ZAK MCKRAKEN AND THE ALIEN MINDBENDERS / LucasArts / PC
Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders is a very good adventure game that suffers from focusing too much on adventure gamers and the conventions of adventure games of the time in which it was released.
It's a huge, sprawling game that puts you in the shoes of a perpetually smirking tabloid reporter named Zak, who is having strange dreams about aliens and crystals, and as it happens his latest tabloid assignments will lead him further into a mystery involving these very things. Eventually, you'll team up with a lady named Annie on Earth, and two of Annie's friends who made it to Mars somehow, and you'll be able to switch back and forth between them in Maniac Mansion style as they traipse around, give each other items and solve puzzles in tandem.
This was LucasArts' second adventure after Maniac Mansion, and it uses the same engine, which wasn't quite as polished or nice as later ones from them would be. You can't automatically identify usable items by scrolling the cursor over them, unless you use the What Is command, which shows stuff you can click on but doesn't let you interact with it until you go back to the menu and switch to another action verb. Mouse control isn't auto-enabled, requiring you to hit the non-intuitive button combination of SHIFT and M each time you play the game to enable. The cursor definitely feels slow as compared to later games and kinda drags around a little bit. It isn't bad, on the whole, but if you're accustomed to such as the Monkey Island games you'll notice a negative difference.
The game kind of resembles later hit Fate of Atlantis in structure - you bop around the globe (and Mars) in a series of limited areas, where you usually go straight from the city airport to whatever the relevant destination is. While this does keep things focused it leads to a couple of structural problems. One is that the goals of the game are often not totally clear, and you're just stumbling through these areas because they happen to be accessible. The other is that the designers, working originally with the limited memory of the Commodore 64, opted to try to pad the length of the game by adding a number of tedious mazes. With everything being open-ended, you may end up having to go through these multiple times to bring back an item from somewhere else needed for a puzzle, which gets old fast. This is also one of the few LucasArts games that can hang you later on, as you have a finite amount of money to travel around on Earth and a finite amount of oxygen to move the girls about on Mars. There's a couple of points to increase these, however, and generally the limits are so high it doesn't end up becoming a problem. Deaths are also extremely few and far between, and the game is gentler than Maniac Mansion in that you don't have active bad guys moving about trying to capture you.
The game is good about having multiple solutions to puzzles amongst the huge inventory - a multitude of items that would logically work can be used to, say, slide an item out from under a desk or rap on a window to wake a sleeping bus driver. This is nice as most adventure games of the time forced you to use one particular widget to do something, when you had an inventory or background full of other little widgets that would work just as well, but the designers couldn't be stuffed to work that into their design. Even with this nicety, the generally good humor, and decent puzzles, the game still comes across as too inaccessible to anyone but really hardcore adventure gamers. It's a little too tough and abstract, there's way too much backtracking through empty areas, the narrative isn't very tight and the characters are kind of flat and uninteresting.
If you're interested in playing this one look into laying hands on the Japanese FM Towns computer port of this one. It has an English mode as well as Japanese, and has much nicer graphics as well as a pretty cool Redbook audio soundtrack which really goes a long way in livening the game up.
* FM Towns Screens and Info