Still game? Sam and Max Hit the Road

Sam, the dog in a suit, and Max, the rabbity thing, at a shooting range.

Still Game? is an occasional series in which I replay a game from my youth, to see if it really is as good as I remembered. This week: Sam and Max Hit the Road on PC.

Sometimes I replay these games out of a genuine curiousity, but I'm pretty sure that this one is still going to be brilliant. Right? I mean, c'mon. It's Sam and Max.

A little history

If you weren't around in 1993 (some people weren't) Sam and Max Hit the Road was a point and click adventure by Lucasarts that took its deserved place amongst a distinguished lineup including games such as Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and the Secret of Monkey Island.

It was a puzzle comedy send up of the classic American road trip filled with surreal places and characters, that was actually funny - a rare thing in computer games. I loved it.

And yet I did have a problem with it. Or rather, with the whole genre. Point and click adventure games were enjoyable until I couldn't figure out how to solve a puzzle - and then I was stuck. Unless there was a guide available in a magazine (the internet was a thinner place back in the nineties) I couldn't get any further.

Regardless, I'm still excited to play again as I missed out originally on the 'full talkie' version, as mine came on floppy disk. It came with a voucher to send off for the CD version, but I never got around to it.

Right, enough preamble. Let's get on with it.

Running it

I'm playing Sam and Max via Steam, which uses the ScummVM emulator. You can use the F5 key to access the save/load/settings menu (Steam seems to provide no manual or instructions for the game).

Playing it today

It's quite hard to be objective about Sam and Max because I'm not so much playing it as remembering how to play it. It's been nearly twenty years but I still remember vaguely how to solve each puzzle, or at least where certain key objects are hidden.

If not for these memories I'm pretty sure I'd already be as stuck as I was the first time around. A while ago I had a go at Lego The Lord of the Rings for not being accessible enough and I although I don't want to I'm going to have to hold Sam and Max to the same standard. It's a bit of a complex issue because this is a puzzle game so making everything obvious would detract from the point of the game, but I have a few specific gripes.

Gator Golf

Mild spoiler alert - relatively early on you have to rescue Max from an alligator infested lake in the form of a golfing mini game. It's fairly obvious that you need to get the alligators to line up to form a path to get to Max, but what isn't obvious is that you can't do that until you employ a certain object.

Sam standing before an alligator infested golf driving range.
Hit the windmill and it spins.

I eventually figured out what it was but that was after I'd spent a futile twenty minutes batting golf balls at alligators without success. This was frustrating for two reasons; Sam (although beautifully animated) takes precious seconds to take a shot, and the game made no suggestion that my actions were in vain.

Scrolling locations

This one caught me out even though I remember it catching me out the first time I played as well. Take a look at Sam and Max's office, where you start the game.

Sam and Max in their cluttered, grubby office.

Nice, huh? There's only one problem - there's more of it.

Sam and Max in their cluttered, grubby office, but now there's more of it.

Many of the locations in the game feature this 'larger than the screen' layout but not all of them make it obvious. Worse still, some of them (particularly the bigfoot jacuzzi) are hard to navigate to, even when you know they're there.

Difficulty

In an unsurprising repeat of history, I got stuck again. At several points. I'm still uncertain whether this is because the game is too hard, or I'm just not cut out for puzzle adventures like this, or something else, but it's definitely offputting.

The problem with Sam and Max is that even though you have freedom to move between locations at almost any time it is essentially a linear game. That's not really a problem at the start of the game because there's a limited number of things you can try, but by half way through there's so many locations to search and possible combinations of objects that trying to find a solution feels like an overwhelming task.

The game is also oddly inconsistent about how much help it gives you. Sometimes Sam and Max give suggestions or complain specifically about why something isn't working, but at other times you're entirely on your own.

A map of the USA, dotted with weird locations.
Finding some of these locations can be tricky.

I'm left wondering whether the slightly surreal nature of the game means that solving puzzles requires more lateral thought than would be the case in a more serious one. Unfortunately I don't have a lot to compare it with - Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle were similarly comic.

I did have a few pleasing eureka moments where I suddenly realised how to do the thing I was trying to do, but I had to look at a guide for the rest. If the puzzles were too easy the game would be boring, but sometimes the objects you need to proceed are so well hidden as to be almost invisible.

I think games like this would be much improved for me if there was some kind of hint guide - not direct answers to the puzzles, but suggestions about what kind of solution the game is looking for. But then maybe I'm too dumb for this kind of thing.

The binoculars

Not long into the game you get to operate a set of mounted binoculars that (mild spoiler) let you find a new location.

Looking through binoculars at a burning tyre mountain.

Just to help you out if you're struggling like I did, in order to control the binoculars you have to click on the little switch at the bottom of the screen - left click a few times to go one way, right click to go the other.

I struggled for a long time over how to do this, and I know I'm not alone because the developers put specific instructions into the game manual to explain it (it turns out). This is an example of where the game was hard not because of its difficulty but because of a problem with its user interface.

Enough negativity

Having said all of that, this game is still brilliant. Here's some reasons why.

Presentation

The world of Sam and Max is full of imaginative locations, interesting characters and an off beat sense of humour, but it's brought to life with smooth animations, funny sound effects and beautiful pixellated artwork.

It's admittedly looking a little chunky these days, particularly when Sam and Max start getting smaller as they walk away from the screen, but it's still great. Here's a few samples.

A fisherman stands in a river beside tatty fake fish props at 'World of Fish'.
A jungle themed hotel sits in pleasant grassland.
Sam and Max in a gloomy, cluttered room.
Sam's hand holding a snowglobe with 'I saw the Mystery Vortex' written on it.
Sam and Max inside a chintzy caravan. Max is jumping on the bed.
Sam attempts to pull off Max's head while wearing a virtual reality helmet.

If you want more, there's a complete collection of Sam and Max Hit the Road backgrounds here.

Talking

I'm a bit biased here but experiencing Sam and Max with fully spoken dialogue brings it to life in a way that the text captions never did. It may not be a novelty these days, but I found it a real treat.

It's also refreshing that all of the characters sound distinct. Obviously the cast is much smaller than a game like Skyrim, where every third peasant sounds the same, but the vocal talent really shines here.

Take that, floppy disk version.

Mini games

Not counting the mini games that are part of the story (e.g. Gator Golf) there are several mini games semi-hidden in Sam and Max. I like that someone put effort into making them even though you could complete the game without spotting them.

Car bomb and Wak a Rat are the best. Someone should make a mobile game of them.

Sam wielding a mallet over a holed box full of popup rats.
Sam and Max in bizarre costumes.

Conclusion

I said it at the start, I repeated myself once already, but I'll say it again - Sam and Max Hit the Road is brilliant.

Sure, it looks a little dated, it's a bit inconsistent in its difficulty, and there are a few frustrating things about the interface, but none of that really matters. It was a part of my youth and I'm privileged to be able to play it again.

Here's hoping they do a high-res remake like they did for Full Throttle...

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