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SummarySam, should I confront or subdue in front of the suspected perpetrator?
The GoodLucasArts' has been drifting towards comedy ever since their first adventure game, Maniac Mansion, displayed a peculiar and rather wacky sense of humor. This tendency was fully realized in its sequel, where premise and writing were finally complemented by appropriate visuals.
Sam & Max is another step in the same direction, and possibly the end of the road: after this game, LucasArts has never created anything quite as funny. While Day of the Tentacle was still comparatively tame and followed certain rules imposed by its own sci-fi scenario, Sam & Max is pure comedic chaos. Based on a comic book, the game embodies the spirit of that medium, immaculately transferring it into the realm of video games. It is deliberately strange and often absolutely nonsensical, using everything it can as a punchline: it is laughter for the sake of laughter. You may miss the warmer, sweeter touch of the first Monkey Island, but Sam & Max is probably funnier, and in any case a more developed, straight-to-the-point comedy.
Describing the humor of this game is a pointless endeavor: there is so much of it here, and it doesn't always fit into one particular category. Suffice to say that almost no situation in Sam & Max is devoid of some sort of wacky words and happenings. Cartoony violence is served just in the right doses, without deteriorating into cheap artificial slapstick. LucasArts was always known for its good taste in jokes, and Sam & Max stays true to that even during its darkest moments.
Much of the comical effect comes courtesy of the two protagonists. You only control the more reasonable Sam, but the crazy Max is available to you at all times for dialogue and even as an inventory item. The interaction between those two is dynamic and loaded with energy, adding a lot of spark to the usual solitary adventure gameplay as they travel to all sorts of strange locations in the fictional version of USA. Speaking of which, those areas are certainly diverse and imaginative, including such oddities as an alligator golf course, the world's largest ball of twine, and even a bit of virtual reality. This bizarre world is so complete that even the interface and the famous dialogue system had to change: you now talk to people without knowing what you are going to say. The "duck" icon is particularly worthy of notice: you click on it just to hear one more joke - or, rather, a nonsensical phrase so typical of English humor.
Naturally, all this is just a stage for some of LucasArts' most challenging inventory-based tasks so far. Expect to combine the most unlikely items to receive the one strange contraption needed to solve the equally strange puzzle. Such design philosophy could only lead to more and more convoluted tasks, resulting in their proliferation and eventual decline of adventure games in general. But Sam & Max is still within the boundaries of its own twisted version of common sense in the way it treats puzzles: you can solve them if you try thinking like the heroes themselves. Thus, puzzle design is once again wonderfully woven into the canvas of comedic presentation - which includes, among others, crisp cartoony graphics, excellent animation, and an icon-based interface taken from Sierra's games, resulting in glorious full screen.
The BadSome of the puzzles can get difficult in a manner increasingly typical of comedy adventures: you are expected to use inventory items with each other and on in-game objects in a humorously unorthodox way. Of course, a game like this can't have "use key to open door" puzzles, but they went a bit overboard with this one. Clever tasks co-exist with nonsensical item combinations that seem to be there just for the sake of extravagance. In that respect, Day of the Tentacle is probably more fulfilling, its puzzles being better connected to each other and making more sense - albeit in a similarly twisted way.
Sometimes the game feels a bit disjointed. The way it puts new areas on the map as you complete tasks invariably leads to a certain predictability in the structure. Most of the times you just visit a new area once, do what needs to be done there, unlock the next location, etc. There is little sense of cohesive exploration in the game, and even the comedy itself succeeds because of its brilliant bits rather than thanks to a well-exploited humorous concept. In a way, Sam & Max is fragmentary: you swallow its crazy antics piece by piece, but much of that may leave you underwhelmed and somewhat cold when you complete the game - because both as a comedy and as an adventure, it doesn't follow any general idea and relies on immediate inspiration to impress.