Returning to Maniac Mansion

Adventuring to the past, a look at the eerie beginnings of the visual novel.

By Mel Turnquist. Posted 07/21/2011 10:00 5 Comments     ShareThis

Maniac Mansion Mel Masthead

When I got onto this topic of visual novel/adventure games, I originally was going to go the route of the always wonderful Phoenix Wright and the surprisingly tearjerking Professor Layton. Both are favorites of mine and help epitomize the rebirth of the adventure game/visual novel. However, I began to think about what got me into this genre exactly. It wasn’t any dating sim, since I usually lacked the Y chromosome needed for that and it wasn’t anything like Leisure Suit Larry for the same reason. I was either not born yet, a newborn, or far too young for those text-only adventure games on the PC as well. So, what was it that got me into the genre?

Maniac Mansion for the NES.

This game may be a little before some of you folks’ times. It was produced by Lucasfilm Games (now known as LucasArts) and released in 1987. What made this game unique was not only its wacky sense of humor, which is somewhat reminiscent to Earthbound, but also the fact that the game spawned its very own scripting language known as SCUMM. Without getting into too much technical terms, it’s basically a hybrid of programming language and game engine. It made creating the game more efficient for the creators. The language has been used several times by LucasArts up until 1998, however its influence is still seen.

The story of the game is completely insane, but in a good way. In what is a send up to the so-bad-it’s-good science fiction films of the 1950s, you control Dave and two of his friends as they head throughout a mansion to save his girlfriend Sandy. Sandy has been kidnapped by Dr. Fred, a mad scientist who is basically possessed by an evil meteor and an evil tentacle… I swear it makes sense in context. With the characters, you go around the mansion and begin to explore everything around. While exploring, you basically are trying to find a way to save the day and rescue Sandy while trying to keep Dr. Fred from operating on her brain or even trying to blow up the world.

Maniac Mansion screen, tentacle
A character encounters a villainous tentacle. Or a weird lamp, it was the ’80s after all.

One interesting aspect is that other than Dave, you can pick between six characters to fill in the other two slots and they’re all so charmingly stereotypical of the 1980’s. You have Bernard the nerd, Jeff the surfer dude, Syd the new wave guy and Razor the punk rock chick as well as Wendy and Michael whom have skills within the realms of writing and photography, respectively. This variety brought a lot of replay value to the game because each character went about things just a bit differently. Most notable was the ability to put a hamster in the microwave– only two characters are able to do that. The others flat out refuse to.

The most interesting thing with Maniac Mansion was that usually, nobody ever followed the plot exactly. Sandy was almost an afterthought while you went around the entire place, doing anything you wanted. There was so much to do and the utilization of the point-and-click made that possible. Sometimes you’d be treated by some double entendres from Nurse Edna if she caught you snooping, or you’d be draining the pool trying to find information or even flying an old Edsel up in the air. The game offered up such variety that you could have even argued it was some form of unintentional sandbox experience.

The thing that I really liked about the game was the fact that the ending didn’t quite matter. You had multiple endings, for one thing, so you could end up not getting the girl but instead letting a nuclear bomb go off and wiping out civilization. It was all about trying to figure everything out and how it was all connected. Some of the points of the story included the whole ordeal with the meteor, the tentacles of Dr. Fred that acted as policemen at some points, whether Weird Ed and the other tentacle were evil or not, Nurse Edna’s overt interest towards some of the characters, and of course saving Sandy. To me, that’s the mark of a good adventure game– when the journey to getting the ending is more important to getting to the ending.

Maniac Mansion screen, featuring the mansion
The eponymous mansion. We assume the maniacs are inside.

I got into this game through my older sister who would rent this game from the video store up the street as much as possible. She played the heck out of this game, and I would always end up watching her play. I only played it a few times, thanks to my older siblings hogging the NES most of the time (being the youngest kind of sucks!). When I would play, however, I would completely forget about saving Sandy and usually end up having her turn into a zombie while I just explored the house, blissfully ignorant of what was going on. Was it horrible of me? Yes, but hey, I was enjoying myself in there.

I wish I could give you guys somewhere to take a look at this game, but not only is the sequel for the PC godawful, it’s also not on Virtual Console yet. I have no idea if it will be on there anytime soon, since there are more mainstream stalwarts gaining the lion’s share of fan ire. Regardless, the game is a part of my childhood. It gave me many enjoyable hours of gaming and my first taste of the adventure/visual novel genre, a genre that holds just as special a place in my heart as Maniac Mansion.

5 Responses to “Returning to Maniac Mansion

  • 1 points
    Kevin Knezevic says...


  • 3 points
    goodknight says...

    !..I didn’t think that Maniac Mansion 2 (Day of the Tentacle) was bad, but I understand that that’s your opinion, which is true. Compared to the quirkiness of the original, there was something different and missing from the sequel if you were looking for it (maybe it was the Edison family’s blue skin :) But I have fond memories of Day of the Tentacle. The art, music, voice acting, and writing were all superb. The original did have a lot of non-linearity which the sequel didn’t have. I don’t know, different beasts but they each have their own merits if you don’t compare them too harshly.

  • 3 points
    bakana says...

    While Day of the Tentacle is a very different game both in terms of visual style and gameplay, it’s far from godawful – it’s one of the classics of the genre and was a tremendous influence on humorous computer games to follow.

    I can understand your opinion, though. I have a similar dislike for the third Monkey Island game from LucasArts, which similarly pushed a series into (what I consider) totally inappropriate cartoony nonsense.

    If you’d like to try a closer ‘sequel’ to Maniac Mansion, I’d recommend the adventure LucasArts made right afterward: “Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindebenders.” The gameplay and humor are very similar, but expanded in interesting ways.

    As far as wishing you could advise people where to look at this game, there are plenty of options. Fans have slavishly recreated the game in an engine that runs on modern computers, and uses ‘updated’ 256-color graphics. You can find it here:

    Also, the aforementioned Day of the Tentacle includes the whole original game inside it, and is easy to find.

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