Monday, November 6th, 2006...4:11 pm

My Sunday with Sam & Max

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Sam & Max Season 1 Episode 1: Culture Shock
From Telltale Games (
Available now

Click here to view the screenshot gallery from Telltale Games’ site!

“Deedle-ee DEEEEE dee-dee, dee doo-doo-doo dah-dee!

“Deedle-EEEEE dee-dee, dah doo doo dee dah dee!


Holy Hannah in a dilapidated breadbasket, Max, the Freelance Police are back.

Ever had deja vu? Not the really annoying kind where you’re vaguely reminded of something, but you’re not sure when or what or where. The good kind, where you’re taken back to another time, when computer games were free to romp and play and offer a player some good old-fashioned third-person non-combative story-based puzzle solving. That’s the kind of deja vu I had when I heard that classic theme start playing.

I guess what I’m really talking about is nostalgia. And boy oh boy, did I ever experience nostalgia when playing Sam & Max: Culture Shock today. When LucasArts cancelled their sequel to the original Sam & Max computer game a few years back, a generation of gamers mourned. More than the slow decline of the King’s Quest franchise, more than the similar canning of Full Throttle 2, more even than the inexplicable lack of a Maniac Mansion 3, it marked the final nail in the coffin of the PC adventure game. It had been supplanted by the adrenaline-pumping shooter, a worthy genre in its own right, but just not the same to the folks who grew up on Monkey Island, Space Quest, The Legend of Kyrandia and their time-devouring ilk. And then there was the original Sam & Max, based on the caustically funny comics of Steve Purcell, which also inspired a one-season animated series during the Nineties (now where’s that DVD?).

Ah, memories. Good stuff, people. Good stuff.

So anyway, LucasArts was going to make a new Sam & Max game. It was going to be 3D-rendered, which is always a little jarring to an adventure gamer, but who cared? The loveable canine shamus and his hyperkinetic rabbity friend were finally coming back, and the people rejoiced. It was gonna be awesome.

Then they killed it and made a bunch of Star Wars games instead.

A couple of years went by, and a little company called Telltale Games announced that they were planning to start making adventure games for the PC again. They were going to start with Jeff Smith’s Bone, an excellent independent comic series that recently finished its run (go check it out). But the twist was, these games weren’t going to come out in stores. They would be released as shorter chapters for online purchase and download, relying on the increasingly cynical and curmudgeonly adventure gamers to support future installments by buying the episodes as they were released.

Well, hopefully that went okay, because Telltale’s next episodic game has just come out, and it’s Sam & Max.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the first episode. I knew that they weren’t just releasing or remaking LucasArts’ own nearly-completed sequel, but starting from scratch with a new story and direction. But a lot of the Lucas team was on board, and they had the mad genius of Steve Purcell to inspire them, so there was definite potential for something good. At the best, I was hoping for a short but fun mini-game. At the worst, it would be a grave disappointment, buggy, sparse on the classic adventure game feel, and far too brief for what you paid.

What I actually got was a much more complete gaming experience than I was remotely expecting. Although the first episode doesn’t take you to many different locations — it’s basically the Freelance Police’s office, its immediate neighborhood, and one additional spot — there are a good handful of hours’ worth of play here for even the experienced adventure gamer. It felt like maybe a quarter to a third of a classic adventure game, and as the first chapter of an announced six, that’s some darned good value.

So what’s the actual gameplay like? If you remember the late days of the adventure game, there won’t be many surprises in the interface. You move your mouse around the screen to direct the actions of Sam, the marginally saner of the Freelance Police duo. You can click to make Sam walk to a new location, or select items and objects to have Sam examine, use, pick up or comment on them. As you’d expect from a Sam & Max game, there’s a lot of commenting, and it’s as spot-on to the comic’s off-kilter style of dialogue as it can be.

Like most Sam & Max adventures, this one starts with a phone call. But instead of the usual mad scramble as our heroes fight each other over the receiver, we’re presented with an immediate conundrum: the phone itself has gone missing. It quickly becomes evident that it’s been phone-napped, and the four-footed culprit is demanding a ransom of Swiss cheese. Now, Sam and Max just so happen to be in possession of a closet full of cheese, but they don’t have any Swiss. What they do have, however, is a gun and a whole lot of bullets. If you’ve ever played a puzzle-solver, you can probably figure out where things go from there.

Yep, this is familiar territory, but in this case that’s a good thing. Adventure games were never about innovation so much as providing a new story with new puzzles to entertain and challenge while eating up your free time, and Culture Shock delivers on that quite nicely. And these guys know their heritage. The game is chock-full of references to the original game and the comics, and playing it made me forget just how much time has passed since I last had the chance to do something like this. The graphics are a little sharper and a little three-dee-er, but otherwise it’s a seamless transition.

Oh, and the cheese thing is really just the introduction. The actual plot involves former child stars, self-help scams and hypnosis, and it’s all nicely wrapped up by the end of the episode – no leave-you-hanging cliffhanger here (another pleasant surprise). But as always, getting there is half the fun. As I said, it took me a handful of hours to finish the game. It didn’t feel too long or too short, too hard or too easy, and like any good adventure game, there are enough dialogue and action options that replay shouldn’t be too much of a chore. In fact, if the Easter Egg hints recently posted at are any indication, playing the episode again from the beginning might even be pretty fun. Gotta figure out how to find some of that stuff…

The voice work is largely excellent (they didn’t cast the actors from the first game or the cartoon, but the new talent does a fine job), the graphics and animation are smooth and non-glitchy, and the interface is intuitive. The game even saves your progress as you move from location to location, though in the tradition of the classic LucasArts adventures, there’s no way to die or lose the game. At worst, you’ll just get stuck at a particularly mind-bending puzzle until you finally snap your fingers and figure it out. If you’re having real trouble, you can always talk to your psychotic pal Max for a hint, and sometimes the game itself will help you with a subtle clue.

Sam and Max are just as you’d expect them to be, complete with wacky banter and entertaining idle animations, and the game’s supporting characters – particularly local tattoo-artist-turned-psychotherapist Sybil – are nice new additions to the Freelance Police’s crazy world. There’s no Flint Paper, alas, but hey, they’ve got five more episodes of this thing to make. He’s bound to turn up sooner or later.

So what’s the downside? There really isn’t much to complain about here. There’s a mini-game involving driving pell-mell down the city streets that will satisfy a player’s more destructive urges, but could use a bit more explanation and a more intuitive interface. The Soda Poppers and the (not-so-) mysterious new villain aren’t the most iconic of characters, though they’re not overly annoying either. I occasionally found my mouse cursor disappearing or blending into the background, and every once in a while Sam or Max would be in the way of something I was trying to see or click on. I was frustrated once or twice to find an apparent puzzle with no obvious goal, only to later discover that it was related to a hint I hadn’t picked up yet. But that’s part of any good adventure game, and not a real negative. The only really bad part is the wait for the next episode to be finished.

Sam & Max: Culture Shock isn’t a game for little kids, although it’s unlikely to traumatize them either. Sam and Max are of course their usual slightly amoral selves. There’s some mild cartoon violence, the threat (but not on-screen execution) of less mild on-screen violence, and not much in the way of objectionable language. You do shoot at a few things, but very little of it is alive, and there’s no blood or gore. There is a puddle of pee, though.

If you loved the PC adventure games of the ’80s and ’90s, then go to and get this game right now. If you never played them but you’re curious, check out the free demo. If you like it, I’d recommend getting the season set, which for $35 is a great deal if all six installments are as good as this one (they’ll run you $54 individually, and you won’t get the CD collection when they’re all available). Releasing an all-new adventure game series in this day and age is a risky proposition, and these guys can probably use all the support they can get. They’ve certainly shown that they deserve it so far.

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