Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Wii Hidden Gems #7 - Sam & Max: Season One

This time I'm taking a look at the Wii version of Sam & Max Season One.  The titular duo are freelance police, with Sam being a dog and Max being a "hyperkinetic rabbity thing" as the game often describes him.  They were created by Steve Purcell and originated as a comic book form in 1986, where they developed a cult following.  After Purcell became employed at LucasArts and worked on the graphics for titles such as Monkey Island 1 and 2, he was given the chance to make his own Sam & Max graphic adventure, which was subtitled Hit the Road and was released in 1993.  The game became hugely popular and ranks up there with the true classics of the genre, securing Sam & Max a much bigger audience.  In 1997 there was a fairly short lived TV series starring the duo, but then things went silent for quite some time.

Fast forward to around 2002, and there was word that a new Sam & Max game was in development, a true sequel to Hit the Road.  Unfortunately LucasArts decided to pull the plug on the project in March of 2004, which was the impetus for Dan Connors, Kevin Bruner and Troy Molander to leave and start their own company, Telltale Games.  After moderate success with early titles like Telltale Texas Hold 'Em, Bone, and some licensed CSI games, they manage to secure the rights for new Sam & Max games directly from Steve Purcell.  The six episode first season was originally made available from October 2006 to April 2007 on the PC, with the Wii version appearing on the Wii Shop in 2008.  A physical version containing all six episodes and some fairly inconsequential bonus materials was published by The Adventure Company in 2008.  The game was hugely successful for Telltale, and led to two further seasons for Sam & Max, as well as future series like Tales of Monkey Island, Back to the Future: The Game and The Walking Dead.  Nowadays Telltale Games are a really big deal in the industry, securing the rights to huge properties like Game of Thrones, Minecraft and Batman.  I intend review each of their series eventually, but I am starting here with Sam & Max: Season One, aka Save the World

Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
As each episode of Sam & Max: Season One introduces new characters and develops old ones, I am going to break them down into their own mini segments with my thoughts on each. Overall though the characters are very strong and entertainingly written.  One or two of them are on the verge of being extremely irritating but that is deliberate.  While there is an overarching plot that connects each episode to the one after it, the thread is pretty thin in this season to be honest, and Telltale definitely get much better at this by the time we get to Season Three.

The season premiere sees our crime fighting duo investigating an outbreak of hypnotism.  This episode introduces us to The Soda Poppers, former child stars who used to appear on an old sitcom called "Soda Jerks".  Each of them have their own characteristics and catchphrase - we have Whizzer, whose overactive bladder can cause him to rush off to the bathroom every few minutes ("Time out for number one!"), Peepers, whose over sized eyeballs give him fantastic vision ("I can see you!", and Specs, a super obsessive control freak who absolutely hates it when others ruin his plans ("You made me mess up!").  We also meet recurring characters Jimmy Two Teeth, who is a shady rat who lives in a hole in Sam and Max's office.  In this first episode, the duo have to negotiate getting their phone back from Jimmy by supplying him with Swiss cheese.  Then we have Bosco, the owner of the local "inconvenience" store and paranoid conspiracy theorist.  He is constantly trying to convince you that the government is out to get him (which to be fair, sometimes they are.  There's also Sybil Pandemik, who is working as a Psychotherapist when we meet her here, and finally Brady Culture, the villain of the piece, who is trying to spread his "Eye-Bo Ocular Exercises" program throughout the neighbourhood with the help of the hypnotised Soda Poppers.  It is up to Sam & Max to return Whizzer, Specs and Peepers back to normal and then stop the nefarious plans of Culture Once and for all.   7 out of 10

The second episode sees Sam & Max tasked with freeing the audience of a chat show, who have been taken hostage by the host, Myra Stump.  Myra herself appears to be based on Oprah Winfrey, at least partly, because of her penchant for giving away gifts to the entire audience.  As the villain of this episode, I think she is the weakest of all of them, having only a brief appearance right at the end.  The bulk of this episode is spent helping the studio director produce various TV shows, from a sitcom called "Midtown Cowboys", a cooking show, a parody of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and Embarrassing Idol.  You will encounter the Soda Poppers again while attempting to win Embarrassing Idol, and you will also meet new characters like Philo Pennyworth, a highly trained chicken thespian who stars as the landlord in Midtown Cowboys, where every episode sees the main characters attempting to hide the fact that they are keeping a cow in their living room.  You'll also meet Hugh Bliss for the first time, the father of Prismatology (a parody of Scientology), standing in as a game show host.  Bosco and Sybil are also back, with Bosco putting on a hilarious British accent, and Sybil changing professions to tabloid journalist for the "Alien Love Triangle Times". 7 out of 10

This time Sam & Max are investigating Ted E. Bear's Mafia Free Playland and Casino and trying to track down a mole who is working for the cops in secret, by using the phrase "Does the carpet match the drapes".  This is definitely the funniest episode so far, as it was hugely entertaining going around trying out the code phrase on everyone you meet, and the musical number that the creepy animatronic bear heads on the wall sing was great as well.  New characters this time around include Leonard Steakcharmer, a shady gambler to attempt to cheat Sam out of his tokens while playing Indian Poker, Chuckles, the second in command at the casino, and Ted E. Bear himself.  This time Sybil is a professional witness, preparing to testify against the Toy Mafia, who put a hit out on her.  Bosco is once again attempting to disguise himself by wearing a beret and affecting a bad French accent.  This was the briefest episode so far for me but also the best written.  8 out of 10

This was another great episode with another entertaining musical number part way through. This time, apparently the president of the United States has become a victim of hypnotism, but after further investigation, it is discovered he was a robot all along that was actually the one doing the hypnotising.  After the heroic duo have dealt with him, the chief of staff activates the Lincoln memorial, who it turns out is a huge stone robot.  An emergency election is called where Max stands as presidential candidate in opposition of robo-Lincoln, and it's your job to ensure he gets elected.  New characters this time around include Agent Superball, a member of the secret service who is always trying to deny you access from where you need to go, and the animatronic Abe Lincoln himself.  The Soda Poppers return, with Whizzer trying to start a campaign for the victims of Soda Abuse, and Specs and Peepers on the opposing sides of a civil war between North and South Dakota.  This time Sybil is running a dating agency, and Bosco has turned Russian.  8 out of 10

For me this was the best episode out of all of the first season.  It sees Sam & ; Max taking a trip into Reality 2.0 after acquiring some high tech goggles, and then attempting to prevent The Internet from enslaving the entire human race.  In this episode you will meet the C.O.P.S (Computer Obsolescence Prevention Society) who are a bunch of ageing machines attempting to preserve their usefulness.  They include an telephone, an classic 80's arcade machine that strongly resembles Sinistar (especially when he says "I hunger!"), an old timey computer, an Atari VCS and a printer / scanner.  Hugh Bliss reappears in virtual form as the Internet Wizard, who gives Sam & Max an important item for their quest.  Sybil is now a beta tester (at least until you come along and break her goggles, which incidentally how you obtain them in the first place), and Bosco has decided to be a half elf - for the shire!  This is definitely Telltale at its best.  9 out of 10

The final episode of the first season sees you visiting the moon as the title would suggest, in an attempt to stop the big bad's plan once and for all.  In case you haven't played the game yet and would like to, I am not going to reveal too much information about this one or I would spoil for you.  Overall I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as the previous three episodes, but I would say it's on par with episodes one and two.  Pretty much all of the characters you've met over the course of the previous episodes come back in one way or another, and it all leads to a fairly satisfying climax. 7 out of 10
You will revisit certain locations, such as the office, multiple times throughout the season.

Graphics: 7 out of 10
The visuals of Sam & Max on the Wii are OK but definitely not the best I've ever seen by quite some margin.  There's also some really bad performance issues which I believe could have been sorted out if a bit more time was spent optimising the code.  With the Wii proving itself more than capable of running impressive software like the Super Mario Galaxy games or Xenoblade Chronicles, it should be able to run something as simple as a graphic adventure game without any difficulty, yet there are times where I encountered chronic slowdown with an absolutely abysmal frame rate.  Most episodes feature a rather ill advised and poorly implemented chase sequence in the Desoto, which is where the poor performance is most noticeable, although there were also a few moments in regular game play where the action slowed to a crawl and looked as if the game was about to crash at any moment.  It actually did lock up completely on me once.  The ugly looking background textures were a side effect of the episodes starting life as downloadable content on the Wii Shop, where they had to come in under a certain size.  If you play game on PC, it will look and perform a lot better.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The voice work is really strong with a relatively small group of actors playing a whole bunch of different characters.  Bosco was definitely the highlight for me, with his British and Half Elven voices being extremely funny.  Hugh Bliss and the Soda Poppers could get irritating, though this is intentional.  Jared Emerson-Johnson has composed some great music for this series as well, from the main theme, the various background tunes and the musical numbers like the ones from The Mole, the Mob and the Meatball and Abe Lincoln Must Die!

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Setting the technical performance of the game aside, graphic adventures like this actually work really well on the Wii thanks to the simple point and click interface.  You navigate around the different areas of the world, converse with the different characters to try and glean what you're supposed to be doing, pick up any objects you find and use them to progress through the story.  The episodic nature of the game means that there are never too many options available to you at once and though some puzzles will require a certain degree of thought with a bit of effort it should be possible for even genre newcomers to make progress.  These episodes are definitely on the easier end of the graphic adventure scale, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  They are meant to entertaining and completable within a few hours, not super challenging. 
On the set of Midtown Cowboys during Episode Two - Situation: Comedy.

Innovation and Cleverness:
6 out of 10
Telltale Games were the pioneers of the episodic adventure game, which have since become hugely popular and have seen other companies bring their own take on the genre into the market (such as Life is Strange and Blues & Bullets).  The Wii controller is also a perfect fit for this type of game, and Telltale were fairly big supporters of the system in the early days.  It's a shame that the third season of Sam & Max never came out for the Wii, but that's another review for a later time.

Value & Replayability: 6 out of 10
Copies of Sam & Max: Season One can be fairly easily obtained for about a fiver, and the game should take you about 12 hours to complete if you spend 2 hours on average on each episode.  I would say that's pretty decent value for money.  Whether you will ever replay the game again after the first time is questionable though.  I could potentially see myself playing through the episodes again in a few years time, although the plot is not in the same league as classics like The Secret of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle.

Overall: 7 out of 10
Sam & Max: Season One is definitely worth playing.  If you have access to a PC though, I would definitely play it on there rather than the Wii as it will look nicer and not suffer the same embarrassing technical issues that are present on the Wii.  Having said that, for me personally it's still a nice game to have in my physical Wii collection as it is part of the diverse range of games that are available for the system.  Many people cannot look past the shovelware and see the quality titles underneath - whilst Sam & Max is not as polished as it could have been it is most definitely not shovelware and is still very entertaining despite its problems.  Hopefully Season Two will have ironed out the flaws - we will find out when I get around to playing it in a month or two!

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