Maniac Mansion: the First Original Lucasfilm Games Adventure
Many people might not think of Lucasfilm as a video game power house outside of a few choice entries pertaining to the Star Wars franchise anymore, but there was a time when Lucasfilm Games was a lush environment for licensed games as well as original content. George Lucas’ desire to branch into other entertainment outside film lead to the creation of the studio and from its opening in 1982 on, they would work on numerous titles published by other companies. However, this day in 1987 saw the creation of something special. It was the first time Lucasfilm Games had ever designed and published their own game --- a quirky, horror-themed point-and-click adventure known as Maniac Mansion.
Co-lead designers Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick conceived Maniac Mansion together in 1985. Their similar interests in film, television, horror and the humor of B-movies guided them to a setting of similar ilk. Films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street provided inspiration for the monstrous family as well as the cast of stereotypical teenage kids trying to save their friend. Meanwhile, the house in the game was actually based on the main building at Skywalker Ranch, as Lucasfilm Games was working out of side building on the property during Maniac Mansion's development.
On a dark night in the countryside, a meteor crashes into the planet. The meteor immediately begins to radiate a strange aura that overtakes the residents of a nearby house. Dr. Fred; his wife, Nurse Edna and their strange child Ed are brainwashed by the meteor and Dr. Fred begins to carry out plans to steal human brains for experimentation. To that end, they kidnap Sandy Pantz. It’s up to her boyfriend, Dave, and his friends, Syd, Razor, Michael, Bernard, Wendy and Jeff, to bust her out.
One of the tougher dilemmas in the development of Maniac Mansion after story, environments, and characters were decided was coming up with what kind of game Maniac Mansion would be. An adventure of some type had always been in mind, as the earliest creations of the game were designed as a pen-and-paper board game. However, it was by chance that Ron Gilbert happened to come upon the original King’s Quest from Sierra Entertainment. Gilbert was enamored with this newly encountered graphical adventure and wanted Maniac Mansion to be similar, though he and Winnick agreed that the system of typing commands to get responses out of the game, even with graphical visuals, left too much up to player trial-and-error and made games somewhat painfully long without good cause.
Gilbert and Winnick didn’t just want something that would be more streamlined and enjoyable for Maniac Mansion. They wanted a system that could easily be used as a foundation for future projects. To that end, they came up with the “Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion” or SCUMM. This interface provided players with 12 simple commands meant to encompass any and all environmental interaction in the game. Indeed, it would provide the basis for numerous point-and-click adventures to come from Lucasfilm Games down the line.
Players were supplied with numerous ways to go through Maniac Mansion based on their choices as they play. Though six friends come with Dave, only two can be selected to venture with him into Dr. Fred’s home. Each has a special talent that comes into play when solving specific puzzles in the mansion. Players switch between characters as events occur, using their various locations and talents to work their way through the game and undermine the house’s inhabitants and eventually free Sandy. This allowed for multiple endings, versatile problem solving, and a ton of replayability.
When Maniac Mansion finally released in 1987 on the Apple II and Commodore 64, there hadn’t been adventure games quite like it. It brought B-movie horror humor together with a creative interface, time-based puzzling, and graphical flair that made it an icon of its time. It would bring about several ports and remakes, including a port to NES, which marked an early point in industry notable Tim Schafer’s career as a playtester. Schafer would later go on to design Day of the Tentacle as a direct sequel to Maniac Mansion and a grand slew of other great Lucasfilm adventure titles would follow based on Maniac Mansion’s stellar design and foundational systems. The glory days of Lucasfilm point-and-clicks may be behind us, but the era was a golden one and it began with one creepy mansion.