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SummaryI feel like I could... I feel like I could... take on the world!
The GoodIn 1987, LucasArts released their first adventure game, Maniac Mansion. Far from being an amateurish attempt to beat the mighty Sierra at its own game, it became an instant classic, influencing the genre forever with its point-and-click verb-based interface. Multiple playable characters, a large and interesting mansion to explore, and tricky puzzles complemented the picture. Another strong aspect of the game were its comedic touches, parodying the over-the-top, cheesy sci-fi and horror movies so typical of the 1980's.
Day of the Tentacle is, curiously, not just a sequel to that legendary game: it can be considered a compilation, since Maniac Mansion can be played in its entirety in one of the rooms on an in-game computer. This elegant generosity further increases the value of the brilliant follow-up: highly recommended playing for its own merits, it becomes somewhat of a requirement by being two excellent games disguised as one.
Today most people would rate Day of the Tentacle higher than its predecessor. While I do not quite agree with that evaluation, I can understand the reasoning behind it: the sequel is much more convenient to play, more fluent, user-friendly, and very polished. Monkey Island crystallized LucasArts' design philosophy: in that game they found the right tools for comedic effects and challenging, yet pleasantly death-free adventure gameplay. Day of the Tentacle follows that school of thought to the letter. It may not be as elusively charming and occasionally dark as the famous simian adventure, but it is certainly a more clearly presented comedy.
Day of the Tentacle owes part of its success to its visual design. Monkey Island games were comedies, but they didn't look like comedies. There was nothing funny in the way its heroes looked and moved. The VGA remake of Leisure Suit Larry was probably the first adventure game that deliberately went for visual humor, with its deliberately eye-hurting bright colors and occasional strange proportions. But Day of the Tentacle goes further than that. The entire game looks like a cartoon, complete with weird angles, distorted characters, crooked and twisted environments, and even a strangely twitchy font for verb commands. The graphics serve as a powerful humorous and atmosphere-enhancing factor in the game - it is funny to look at the deformed heroes and watch them move (remember how Hoagie climbed into the grandfather's clock?). Purely visual jokes find their way into adventure games, allowing them to compete with non-interactive cartoons.
But of course Day of the Tentacle is much more than just a bunch of funny-looking scenes. Following the footsteps of its great predecessor, the game starts right away with a hilariously nonsensical plot: toxic waste makes a sentient purple tentacle evil, and three unlikely heroes - a collected, geeky intellectual, a wonderfully laid-back hippie, and a hyperactive teenage girl - travel to three different time periods in a device invented by a nearly-insane genius scientist with a monstrous caffeine addiction. What follows are all sorts of twisted occurrences affecting the fabric of time from the days of American founding fathers to a grim totalitarian future controlled by the nefarious tentacle. While less dark and suspenseful than Maniac Mansion, the plot does an excellent job at setting the stage for all sorts of gameplay experiments stimulated by the time-traveling device.
The true greatness of Day of the Tentacle is in the way its gameplay and setting complement each other. A game can be visually entertaining and offer the most amusing time-shifting plot in the world, but all this wouldn't be worth much without a gameplay to match this hilarity. Fortunately, Day of the Tentacle is an adventure game above everything else. Its puzzles are nourished by the plot and, in their turn, move it forward. In a cozy atmosphere, within only one location (the mansion), but in three different epochs, you find and gather all kinds of weird items you'll have to use with other objects or send to another time. The puzzles are all woven together, every little solved problem brings you closer to the goal, and the intricate, complicated puzzle tree is very impressive, to say the least. In the end, you can't help admiring the architecture of the puzzles, realizing how seemingly pointless actions were in fact part of the big scheme.
Thanks to their multi-layered nature, many of the puzzles are quite challenging. You have to make some convoluted plans involving three different eras to get that one essential item that will start a whole different chain of events. The cool thing about those puzzles is that they aren't just difficult: they are entertaining and fun to figure out. Many puzzles involve particularly unusual and funny actions made possible with the time-traveling premise. Among those are manipulating a hamster through space and time-bound devices, designing a new American flag in 18th century to solve a problem in the far future, and many more.
The BadAs great as Day of the Tentacle is in what it tries to achieve, it might not be perfect for those looking for a more ambitious project. It symbolizes the more user-friendly, restrained, careful design philosophy that became ubiquitous in post-Monkey Island LucasArts world. You can't die or get stuck, and the game keeps ever-gently nudging you towards the solution with not that many options available. Compare that to the original Maniac Mansion with its character combinations and multiple solutions to puzzles.
Because of the cautious design, the "locked mansion" setting loses much of its appeal. In Maniac Mansion you were surrounded by danger. You could make wrong decisions, get imprisoned, and screw up your game. Day of the Tentacle, on the other hand, is safe, and the enclosed environment becomes a limited playground instead of the ominous place it was supposed to be. This is particularly noticeable in the Laverne scenario, clearly the weakest of three - not only due to its somewhat annoying protagonist, but also because the repressive totalitarian atmosphere of the tentacle rule is not well-conveyed through a game where you can poke around and do what you want without any punishment.
The Bottom LineDay of the Tentacle is considered by most people an essential comedy adventure classic, and for a good reason. Merging various elements of game design into a single humorous whole, this time-traveling, tentacle-defeating escapade set new standards for the genre, which were hardly surpassed ever since.
And you can play the entire Maniac Mansion in this game, so essentially you get two classics in one package!..