Tag Archives: lucasarts

Grim Fandango- Manny and Meche

During the 1990s, there seemed to be a glut of spooky romance across various media platforms.  Movies like The Addams Family and Nightmare Before Christmas shared eerie love stories on the big screen, while authors like Anne Rice and Laurell K. Hamilton provided supernatural intimacy on the printed page.  At record stores, there was no shortage of music with themes of Gothic adoration, and video games were starting to come into their own with telling stories of otherworldly love.

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While I would hardly consider Grim Fandango to be a horror game, its story and subject matter certainly revolve around death.  Our intrepid hero Manuel “Manny” Calavera is a travel agent for recently departed souls entering the Land of the Dead.  As he begins to uncover a plot of crime and corruption within his employer, the Department of Death, Manny meets a virtuous soul named Mercedes “Meche” Colomar.

At first, Manny merely thinks of Meche as his ticket out of his dead end job.  If Manny can score a client with an honorable life such as Meche’s, he believes this will work off his debt so he can move onto a true afterlife of rest.  But when Meche’s chance at a golden ticket to the Ninth Underworld is stolen from her, Manny begins a quest that will ultimately lead him to fall in love with Meche.

Over the course of the game, a certain piece of music pops up as Manny and Meche begin to show feelings for each other.  The exact instrumentation varies in each scenario, but the basic melody calls to mind a haunting dance between two souls.  Soft strings resonate feelings of love and sorrow; the struggles of a romance that has been tested by difficult circumstances.

Composer Peter McConnell created a beautiful piece of music to encapsulate the feelings between Manny and Meche, and the remastered performance by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is both heartwarming and haunting at the same time.  There is a sense of sad uncertainty to the music; as if the dancing couple may not get to enjoy each other’s company once the song is complete.  But just as Manuel Calavera said, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip.”

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Digital Draughts: Grim Fandango Remastered with Stone Brewery’s Xocoveza

The right drink can enhance an established experience.  Take food pairings as an example.  I already enjoyed the rich and meaty taste of a smoked turkey leg.  But when I added the toasty and bitter chocolate flavors of New Belgium’s 1554 black lager to the meal, each edible was taken to another level.  The bitter malted notes from the beer heightened the “hammy” sweetness of the meat, while the smoked salty taste of the turkey brought out a stronger coffee flavor in the lager.

Just as I have been trying out new beers with my favorite foods, so too have I been searching out appropriate brews for my most beloved games.  During my pairing quest, I look for common threads in the styles of beer and the aesthetic of video games.  As it turns out, the release of a beer based on Mexican hot chocolate happened to coincide with my purchase of a game inspired by the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos.

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Originally bottled in 2014 as a limited release 22-ounce offering, Xocoveza (pronounced “Sho-Co-Vay-Za”) comes from the mind of homebrewer Chris Banker.  His award-winning milk stout was inspired by the spicy and sweet flavors of Mexican hot chocolate. This beer was so well-received by the drinking public, that Stone has turned this once-in-a-lifetime brew into an annual release, aptly named, “Stone Xocoveza for the Holidays and New Year.”

At the risk of sounding pretentious, Xocoveza is a complex beer.  This is a stout that has been brewed with cocoa, coffee, dried pasilla peppers, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Even though these ingredients play well together in various smaller combinations, there is certainly a risk of overwhelming the palete with too many factors.

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Xocoveza offers a dark and creamy pour, with a frothy head that calls to mind a caffè mocha.  Even at pouring distance, a cinnamon aroma permeates the air.  A closer smell only intensifies the cinnamon nose, along with a rich cocoa and vanilla odor.  The first taste is very similar to Mexican hot chocolate; dark cocoa and cinnamon with a hint of pepper spiciness.  As the smooth stout goes down, coffee and nutmeg take over, leading to a malty finish.

Xocoveza is an excellent beer.  It is well-balanced, providing a chocolaty sweetness that doesn’t overpower the bitter coffee and spicy pepper flavors.  Fans of dark beer and coffee drinkers will be right at home with this holiday brew, while folks who enjoy something a little sweeter will also find something to enjoy with this smooth and delicious stout. Xocoveza currently stands as my top brew of 2016, and it pairs very well with Grim Fandango Remastered.

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From the moment Grim Fandango Remastered was announced at E3 2014, I was ecstatic. The original stands as one of my favorite games of all time, never leaving my top ten list since its release in 1998.  Over time, it became increasingly difficult to play Grim Fandango; as PC gaming technology grew exponentially, the support for this CD-ROM title waned at a similar pace.  In the years leading up to the release of the remastered version, I was relying entirely on the efforts of Grim Fandango’s dedicated fans to provide unofficial patches to get the game running on anything past Windows 98.  But thanks to the efforts of Tim Schafer and his crew at Double Fine (along with the compliance of Disney/LucasArts), my frustrating days of cobbling together fan fixes and mods to play this classic title were coming to a close.

Not satisfied with simply overcoming the accessibility issues of Grim Fandango, Double Fine Productions remastered the entire game for modern machines.  The team went to great efforts to retrieve the original assets for the game, ensuring that the visual fidelity was preserved in the leap to new technology.  As a result, the remastered version features repainted, hi-res character models, along with new dynamic lighting effects.  Composer Peter McConnell returned to conduct the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for a live re-recording of the already beautiful soundtrack.  Double Fine even reached out to the modding community of fans for the original game to get their help in adding point-and-click controls for the computer and tablet versions of Grim Fandango Remastered.

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Despite all of these tweaks and improvements, Tim Schafer and his team worked very hard to preserve the original narrative of Grim Fandango.  None of the game’s scenes have been rescripted or removed; no new characters or plotlines added.  The result is akin to a Criterion Collection release of a classic film (right down to included developer commentary), and I absolutely love it.

The remastered visuals and soundtrack are a fantastic upgrade to an already outstanding game.  The film noir story of travel agent Manny Calavera and his epic journey of crime and corruption in the Land of the Dead has aged wonderfully.  During my time playing, Laura became equally engaged with the story, even as a passive viewer.  She did point out the one aspect that has not aged gracefully: adventure game logic.  While I was breezing through the game (having played it over a dozen times in the past), Laura would ask questions that showcased the potential difficulty for players who didn’t grow up with LucasArts.

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For example, I had no trouble in figuring out that I needed to ask for a Robert Frost balloon animal from a festival clown, to hide under a pile of bread crumbs on the Department of Death roof, to scare away a flock of pigeons, so I could steal their eggs to raise as tiny messengers for an underground revolution.  To this sequence of events, Laura simply stared in confused frustration, regularly uttering the phrase, “How could anyone have guessed that?”

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Even with these old school head-scratcher puzzles, Grim Fandango remains a fun and worthwhile experience.  The remastered visuals and music have honed the already impressive content to perfection, and the updated controls allow players several options to maneuver Manny on his adventures.  The mix of film noir with Mexican folklore provides a unique and wonderful world, which matches the dark cocoa and vibrant cinnamon spice of Xocoveza.  I highly recommend this combination.

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Zombies Ate My Neighbors – Evening of the Undead

There is a joy to be found in uncovering mysteries about beloved music.  Interviews with composers and songwriters can reveal new information on long-enjoyed tracks, such as the meaning of lyrics or the creation of certain melodies.  In my research for today’s spooky track, my mind was blown to discover the truth behind the guttural moans featured in Evening of the Undead.

For years, my brother and I assumed the sound effect that pops up again and again in this song were meant to be the groaning of undead horrors, making their way through suburbia.  With the amount of monsters present in Zombies Ate My Neighbors, this theory made sense to us.  But as I read details from composer Joe McDermott, I learned that this seemingly incoherent uttering is actually a voice sample, asking the question, “Is there anyone outside?”

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So the sound I assumed was the zombies trying to find their latest prey was actually the victims themselves, looking for other survivors.  Mystery solved.

For a great cover of this track (along with many other fantastic spooky game music covers), be sure to check out the album Songs for the Recently Deceased by The OneUps.

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Gone, But Not Forgotten

LucasArtsLogoRoughly twenty years ago, my Father came home from a sunny Saturday outing with my uncle, each of them bearing piles of old electronic treasures.  The two of them had visited the local flea market, and found plenty of movies, music, and, of course, video games to share with the entire family.  As my siblings, cousins, and I surrounded our respective fathers, eager to see what was bought, my uncle produced a Super Nintendo game with an odd title: Zombies Ate My Neighbors.  As an avid horror movie fan, my uncle was delighted to find such a game, and he was eager to see how it played.  We dropped the game into the console, fired it up, and saw a golden stick figure standing upon a purple L-shaped logo.  Being a fidgety little kid, I randomly pressed on the controller as we waited for the title screen to appear, but we all jumped when my finger grazed the L button, and a piercing scream emitted from the television.

WelcometoLucasartsInitially, we were all confused by this screaming logo.  My cousins and I hypothesized that I must have entered a cheat code, and the scream was acknowledging proper entry.  But as we played through the game, there was no apparent benefit to our performance.  When we started a new game later, my brother tried to hit buttons through the logo once more, and when he pressed the R button, a goofy dog bark resounded from the Lucasarts screen.  Again, we assumed some sort of code had been entered, and again we were disappointed to find no evidence to support our claims.  This anomaly was later explained to us through Nintendo Power’s “Classified Information” section, where the scream and dog bark were revealed to be a sort of joke from the Lucasarts team for players to discover.

That was my first time playing a Lucasarts game and seeing the “Gold Guy” logo flash upon a screen.  Since the closing of Lucasarts Studios last month, I have been thinking quite a bit about this experience.  It has been some time since a Lucasarts release has piqued my interest.  The last game I played through was The Force Unleashed, which I found rather bland and a bit frustrating compared to previous Star Wars titles like Jedi Knight and the Trilogy Arcade Game.  So when I read about Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and the subsequent closing of Lucasarts, my heart did not fill with melancholy and disappointment.  Certainly, I felt bad for the 150 jobs lost due to this news, but my mind seemed to linger on the feeling that the Lucasarts I had loved ceased to be long ago.

GrimFandangoTitleLike my time spent playing Zombies Ate My Neighbors, most of my experiences with Lucasarts games were a mix of engrossing art styles, fun gameplay, and plenty of humor.  During my middle school years, I spent many an afternoon playing the PC sim Afterlife, where the management of Heaven and Hell was set against a cartoony style with plenty of tongue-in-cheek jokes.  Grim Fandango still stands proudly in my top ten games of all time, with an excellent film-noir inspired story and plenty of interesting and silly characters.  While I missed out on Monkey Island during its initial PC days, the Xbox Live re-release made up much of a weekend spent with my good friend Bobby, where we guffawed at the goofy pirates while trying to solve the various puzzles of Melee Island.  Each of these games hold such a strong place in my heart, and all of them were released by Lucasarts.  But as the new millennium dawned on this studio, many of the greats who made these titles left, and the company refocused its efforts on the Star Wars brand, almost exclusively.  So much of the humor and characters I had grown to love fell by the wayside, and so Lucasarts had completely fallen off of my radar.

For a while, it seemed like all of these old games would be trapped in the past; technology had moved forward too quickly, and the systems on which to play these games did not exist anymore.  Thankfully, a combination of independent patches and programming, along with great sites like Good Old Games have brought these classics out of commission to be played once more.  The talented designers who brought us games like Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle have not slowed down either.  Ron Gilbert just released The Cave earlier this year, Dave Grossman is the design director at Telltale Games, and Tim Schafer is doing just fine over at Double Fine Productions.

So while it seems that Lucasarts no longer exists, both officially and personally, the games and the designers who made it famous still live on; continuing to fill our hearts with joy through a piercing shriek and a dog’s bark.

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Zombies Ate My Neighbors

During the glory days of the 16-bit era, LucasArts released the co-op classic Zombies Ate My Neighbors.  This was at a time when zombies were not yet an overused trope in video games; when developers released interesting and creative games featuring the walking dead, as opposed to the numerous uninspired and unnecessary titles flooding the market today.  Zombies Ate My Neighbors tasked our heroes, the teenagers Zeke and Julie, with saving nearby residents from several different classic movie monsters.  To protect their companions from various horrors, the player would utilize weapons ranging from typical fare, such as bazookas and crucifixes, to more humorous items, such as squirt guns and silverware (to throw at werewolves, obviously). 

While the game featured quite a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor and campy horror movie nonsense, Zombies Ate My Neighbors was a rather challenging game.  Even with two players at the helm, the difficulty in the 55 levels (of terror!) ramped up rather quickly, so my friends and I would often fall off around level 20 (“Invasion of the Snakeoids”).  To this day, my brother and I have only completed the game once (with no passwords, booya!).  Recently, I discovered there was a secret challenge that eluded us all: a hidden level that would only appear with all neighbors intact by the 12th stage.  Now, you may think keeping a perfect score by the 12th stage in a game does not sound too difficult.  Just shoot the zombies, grab the survivors, walk through the magic exit door to the next level; rinse and repeat.  But the reality of this situation is a bit more complex.

To complete each stage, Zeke and/or Julie must save the survivors before any of the monsters had a chance to devour them or frighten them to death.  If any of the undead horrors made contact with a neighbor, the innocent victim would immediately die and the total number of neighbors available to save would permanently decrease by one.  So let’s say you are hurrying through Stage Four (“Chainsaw Hedgemaze Mayhem”), and you notice an innocent neighbor, casually flipping burgers beyond a wall without a care in the world.  You ready your bazooka to blast through the wall and save him, but before you get a chance, some psycho with a chainsaw happens upon your neighbor and takes care of business.  With a scream and an angel wing’s flutter, your total number of survivors just dropped by one.

And so, on a dark and stormy night (alright, it was a breezy summer evening), my friend Christian and I decided to take on the Twelve-Level Challenge and finally witness the fabled promised land of an extra stage.  Knowing full-well the trials that awaited us, we stocked up on important supplies (pizza and beer) and prepared for a long night of zombie-killing.

Things started off rather well, with the water from our squirt guns peeling through the undead like, well, bullets from an actual gun.  Our combined skills and years of playing games as a team aided Christian and I in the first seven stages, but none of that mattered once we hit Level Eight (“Titanic Toddler”).  No amount of teamwork can prepare Zeke and Julie for the mindless wandering of a 40-foot tall baby crushing the life out of their friends and loved ones.  As soon as the stage began, Christian and I donned our speed shoes and made a dash for the helpless neighbors who would be crushed by this colossal child.  We managed to save most of them, but a single survivor was trampled underfoot, and our hopes and neighbor count diminished by one.

The loss of a single neighbor did not dissuade our progress, as there is a rule in Zombies Ate My Neighbors for just this sort of situation.  For every 40,000 points a player collects, a bonus neighbor will be added to their total count.  This knowledge steeled our resolve, so Christian and I decided to forge ahead through the remaining levels; hopeful for that bonus survivor in the final moments of the game.  Of the levels that remained, we feared only one: the manufacturing plant of possessed killer dolls, Level 10, “No Assembly Required.”  The evil dolls in Zombies Ate My Neighbors are musch faster than either Zeke or Julie, and they are immune to some of the stronger weapons (they can duck right beneath bazooka shots, super lame).  The murderous chopping of the dolls’ axes can cut right through a neighbor with deadly speed, so Christian and I had to act fast, lest we lose another victim on our path to glory.

Somehow, we made it through the cursed factory and scored a bonus neighbor, thus bringing our count back to the full ten survivors.  From there, we chopped through the heinous plant monsters in Level Eleven (“Weeds Gone Bad”) and even hiked across the terrorized football fields of Level Twelve (“Mars Need Cheerleaders”) to final victory.  Our quest was at an end, and with the closing of the level summary, we read these words with champion’s delight: “Bonus Level: Cheerleaders Versus The Martians.”  After nearly 15 years of playing Zombies Ate My Neighbors with our friends, Christian and I had stepped into newfound territory.

Following that, we played through the bonus stage, turned off the television, and, quite drunk and very tired from hours of playing video games, we promptly went to bed.  What, you expected us to play through the rest of the game?  We might be fools, but we are certainly aren’t masochists.

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