We all love a list, so every Tuesday we’re posting one, on a variety of retro-themed topics! Feel free to share your own favourites down below — and let us know what other lists you’d like to see on future Tuesdays!
We couldn’t possibly leave that hanging, could we? After covering 10 of the best Sierra adventures a few weeks back, it’s now time to turn our attention to their great rivals throughout the ’80s and ’90s and ask: what are the best LucasArts adventures?
LucasArts got into the adventuring game a little later than Sierra, and it showed: they made an effort to try and learn from the lessons that Sierra’s games had taught them. Specifically, in many of their games’ manuals they included a special section explaining how, for the most part, their adventures were designed in such a way that it was very unlikely your character would die or get into an unwinnable situation.
There are exceptions to this, of course — most notably in games where it makes sense for the main character to be in peril, such as the Indiana Jones series — but for the most part, LucasArts’ games were held up by many as being the more “friendly” face of adventuring. And not only that, they helped to revolutionise the way we interacted with games like this, too.
So let’s explore! As always, this isn’t an exhaustive list, so if we missed a title you’re particularly fond of, why not tell us all about why you like it so much down in the comments?
The first of the games to use LucasArts’ famous “SCUMM” (Story Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) interface, Maniac Mansion was a breakthrough in adventure gaming. First released in 1987 for Commodore 64 and Apple II, Maniac Mansion eschewed the text-based parser that Sierra had been continuing to use even in their graphical adventures up until that point, and instead incorporated a point and click interface.
SCUMM allowed its players to instruct the game characters to do a variety of things by clicking on a list of verbs at the bottom of the screen, then clicking on objects in the game world or their inventory. Maniac Mansion wasn’t the first ever game to make use of a point and click interface — there’s some debate over this, but it’s commonly regarded to be Icom Simulations’ 1985 title Déjà Vu for Macintosh — but it was the first to combine it with some distinctly “movie-esque” presentation, with fully animated characters; author Orson Scott Card even described it as an important first step in video games becoming a valid storytelling medium.
As an early LucasArts title, Maniac Mansion is a little unrefined compared to some later games by the company — notably, it features numerous opportunities to mess things up and get yourself into a dead end — but its historical significance cannot be understated, and thus there was no way we’d leave it off any list of the best LucasArts adventures!
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders
Releasing in 1988, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders was the second game to use the SCUMM engine, and was once again developed for Commodore 64; this time, ports followed for MS-DOS PC, Amiga and Atari ST — and Japan got a port for the Fujitsu FM Towns computer, too, featuring enhanced graphics and anime-style visuals when the game was played in Japanese.
Zak McKraken was originally intended to be a more serious sort of game, but LucasArts’ Ron Gilbert persuaded writer David Fox to make the game more humorous. Consequently, the game ended up being heavily inspired by popular conspiracy theories about aliens and ancient civilisations.
While definitely one of the best LucasArts adventures, it’s somewhat lesser known than many of the others on this list. All the more reason to check it out, then — particularly since recent rereleases of it for PC include the 256-colour FM Towns version as well as the original 16-colour EGA release!
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
In a world still accustomed to movie license games from companies like Ocean and LJN inevitably ending up being mediocre platform games (or worse), 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for MS-DOS PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Mac and FM Towns really stood out not only as one of the best LucasArts adventures, but one of the best games available at the time. This was a game where you really could “play the movie” — where the action you saw on screen wasn’t just a loose adaptation of some of the movie’s most famous scenes, but rather a retelling of its story in a new medium.
The SCUMM interface would still undergo a certain degree of refinement following this game, but for many, this title is where people really started sitting up and paying attention to what LucasArts adventures had to offer the world. Video games could tell amazing stories — yes, Sierra players had been banging on about this for years by this point — and those stories could be told through means other than action games.
The Indiana Jones games were also noteworthy for deliberately incorporating replay value in the form of their “Indy Quotient” points system. 800 points were available in Last Crusade, but not all of them could be attained in a single playthrough; to get them all, you’d have to find all the possible solutions to all the situations in the game.
The Secret of Monkey Island
1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island is widely considered to be one of the very best LucasArts adventures with good reason: it’s a witty, well-written adventure that combines a worthwhile story with some good-natured humour that still holds up well today, and it also marked a notable shift forward in the elegance of the SCUMM interface.
Rather than clicking on the screen or using a “What is” verb to find interactive hotspots on the screen, The Secret of Monkey Island introduced an “intelligent cursor”, whereby simply moving the mouse across the screen would automatically indicate interactive areas when you passed over them; the usual SCUMM verbs could then be applied to them in the usual way.
This was the first of LucasArts’ games to make a real effort not to kill off the player character; LucasArts’ Ron Gilbert had become particularly frustrated with other adventure game developers’ tendency to punish curiosity with death scenes, and thus decided to focus Monkey Island’s gameplay on exploration rather than true peril. It really worked; this side of things was always one of the most beloved aspects of LucasArts’ adventures.
The Secret of Monkey Island is available on GOG.com in its “Special Edition” format; this includes both the modern remake and the original version from 1990.
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge
1991’s follow-up to The Secret of Monkey Island is worth celebrating separately as one of the best LucasArts adventures for a few reasons: firstly, it’s simply a great game in its own right — and a superb sequel to a widely loved original. But secondly, it introduced something that would become an iconic feature not just of the best LucasArts adventures, but of LucasArts’ games in general: iMUSE, or the Interactive Music Streaming Engine.
iMUSE was a system that some describe as “intelligent music”, and it essentially allowed the background MIDI music for Monkey Island 2 (and the subsequent games which used it) to dynamically change and remix itself according to the on-screen situation. Developers Michael Land and Peter McConnell’s aim with the engine was to create a digital equivalent of a pit orchestra featuring virtuoso musicians and a specialist conductor, all of whom had the ability to seamlessly and smoothly transition between different musical pieces. The result, in Ron Gilbert’s words, is a musical score that “starts at the beginning and ends at the end of the game, and is just one ever-evolving piece of music”.
While LucasArts never licensed iMUSE out to anyone else, the lessons it taught the video game industry’s sound designers can still be felt in many games today — and iMUSE itself can be heard at work in a whole host of LucasArts’ games, ranging from their adventures to their space combat sims.
Monkey Island 2 is available on GOG. Once again, this is a “Special Edition” version that includes both the original and the newer remake.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
In my personal opinion, out of all of the best LucasArts adventures, this one ranks right at the top. Offering an all-new original Indiana Jones story — one far better than Crystal Skull ended up being, to boot — Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is an absolute masterpiece of adventure gaming, offering three distinct routes through its middle section and a variety of alternative solutions to its many puzzles.
Making full use of the iMUSE system and some of the most cinematic presentation yet seen in a LucasArts adventure, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, as the name suggests, tells the story of Indy seeking the truth behind the legendary underwater kingdom, accompanied by a leading lady pretty much everyone in the early ’90s had an absolute thing for in all her pixelated glory.
Okay, the voice acting in the “talkie” CD-ROM version is… not great, but it can be easily turned off; aside from that, this really is a flawless game. If you play one LucasArts adventure, make it this one.
Day of the Tentacle
No-one expected a sequel to Maniac Mansion — and I don’t think anyone expected it to be one of the best LucasArts adventures when it finally did arrive in 1993, either. But Day of the Tentacle remains one of LucasArts’ most beloved games to this day, and with good reason — it’s genuinely amusing, it’s extremely well presented and it features some of the most memorable characters ever created in the genre.
Day of the Tentacle was also noteworthy for being a noticeable step forward in terms of presentation. Rather than the distinctly “computer game” look that prior LucasArts adventures had had, Day of the Tentacle instead adopted a much more vibrant style clearly inspired by hand-drawn animation. Lots of close-up scenes, excellent lip-sync in the CD-ROM version and a real sense of cartoonish joy throughout — this definitely is one of the best LucasArts adventures, if a little on the short side.
And if you never played Maniac Mansion? The whole thing is included as a bonus game within Day of the Tentacle itself.
Day of the Tentacle is available on GOG.com. Its Remastered version allows you to switch between the “classic” and “modern” looks.
Sam & Max Hit the Road
While the characters of Sam and Max, Freelance Police, were developed by Steve Purcell back in 1987, their 1993 PC game is where a lot of people had their first encounter with them. And what an encounter; their debut game is not only one of the best LucasArts adventures, but also one of the best adventure games of all time.
Filled with madcap humour, excellent writing, wonderful voice acting and fantastic animation, Sam & Max Hit the Road is the closest we ever got to a full-on interactive cartoon in 1993 — proof that such things didn’t need to take the Dragon’s Lair approach.
Sam & Max Hit the Road used a modified version of the SCUMM engine that allowed for full-screen visuals; the bar of verbs and inventory items at the bottom of the screen was replaced with a cursor that could be cycled through different actions, and a separate inventory screen. By maintaining the classic “intelligent cursor” approach combined with this method of interaction, many felt that this is how Sierra’s point-and-click adventures using the SCI engine should have played.
1995’s Full Throttle took the full-screen cartoon-style visuals of Sam & Max Hit the Road and transplanted them into a somewhat more serious story following the adventures of motorcycle gang leader Ben, played by the dearly departed Roy Conrad. The game also featured the voice talents of Mark Hamill (playing the villain, obviously), British actor Hamilton Camp, Kath Soucie, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille and Steven Jay Blum.
Full Throttle was one of the first LucasArts adventures to only be available on CD-ROM; this was due to its heavy use of pre-rendered full motion video sequences throughout the narrative, as well as its fully voiced scripts. It’s a tad on the easy and short side — back in the day, I blasted through this in a single afternoon without getting stuck once — but it’s a hell of a ride while it lasts, and definitely one of the best LucasArts adventures.
The Dig is a rather more sombre affair than many of the other best LucasArts adventures, but noteworthy for its involvement from Steven Spielberg, Orson Scott Card and Industrial Light & Magic. Following the adventures of Commander Boston Low and his crew, the game sees you exploring a strange alien world filled with advanced technology.
While it was one of LucasArts’ later releases, it actually spent the longest in the oven of all of the company’s works — the team first met to discuss the project back in 1989. The premise underwent several drastic revisions during its development, and the result had a mixed but an overall positive reception. It’s definitely one of the most artistically distinct of all of LucasArts’ games, and one of the most experimental, with some commentators comparing the more abstract aspects of its presentation to Cyan’s Myst series.
While it wasn’t the last LucasArts adventure — The Curse of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango would follow a few years later — for many The Dig marked the end of a distinct era for the best LucasArts adventures, as subsequent games from the company shifted from MS-DOS VGA games to Windows-based SVGA titles and polygonal affairs. And since we opened this list with the beginning of that era, it’s only fitting that we close off with this, then!
So there’s our picks! What are your favourite LucasArts adventures from over the years? We’ve covered most of them here but there are a few exceptions… let’s chat about ’em down in the comments!
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