Remembering Your First Game Pt 2 of 4: Joe Matar
Considering I grew up during the gaming renaissance of the eighties and nineties, I missed out on a lot of the seminal works. My parents had made the decision that games hooked up to the television were vapid trash so I never owned a system until the era of the PlayStation, when I finally had enough money to buy one myself. But I was fascinated by games from an early age, so much so that I would wake up at 6AM on Saturdays just to see Gamepro TV as even watching the games in action that I couldn’t play was exciting for me. I jumped at the chance to try out friends’ Ataris and NESes whenever I was at their houses. Still, it was quite a few years later before I got a lot of genuine face time with system gaming and I can’t say I retained any of those earlier, briefer experiences.
Though my parents had decided that TV gaming was bad, they, for some reason made the justification that if it was on a computer, no problem, so my first official system was a Commodore 64. I got to play loads of C64 games on pirated collections that were casually traded around on floppy disks. I did end up playing versions of a number of system games (like Pitfall!) as many C64 were just ports as well as quite a lot of difficult, simplistic action titles, but very few have stuck with me (though I do still suggest everyone check out Space Taxi). But one game that left a lasting impression was Lucasfilm’s Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders.
Zak was released in 1988 and was one of the initial titles signifying when Lucasfilm (now Lucasarts) had the realization that they were probably really good at this whole point-and-click adventure game thing. Their breakout hit was the previous year’s Maniac Mansion, but Zak was the one I got ahold of first. I would’ve been 8 or 9 years old and that’s not exactly an age in which one’s tastes are particularly developed. So I imagine I got this game simply because I was in a store with my parents and I thought the box art looked cool. In fairness, I think it would be a hugely attractive box for a kid. It’s a dude in casual business attire holding a loaf of French bread and a goldfish bowl (with a goldfish in it), standing on a pile of junk that includes a long-headed alien and a two-headed squirrel. In the background, there’s a lady holding a pair of novelty Groucho glasses. And there’s a broom with a face, too. There was just so much weird STUFF on the box art that it looked like the game just had to be fun.
And it did not disappoint. Sure, the simple blockiness of the Commodore’s graphics paled in comparison to the hand-drawn cover art (though this improved A BIT in the PC version, especially in the rerelease a year later), but all that junk on the cover was actually IN THERE in some fashion. In that era of gaming, technology had reached a point where developers could better indulge their imaginations and, because so little had yet been done in the medium, all new ideas were valid. While this meant quite a lot of games were unabashedly weird, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is like the poster child of it all.
The story takes place in the near future (umm, 1997) and follows Zak, a lonely tabloid reporter who hates his job and wishes he was doing real journalism. Right at the start, we learn Zak is having odd recurring dreams about a face on the surface of Mars, a mysterious woman, and giant nose glasses that chase him. I was hooked from the opening cut scene. For one, the music was badass (the C64 had a better sound system than the PC speaker), but, like the cover, it was just throwing so much oddness at me all at once. I’d never seen a more insane and intriguing beginning to a game and, the last image of the dream--the reveal of some giant nose glasses wiggling their eyebrows--is an amazing, ridiculous image that’s burned into my brain.
The game proper starts weird with Zak flying to Seattle to investigate two-headed squirrel rumors and stays weird as he ends up uncovering a magic blue crystal that allows him to temporarily enter the minds of animals. Eventually, Zak uncovers an evil alien plot to turn the entire world stupid through our phone lines and has to save everyone with the help of the woman from his dreams and two girls on Mars (all of whom you take control of).
The unfortunate thing is that, puzzle-wise, Zak is pretty damn impossible. I mean, at the age of 8, my puzzle-solving faculties were certainly not at their best, but Zak’s brazen nonsensicality is the stuff of legend. My mom ended up buying the game’s hint book for me and, at first, we had it hidden away and I would only ask her for it when I was absolutely positive I was stuck. But it got to the point where I just had the hint book on hand and was using it to help me through almost step-by-step.
The problem stems from the game expecting you to figure out that an item needs to be given to someone or used on something based on some vague logic the game never truly establishes. Like, you can give a bent butter knife to the guy at the pawn shop and he’ll give you more money for it than a regular butter knife, thinking it’s some sort of work of art, though there’s no hint truly informing you that this is how he’d react, nor any indication that the knife should function as modern art. Furthermore, this was before Lucasarts/Lucasfilm had figured out that players don’t like being randomly punished in their adventure games, so there are spots where you can die, not to mention an early point in the game where accidentally washing some bread crumbs down a drain means you’ve lost the whole game. Even worse, the game DOESN’T TELL YOU YOU’VE LOST. This was the kind of stuff Sierra pulled for years, but here, the penalties are less frequent, making them more unexpected and arguably even less fair.
The game is also saddled with the clunky verb system introduced in Maniac Mansion that requires you to select the command “What is” before interactable hotspots will even appear. There’s also the counterintuitive design of including such actions as “Put on,” “Take off,” “Turn off,” and “Turn on” but evidently the idea of having a “Look at” never occurred to anyone. Although one thing that is still quite amazing about Zak is that there are multiple ways to solve so many of the puzzles. Even on the first screen, when Zak needs to retrieve his cashcard (sort of like a debit card in the crazy future that was 1997), from under his desk, you can try jamming various things under there to get it out. Some of the optional puzzle solutions have drastically different outcomes. For example, depending on what you decide to do, you can actually murder the aforementioned two-headed squirrel. You can also sell and buy back the majority of your inventory items at the pawn shop. Of course, this once again makes the game all the more confusing too. It has an odd feeling like you can kind of try anything and get results, making you feel uncertain you’re doing a good job and, considering those few places you can actually lose or die, that’s a genuine concern.
Very simply, the game has most definitely not aged well. I’m honestly kind of afraid to play it now for fear of just how spectacularly I expect my disappointment will supersede my positive memories of it. The verb system is unintuitive and outdated; there are several boring, stupid mazes; there are a number of instances where you can unexpectedly lose the game; and the puzzles are madness of an unprecedented caliber. Most old-school adventure game fans I talk to do not look back on Zak fondly and I expect this is warranted--it’s probably not a very good game.
But what made Zak so special to me was the palpable sense of adventure. This was a game with an epic scope moving from dreams to humdrum reality to multiple countries to outer space. Admittedly, different countries were represented by a stock airport setting with a few small changes made to the backgrounds or a different crappy maze section, now in a slightly different hue of green. But, still, the very concept that a story--a video game story no less--could be so grand and ambitious and have such an awesome sense of progression through an adventure while being unapologetically off-the-wall throughout was absolutely mind-blowing to my child brain. (Incidentally, I played Maniac Mansion afterwards and found myself terribly let down that the whole thing took place in a house.)
Something amazing to me is that my parents evidently ended up being right about computer games being richer experiences than those of the consoles. Though I still suspect their reasoning was more arbitrary than informed, not to mention not entirely accurate (Maniac Mansion got ported to the NES, after all), games like Zak demonstrated to me that narrative could take precedence and drive a game’s advancement rather than be sacrificed in favor of other design elements (flaws, in retrospect, duly noted). Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders formulated my taste in gaming and I still to this day seek out story-driven games and those titles unafraid to just give weird crap a try. I also ended up doing a lot of traveling and living abroad later in my life and I’m just now wondering if Zak might not be partially responsible for that too.