This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Grim Fandango.
You ever get the feeling that the big, fancy ship we've had so much fun on over the years has started sitting a bit lower in the water than it used to? And when we bring our concerns to the captain, we find him doubled over with his pants round his ankles and his nose shoved up his asshole, 'cause he was curious to know if it was possible to survive by breathing your own farts? I've been feeling that way about the AAA sector of the industry for some time now. What isn't a sequel is knockoff, what isn't a knockoff is a reboot, what isn't a reboot is a remastering. Even a dog chasing it's own tail has the sense not to bite it off and try to sell it as a draught excluder.
Still, I'll take a remasterbate over a rebootycall, 'cause like all culture, games exist as a historical record that can teach us a lot about technology and attitudes of the past, all of which is lost if you remake it every ten years with all new gritty realism and testicle physics. I always appreciate the kind of remastering that lets you see how far we've come, with a special button that turns the graphics back to the original low-res version like you've opened a gateway to the LEGO dimension. But the games that do get remastered and preserved thusly are getting picked pretty fucking arbitrarily, in what seems to be a fucking open season on remasterings. Resident Evil, a poster child for aging poorly, second only to Macaulay Culkin. Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy Remastered? In order for something to be remastered it has to have been mastered in the first place. The most you can do with Fahrenheit is rebollocks it up! But on the positive side, we have Grim Fandango Remastered, which I am going to cover fully because the original would have been a prime candidate for retro review if it could have been persuaded to run on any computer built after the turn of the millenium.
Grim Fandango is an adventure game created by Tim Schafer back in his LucasArts days and remains officially the last original thought anyone has had even within earshot of LucasArts. It's now been clawed from the Sarlacc pit and rereleased by Tim Schafer's Double Fine with all-new remastered graphics, by which I mean I mean the same graphics, but the models have better definition. Although considering that all the characters look like they're wearing paper bag skull masks, definition was never really an issue there. And there was a limit to how much the prerendered baked-in background art could be zhuzhed up. So it still looks like a 3D modelling portfolio by someone who refuses to move on from the Amiga 1200.
Alternative control schemes have also been added, since this was back before there was as much competition for your time and you could say, "you'll take our tank controls and fucking like them, player". Both alternatives have their issues, of course. With mouse controls you run by double-clicking, but it doesn't work when you're clicking on an interactable object, which are the only reason to move anywhere. Using a controller with the camera-based controls has the usual issue when the camera is constantly changing angle and position, causing the main character to suddenly spin on his heel as he does so, like he just walked into a brothel and saw his future father-in-law. And when you get into a vehicle, suddenly all bets are off what pushing analog stick will do, unless you bet that it will not be whatever you wanted it to do.
But I don't want to harp on it for not being remastered enough, 'cause as I said, preservation is the important part and it's heartening just for it to be available to everyone who might never have been able to play it before. Kind of the opposite problem to what Fahrenheit has, which is finding anyone who might want to have played it before. On that note, the attitude of preservation is taken to an admirable degree in Grim Fandango Remastered. The original was completely bugged up the arse as well! Glitches accelerated as the game went on and I had a nice, juicy crash and forced reboot some ways in. Now I know why the game opened with a message saying, "Hey, there's no death or failure state, but maybe you should frequently save anyway, wink-wink, tap nose. Yes, we have heard of autosave, but we don't want you getting complacent. You know how it goes, autosaves one day, sudden spike in the infant death rate the next."
Well, that about wraps up the technical side of things, let's move on to the more interesting question: does Grim Fandango still hold up? It's set in the Aztec afterlife through which the dead must journey for four years to reach eternal rest and we play as Manny Calavera, a travel agent whose job is to sell travel upgrade packages to the newly dead. Kind of a plot hole here, 'cause the quality of the travel package is supposed to be based on how good they were in life. So I don't see how he'd be able to upgrade them. There's a rather hasty throwaway line concerning "the money you were buried with", but I don't see how two coins on your eyelids will fund much more than a trip to the snack machine. Anyway, Manny's attempts to cheat the system gets an innocent woman tied up in a sinister plot and he must embark upon his own four-year journey to find her and gain redemption.
Now, I've been increasingly down on adventure games over the years, 'cause they're just linear stories broken up with glorified key-hunting puzzles, often riding a train of logic that took on a few too many passengers at Batshit-on-Sea. But Grim Fandango demonstrates how to juice that particular lemon. It's just a matter of using puzzles to further the story rather than interrupt it. Pour exemple, the high spot of the game is Year Two, when Manny is running a night club in a gambling town, from one dry objective of securing passage on the next ship out, the usual chain of, "use thing on thing to get next thing", is threaded through a showcase of colourful intrigues and characters that Manny's gotten to know over the last year. And it paints him as much more likeable and savvy than the standard adventure game stock clueless twat. Bit of a story/gameplay clash at one point when Manny witnesses the murder and tragic death scene of a friend, and then after composing himself, blackmails the murderer into letting him steal some fucking tools. I suppose it works with Manny's overall redemptive character arc, but it's kind of short-sighted for a guy with no eyes.
And the game never gets back to that level, it kind of loses steam from the ship section onwards, ironically. The last two years get a bit hasty and scrappy. Not a dealbreaker, but if like me, you get most of the way through and the game crashes half an hour after the last save, it might be what makes you pack it in. Fuck it, I basically remember how it ends. If I wanted to start gambling on crash likelihood, I'd buy a super saver package on Malaysia Airlines.
- Miserable Foxtrot: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- All the games I've done that had 'Dead' or 'Dying' in the title and this of all games doesn't
- Never got around to finishing 'The Dig' either