During the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, between stints at random part-time jobs and a bunch of other games, I played the most fantastic and greatest computer game I had played since beating the crap out of evil monsters in DOOM: Sam & Max: Hit the Road (1993).
As much as I’d like to spend an entire post extolling the virtues Sam and Max (I thought twice about abbreviating them “S&M,” though that would have made for an interesting post), I don’t know that there are enough words in the English language to describe just how great this game actually is. I mean, where else exists a detective/vigilant pair of straight-laced, joyfully demented, and keenly observant figures as Sam and Max? Together they wreak havoc yet still manage to solve crimes. They’re like Criminal Minds meets Ren and Stimpy meets a seedy 1950s-esque noire meets Seinfeld. A pretty fantastic combination if you ask me.
Though Sam and Max were comic book characters long before they hit the computer screen, Hit The Road served as my grand introduction. Our MS-DOS PC was still kicking in 1994, having been patched together in trying to keep up with the latest computer needs, and was just barely able to handle the minimum requirements. But it got the job done. Hit the Road came with several 3.25 floppies — can’t you just hear those blatant mechanical/electronic sounds of a 3.25 disc that’s trying valiantly to load its contents? It’s like a strange symphony of the little engine that could.
Hit the Road, which was released by LucasArts in 1993, is based on a Sam and Max comic by the same name. The premise…well, the premise is convoluted, but mostly revolves around a carnival and cross-country journey.
Carnival? Cross-Country journey? Convoluted? Oh, you mean Heroes, right?
Fuck you Heroes…I still hate you goddammit.
Okay, on with it. A few story spoilers ahead, but nothing that would entirely hurt a playthrough.
One day, New York City detectives Sam (the anthropomorphic dog) and Max (the hyperkinetic rabbit thingy) receive a telephone call from their nameless commissioner who sends them off to investigate some mysterious goings-on at a local carnival.
Turns out that one of the carnival’s main attractions, the bigfoot Bruno, kidnapped another attraction, Trixie the Giraffe-Necked Girl. Sam and Max must find Bruno and Trixie and bring them back to the carnival. It’s a normal case and the two accept the quest without blinking. (Actually, I don’t think they could blink, but really, would wouldn’t want to help in the return of sideshow attractions?? ) The duo is led on a journey across this great nation of ours to various touristy locales, such as the world largest ball of twine, Mount Rushmore, and Las Vegas, in order to track down Trixie and Bruno. Along the way, they met a variety of oddballs…er…Americans, such as the villainous country western singer Conroy Bumpus, who’s into catchin’ bigfoots; and they spent a lot of time at the convenience store/fast food joint Snuckey’s, because any good road trip requires such pit stops.
Hit the Road’s gameplay was as simple as point and click. It offered 2D play in 3D pre-rendered environments. By moving the cursor to a certain location, the player moved Sam and Max around various screens to investigate or manipulate items or talk to people. And the cursor changed depending on the needed action. Want to pull a set of instructions out of a cat? Move the cursor over him, click, and watch the action. Want to interrogate the bearded lady, check out a vegetable shaped like nature aficionado John Muir, or ride the Cone O’ Tragedy? It’s all doable with the simple click of a button. The renderings are cartoony but the campy overtones and adult conversations keep the whole production from feeling like a cartoon.
And speaking of conversations, Sam and Max’s dialogue is stellar and the script is downright hilarious. Aside from the wacky story line that kept me guessing at every turn, I really kept playing to take part in the mirthful and devious conversations. Here’s just a few memorable lines:
Sam: It’s a 1/200,000th scale model of the Ball of Twine.
Max: And it’s only 1/200,000th as stupid as the actual ball of twine.
Sam: My buddy and I want to ride the Cone of Tragedy.
Max: That’s right. We’ve lost the will to live.
Sam: Percent sign, ampersand, dollar sign.
Max: And colon, semicolon too!
Psychic: What are you [bleep]ing doing?
Sam: Swearing in longhand, asterisk-mouth.
[Reading Fun Facts about the Ball of Twine]
Sam: “If laid out from end to end, the twine would stretch from here to the far side of Jupiter. Also, scientists predict that by 2053 the sheer weight of the ball will push Earth out of its orbit, on a collision course with the sun.”
Max: Good thing my life expectancy’s only six years.
Sam: Way to take the short view, little buddy.
(For more quotes, checkout the list at IMDB.)
See, wouldn’t you want to keep playing for quips like that? During a time when most of the video games I played involved running, jumping, hitting, bashing, racing, and very little dialogue, Sam and Max proved that an intelligent and witty puzzle game could hold my attention just as well, if not more so. At the time, I was also discovering the joys of wry humor through the visual mediums of Monty Python and Mel Brooks, and shows like SNL, SCTV, Kids in the Hall, and MST3K. Sam and Max hit the spot with its easy playability, fun and colorful graphics, and perfectly manic humor.
Hit the Road also brought me back to my roots in computer gaming – during this time the SNES ruled supreme and the computer had become just a computer. And it also propelled me to check out other computer games, such as DOOM 2, Quake (Okay, DOOM helped with those), and Myst. And although those roots never really found the right ground, they are still well embedded. Some not-quite 20 years later, I still consider Hit the Road one of the most entertaining games I’ve ever played; and if I had the tools and means, I’d play it again in a heartbeat.
Epilogue: During a recent Best Buy trip I *almost* picked up one of the latest Sam and Max games, Save the World. But I didn’t. As close to my heart as the lovable duo, I couldn’t figure out how to parse out enough time to sit in front of a computer to play, this after sitting in front of a computer on most days and occasionally wanting eat my left hand just for a change of pace. Yeah. Time, my friend and enemy, is a constant theme here. I don’t mean to dwell on it, but it’s so tangible right now I can’t help but do so. Y’know, after about a month and a half of nothing, I finally, just last week, played a little Skyrim. It was the most pathetic round of play ever. I was dismayed to remember that I had only made the tiniest dent in the game and I didn’t get much further. I couldn’t for the life of me recollect where my character was or what I was supposed to be doing. I spent the entire time backtracking; and I eventually had to go online for help juts to finish one quest. Ha ha…hahahaha…ha. Oh, I can laugh about it now, but that was a sad day. Maybe I should just start in on that left hand…
Epilogue part 2: On a different less flesh-eating note, I have been enjoying the hell out of Felicia’s Day‘s new YouTube channel Geek & Sundry. She and her band of merry makers and game players, such as that of Wil Wheaton playing board games, have posted some highly entertaining and fun videos on gaming, technology, science, the internet, pop culture, and other randomly awesome stuff. I have found them to be the most lovely of companions during what was once the drudgery of combing through my morning emails. So pop on over to the YouTubes and check it out!