Try as you might, you can't keep good detectives down. Sam and Max have recovered very nicely from LucasArts's 2004 cancelation of the sequel to their 1993 hit PC debut, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and splashed back onto the computer-gaming scene. Their latest adventures, released by The Adventure Company and Telltale Games as Sam & Max: Season One ($29.95), capture all of the addictive pop culture–riffing irreverence of the anthropomorphic freelance police, even if they're perhaps best experienced in divided doses.
As Telltale was initially formed from the team that had been working on that LucasArts sequel, the fidelity that Season One displays is hardly surprising. As spearheaded by Dave Grossman, the game recreates the look and feel of Hit the Road for today, never sacrificing the two-dimensional charm of the original game or Purcell's comic books for the sake of boundary-breaking 3D. Very modest system requirements (an XP or Vista machine with a 1.5GHz Processor, 256MB of RAM, 1.5GB of hard drive space, 32MB accelerated 3D card, 16x CD-ROM drive, DirectX 9–compatible sound, and mouse, keyboard, and speakers are all you need) underscore this, and put the focus not on tricking out your system with the latest hardware but where it should be—Sam and Max themselves.
The six "episodes" constituting Season One follow gun-wielding crime dog Sam and "hyperkinetic rabbity thing" Max through a series of hair-raising (and hare-razing) cases that lead them from the wastelands of television and a flailing television studio to the White House and even the moon. Fueled as much by wisecracks as crack detective work, they have a quip for every challenge they face, every person they meet, and every other occasion you can think of. The game's creators have ensured that nothing goes uncommented upon—and that practically every comment is funny. They're helped by the excellent slate of voice artists, including David Nowlin as Sam and Andrew Chalkin and William Kasten as Max.
As each episode takes roughly 60-90 minutes to complete, Season One feels like a compilation DVD of an hour-long sitcom. Much like a television show, each episode's plot is completely self-contained, though several subsidiary characters—bodega owner Bosco, neighbor Sybil of the many occupations, and rat-out artist (and flat-out rat) Jimmy Two-Teeth—appear in all six, and there's an overarching theme of mind control that manifests itself in ways as diverse as self-help videos, hypnotic teddy bears, and VR goggles.
Much of the plotting of the individual stories is very creative—I was particularly fond of the good-natured political satire of episode four, "Abe Lincoln Must Die!", which pits Max against the Lincoln Memorial in a bid for the Presidency. The writing is quite diverse, and the puzzles are well-clued and not unduly frustrating. The fully point-and-click interface, which limits interactions to Sam's inventory and occasional conversation options, helps with this.
But if Season One displays a shiny sheen and a sense of flair to match its craft, there's still a sense of debilitating sameness that creeps into the episodes when played in quick succession. It's not just that certain characters wear out their welcomes too soon, though I was weary of the hyper-paranoid Bosco and color-loving meta-magician Hugh Bliss somewhere near the middle of episode two. But the whole series suffers from a moderate affliction of a disease I call "adventuritis," the symptoms of which include too many time-wasting trips between various locales and lugubriously paced conversations that drain a game of its energy, regardless of their humor content.
As entertaining as Season One is, it's downright exhausting by the time it's finished, and that's not something you want from any game. Of course, good comedy and good adventure games aren't meant to be swallowed whole. Devoting, say, a full week to each episode would allow you to better sample the breadth and depth of content these games provide. Max's witty and caustic commentary, references to everything from Scientology to Mario Bros. to Zork, and Jared Emerson-Johnson's superb jazz-noir soundtrack deserve to be savored.
Telltale and The Adventure Company have also included a box-stuffing series of extras, including a full-sized Steve Purcell poster, concept artwork, MP3 soundtrack sampler, and a lot more, helping fulfill the grand Infocom tradition of giving you more than you paid for. But you'll get full value for dollar only if you allow yourself time to enjoy your investment and to smell the beds of comic roses Grossman and company have planted all along the way.
This article copyright © 2007, Matthew Murray