Published Jan 27, 2015The no-longer-late-and-lamented adventure game genre continues its revival thanks to the good folks who originally perfected it back at LucasArts in the '90s. Some went on to form Walking Dead maker TellTale Games, while others founded cult faves Double Fine.
The latter studio is run by Tim Schafer, who cut his teeth writing on LucasArts' Secret of Monkey Island games before helming the critically acclaimed, Aztec-influenced noir comedy Grim Fandango, which was widely considered the adventure genre's great last gasp and has now, appropriately enough, been brought back from the dead.
Yes, Schafer and his team should probably be focusing on completing Act 2 of his KickStarter-funded Broken Age, but at least the distraction was the shining, polishing and re-releasing of his long lost cult classic.
The "remastered" version of Grim Fandango ups the resolution some, but the Art Deco-meets-Aztec Afterlife art design was stylized to begin with, so manages the transition better than a more "realistic" older game otherwise might. In fact, the original pre-rendered backgrounds remain as is, and just the 3D characters have had their polygon counts increased. Oh, and there's also a stretched widescreen format, but you're better off with original 4:3 perspective.
Inspired in equal parts by Mexican folklore (especially Day of the Dead) and 1930s-era film noir (especially Double Indemnity), the game has you play as the Grim Reaper-esque "Manny" Calavera. You're a skeletal soul trapped in a dead-end job as a clock-punching Department of Death travel agent who must help the recently deceased make it to the Ninth Underworld to earn enough commission to go yourself. You do this by puzzle-solving your way through the levels to help a virtuous soul make her way through the Land of the Dead.
I actually own the original CD-ROM somewhere in my basement, so the nostalgia is thick for me on this one, as is my general love for Schafer's oeuvre. (Psychonauts is one of my favourite games ever, though it, too, was received far better critically than commercially).
But having played Grim Fandango in the late '90s didn't actually make the gameplay much easier. This is an old-school game with all the extra challenge that implies, partly due to control issues but mostly from the lack of hints or other handholding. (That said, a quick Google search is better than killing yourself out of frustration if you get stuck for too long.)
All told, it's well worth this Criterion-style re-release — which even includes creator commentary and a re-recording of the already legendary jazz soundtrack by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra — because it's such a brilliant effort. Without fancy graphics as distractions, Shafer and his team relied on wonderfully realized and fully developed characters with great voice acting, an engrossing and complex narrative, inventive art and a sense of humour that remain a rarity in gaming.
Hopefully modern day developers will give Grim Fandango a play and apply its old lessons to their new games. (Double Fine/LucasArts)