along.
Telltale's task was an unenviable one. They've been faced with the challenge of not only living up to the nostalgic memories of a revered classic, but the lofty expectations of its cancelled successor. To that effect, they've really done a remarkable job of capturing the things that make these characters so much fun. The writing, style, and design are all pretty much dead-on and, and, while it might not be able to equal the greatness of its predecessor, it's at least worthy to bear the name.