While many might not have played a Telltale Games’ release until they picked up The Walking Dead, the developer has been making episodic adventure games since 2005. One of the first they worked on was Sam & Max Save the World, a predecessor to LucasArts’ classic Sam & Max Hit the Road; but does it hold up to Telltale’s more recent titles?
Between 2002 and 2004, LucasArts was working on Sam & Max: Freelance Police, a sequel to their 1993 classic Sam & Max Hit the Road. However, they ceased production of the game, underwent major restructuring, and many of the developers who worked on the original game were made redundant. Some of the team went on to form Telltale Games and Sam & Max’s creator Steve Purcell took the franchise to this new company after the LucasArts’ license expired. Sam & Max Save the World was then announced in September 2005 with the project primarily being led by Purcell himself alongside Brendan Q Ferguson and Dave Grossman.
During one of many conversations about adventure games, I mentioned to Kevin from The Mental Attic that I hadn’t played a Sam & Max title for an extremely long time. Then Santa happened to pay me a visit over the Christmas holidays and the first of Telltale’s instalments in the series appeared in my Steam library as a gift! At first I was a little apprehensive because I wasn’t sure if a developer other than LucasArts could bring to life the lovable detectives I remembered from my childhood; but I needn’t have worried, and Kevin’s present ended up being one of the best I received over the festive period.
Sam & Max Save the World’s plot is hard to describe: partly because it’s quite loose, and partly because it’s just so crazy. It revolves around a fiendish plot to take over the world through an ‘optical workout’ video, some scary teddy bears, an Oculus-Rift-wannabe and large-scale mind control. Freelance police Sam and Max must confront the evil menace behind all this in order to save the world, whilst dealing with former child stars, a psychopathic internet and a robotic Abraham Lincoln – amongst other things! The game is composed of six episodes with each having their own contained story, while an overarching plot is continued throughout.
This first season doesn’t show a great deal of coherence between episodes and it can be hard to remember what each has contributed to the overall storyline. Those looking for a grandiose plot may therefore be disappointed, but it suits the episodic nature of the game perfectly. In a recent review of Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller I mentioned how the episodes interrupted the flow of the game somewhat; but for Sam & Max Save the World it makes it feel exactly like you’re watching Saturday morning cartoons again. You may not get one cohesive title, but you do end up with a series of great shorter ones that will each keep you occupied for several hours.
If you’ve ever played Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island or any of the other SCUMM games, then you’ll feel right at home with Telltale’s adventure. The interface is extremely simple; in fact all you have is a cursor and an inventory box, and to interact with an object you simply click on it. Unfortunately this means that some of the discovery you expect from point-and-clicks is removed as actions are completed automatically, but there are several benefits. Players are able to get stuck into the title straight away, there’s no real learning curve and there’s very little distraction from what’s happening onscreen.
Speaking of the inventory, this is located in the bottom left-corner of the screen in a cardboard box. Clicking on this will allow you to use items collected from Sam and Max’s neighbourhood in conjunction with characters they meet and situations they get themselves into. These objects are context-specific and can’t be used together to create new items, so there are none of the random inventory puzzles you’d usually expect from what was originally a LucasArts’ adventure.
Telltale’s goal throughout Sam & Max Save the World was for players to proceed through the story with minimum frustration and this translates into a lack of challenges that are… well, challenging. Most of them take a bit of thought and consideration but if you pay attention to the dialogue and fully explore all areas available, you won’t have much trouble working your way through the episodes. A few leaps of logic are required but solutions are generally quite sensible – providing you can put yourself in that Saturday-cartoon-frame-of-mind.
Saying that though, you shouldn’t let the lack of a challenge put you off playing because some of the puzzles are the funniest I’ve ever come across within an adventure game. Just when you think Sam and Max can’t make a situation any more ludicrous they somehow manage to take it even further. Two particular puzzles had me laughing out loud: one sees the guys take down a villain, not through violence but with ‘yo’ mama’ jokes (Phil would love it). The other is kind of hard to explain but involves a talking bug who impersonates Abraham Lincoln while trying to chat up the local hottie… I’m giggling to myself now just thinking about it.
You’re going to love the writing in this game if you like an ‘off the wall’ kind of humour. There are plenty of items to click on and conversations with characters to be had, and a simple right-click will speed through dialogue if you don’t want to listen to it but you’re likely to be too busy laughing. Unfortunately there are a few occasions where it can feel a bit repetitive as the same lines are heard a number of times in different episodes. If it was one big game this would probably be accepted by most players; but as Sam & Max Save the World is of an episodic format, it becomes more apparent.
An amazing 1950s-style jazz soundtrack by Jared Emerson-Johnson fits the title perfectly and is definitely worth a listen for its sheer imaginativeness. There aren’t many games that can pull off songs about a casino that’s mafia-free or how useful obsolete computers think they are. Just take a look at the video below which shows a musical number from the fourth episode and features some high-kicking by the secret service – who knew they were so tuneful?
Sam & Max Save the World’s cartoon style makes for plenty of sight gags. Their seedy office suggests a couple of downtrodden detectives but look closer and you’ll see bullet holes in the shape of a rabbit on the wall, a goldfish inside the water-cooler and a rat hole complete with a mailbox. The amount of work that has gone into the visuals is impressive, with minor jokes featured on everything from notes stuck on a bulletin board to magazines in the local ‘inconvenience’ store. The animation is also good and I particularly like that for Max – it’s hard not to fall in love with the crazy rabbit as he stomps around the place menacing the other characters.
This is a game I’ll definitely play again in the future. After being immersed in Sam and Max’s world for around fifteen hours I feel I now need to pick up a game that’s a little more serious in nature – but when I’m ready, I’ve got another two seasons to get through thanks to Kevin! I’m not sure if anything can top the talking-bug-impersonating-Abraham-Lincoln joke mentioned above but I’m looking forward to finding out (sorry, I’m giggling to myself again).
Although Sam & Max Saves the World does have its weak spots, it also has plenty going for it: madcap situations, puzzles that will have you laughing out loud and a couple of great protagonists who you can’t help but adore. You’ll fall in love with their craziness quicker than you can say ‘holy jumping saints aplenty riding sideway on a candy pink fat boy’ (and yes, that’s a real line from the game!).
How did we reach these scores? Click here for a guide to our ratings.