Review: Sam and Max: Season One (Nintendo Wii)

Petting zoo gone WILD!
Sam and Max: Season One
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Release Date: 10/20/2008


I’ve often claimed on this site to be a longtime adventure game fan, but that’s not entirely accurate. If we’re being specific, I was a longtime LucasArts adventure game fan. Back in the day I never got into King’s Quest or the rest of Sierra’s massive output, and don’t even talk to me about that borefest Myst. No, Maniac Mansion, Grim Fandango and Monkey Island was where it was at for me, and I never really strayed too far from the LucasArts camp (except for covertly playing a few Leisure Suit Larry games because well, you know…boobs). I consider the day LucasArts shut down their adventure game division to be one of the darkest days in videogame history and George Lucas’ 2nd greatest crime against humanity after Jar-Jar Binks.

So obviously I was very happy when I learned that Telltale (A company largely made up of former LucasArts employees) had managed to get their hands back on Steve Purcell’s Sam and Max license and would be producing a new series of games staring the loquacious dog and rabbity-thing duo. I must admit, being a stodgy old technophobe (I dictate my reviews to one of several buxom personal assistants) I didn’t really keep up with the series as it came out in episodic form. Now that they’ve been collected and released in comforting old-fashioned boxed form for the Wii I’ve been able to tackle all 6 episodes. Was my youthful LucasArts fandom rekindled, or was Sam and Max: Season One just another of life’s little disappointments? Read on!

1) Story

While Sam and Max isn’t the first series to try its hand at episodic gaming, it’s the first to really embrace the format. This isn’t just a longer story chunked up into smaller pieces, it’s actually structured like a TV show with 6 episodes that tell self-contained stories, yet at the same time are tied together through reoccurring characters and a season-long story arc. It’s a format that TV writers have milked successfully for decades and it’s about time someone tried it out in videogame form.

Of course nobody wants to hear me babble about story structure. This is a Sam and Max game; you want to know if it’s funny. Well, they answer is yeah, usually (Particularly by the video game industry’s slack standards). The humor does get a bit overwrought at times, with Sam and Max launching into their witty repartee anytime you click on any insignificant item. Really guys, we don’t need 30 seconds of snappy one-liners every time Sam examines a trashcan or discarded donut box. That said, there are some real dialogue gems to be found and at it’s best Sam and Max: Season One resembles one of those slightly unhinged and subtly subversive kids cartoons that were surprisingly common in the early 90s (think “The Tick”, “Ren and Stimpy” or heck, Sam and Max’s own Saturday morning cartoon).

Modes Rating: Great

2) Graphics

Unfortunately Sam and Max have suffered a bit of a visual downgrade in their move from PC to Wii. The environments remain detailed, with most of those precious polygons intact, and the characters are still well designed and animated, but unfortunately textures have not fared as well. Now I realize the Wii isn’t a high-def machine and thus a decrease in quality was to be expected, but whoever was in charge of porting the game got a bit overzealous, as at times you can spot downright N64-ish looking textures lurking in some backgrounds. The Wii may not be a powerhouse, but anyone who’s played Mario Galaxy or Metroid Prime 3 knows it’s capable of better texture-work than what you get here.

In addition to sometimes blurry textures, the frequent brief freezes that crop up when the game is loading dialogue that were an issue with the PC version have made the move over, and as an exclusive for Wii owners you also get some new slowdown as well (particularly during the driving sequences). So no, the game hasn’t made the smoothest of transitions visually, but it still has a nice cartoony aesthetic and as long as the camera isn’t zoomed in too far it still looks like a fairly close approximation of the PC game. It doesn’t look bad, it just could have looked better.

Graphics Rating: Decent

Bush is a puppet...heard it here first!

3) Sound

Sam and Max: Season One features a nice jazzy soundtrack and probably more spoken dialogue than any other game on the Wii (hell, maybe more than any game published on the Nintendo console ever). The voice acting is generally quite good; nobody will win any Oscars here, but it’s at the level of a well-done Saturday morning cartoon. Despite the general high quality though, I do have to say this…whoever does the voices for the Soda Poppers needs to be shot. Granted, these characters are supposed to be annoying (at least I hope they are), but whoever did their voices takes things into nails-on-a-chalkboard intolerable territory. Skip the Popper’s dialogue though and it’s all gravy.

Sound Rating: Great

4) Control and Gameplay

I must say I was quite surprised by just how much this resembled a classic LucasArts title as, a few extra polygons aside, this felt like something that could have been pulled from a time-capsule marked “1998” along with a stack of Chumbawamba CDs and Bill Clinton cigar jokes. This is both a good and bad thing (although the good definitely outweighs the bad).

The former LucasArts guys’ ability to create endearing characters and lively memorable worlds has endured fully intact. The puzzles are well designed as well, with solutions that are amusingly off-kilter but at the same time still follow a certain twisted logic. Thankfully there’s also some effort to move beyond simple “insert dongle A into slot B” style puzzle solving, with each episode presenting you with at least one challenge that’s more involved. For instance, Episode One has you manipulating your own dreams and Episode Two has you taking part in a number of wacky TV show parodies.

Oh the flip side, the game is at times frustratingly vague about what you’re supposed to do, and the developers are not shy about making you repeat certain snippets of gameplay ad nauseam until you get them right (I let out more than a few disgruntled sighs trying to figure the exact sequence of actions needed to get through the “Midtown Cowboys” segment in Episode 2). There are also the already mentioned frequent brief freezes when dialogue is loading and Sam’s movement around the environment tends to be somewhat slow and awkward.

Finally on a good note, while the graphics didn’t fare so well in the transition, the folks porting the game nailed the controls. The pointer works great as a stand-in for the mouse and clicking around the environments is just as comfortable as it was on the PC.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Great

5) Replayability

While each episode is only around three hours long, when you add them together you find yourself with a game that’s close to 20 hours, which is fairly impressive considering games that only last around five hours are common to the genre. The developers didn’t add any extra incentives to encourage extra playthroughs, but the fact that you can choose to play any episode in any order you want makes it a lot easier and less burdensome to replay your favorite parts of the game than it would be if you had to go through the whole 20-hour story again. By adventure game standards the Sam and Max is a good value.

Replayability Rating: Great

Wait, what series is this again?

6) Balance

I didn’t find myself stuck and/or frustrated by this game nearly as often as with a lot of other adventure games. Some would say it’s because the game’s easy, and maybe it is a bit on the easy side, but it never felt dumb or insultingly simplistic. While a few particularly hardened adventure fanatics may scoff at the level of difficulty, for most gamers Sam and Max: Season One strikes a good balance between accessibility and challenge.

Balance Rating: Very Good

7) Originality

While the game’s point-and-click adventure mechanics are very by the book, that’s not to say no creativity has gone into this game. The story is twisted and imaginative and the developers put a number of smart twists on the standard adventure gameplay.

Originality Rating: Decent

8) Addictiveness

When it comes to adventure games I tend to find them really addictive when I’m successfully solving the puzzles and the game’s making me feel like a big man, but when I get stuck I get cranky and cast them aside. Yes, childish I know. Thankfully the good job the developers did of balancing the game kept things addictive.

Addictiveness Rating: Very Good

9) Appeal Factor

It’s a point-and-click adventure game developed and published by small companies; this title is not destined for blockbuster sales. That said, Sam and Max themselves are appealing characters and more recognizable than you might think (hell, my mom recognizes who Max is). There was also a pretty strong online push to get this on the Wii, but then Internet hype usually doesn’t translate into people actually getting off their asses and following through in real life (just ask the makers of Snakes on a Plane or look at the polls that say youth voting may actually be down this election).

Appeal Factor Rating: Decent

10) Miscellaneous

You get a few minor extras on the disc, like concept art. Also there’s a puzzle in the game that revolves around properly crafting “Yo’ Momma” jokes. If that doesn’t help sell you on the game then frankly I don’t know what to say to you.

Miscellaneous Rating: Great

The Scores
Story/Modes: Great
Graphics: Decent
Sound: Great
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Great
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Great
Final Score: Very Good Game

Short Attention Span Summary

Sam and Max: Season One was a nostalgic blast from the past for me as thankfully time has not dulled the ability of the former LucasArts employees at Telltale to create funny, memorable and engaging adventure games. Unfortunately, they haven’t really grown much either, with a number of old faults still persisting, but I’m willing to cut Telltale some slack; the adventure genre has been in such a sorry state for the last decade that a return to 1998, warts and all, still comes off as refreshing and impressive. Hopefully Telltale will push the envelope more with future projects, but for right now I’m quite happy with what we’ve got.

As for the specifics of the Wii version, long story short, control good, graphics, not so much. If you’re looking to get Season One in disc-form the PC version is probably best, but considering it’s somewhat difficult to find, the Wii version is a perfectly acceptable 2nd option.

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