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Written by  :  micnictic (391)
Written on  :  Mar 25, 2009
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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An episodic feast of frivolous laughter

The Good

Lots of reviewers describe Sam and Max by pointing at the franchise's "crazy humor". This description surely isn't wrong, but it's often forgotten, that this whole craziness is only so funny, because it appears so familiar. However deformed and exaggerated it may be, the world of Sam and Max is essentially nothing but our own one. The places our protagonists visit, the people they meet: it all is an extremely distorted, grotesque mirror image of what we already know. In its way of reflecting reality, the franchise was and is a prime example of satire. It exaggerates and taunts the normal, until it appears strange and funny. Indeed, Sam and Max are funny, but the reason is not so much that they are just crazy, but that they illustrate the madness of the world we live in.

Of course, the game's portrayal of our world is everything but naturalistic. The setting is full to the brim with antagonisms, dissonances and strange phenomenons. The most implausible thing are probably Sam and Max themselves: an anthropomorphic dog in clothes and an always naked rabbit-thing, who work as self-employed detectives. The paradox, that surrounds these characters, is perhaps best described by Max personally: "We're here to keep the peace – by violence, if possible".

As I'm quoting him from memory, the phrase may appear somewhat different in the game, but in any case this line describes the absurd nature of the protagonists almost perfectly. Although Sam and Max may regularly save the world from the evil plans of evil thugs, they are clearly no heroes. Their ethical values, if existent, are more than questionable, and their violent attitude is clearly at odds with our conventions of civilized behaviour. The latter is especially true for Max, but Sam isn't really that much better. A hilarious scene from the first episode has him knocking out an unfortunate, annoying, little kid by the well-aimed throw of a bowling ball, for example. As they seem to follow no rules, one could actually consider Sam and Max anarchists. Wherever they go, they cause chaos and mayhem – yet they indeed always save the world in the end. Their motivations for this remain a mystery, by the way.

The characters of Sam and Max aren't sufficiently explained by pointing at their chaotic spirit and violent behaviour, however. Their verbal humor is perhaps even more important. The dog and the rabbit are in fact two extremely sarcastic intellectuals, who never run out of sharp remarks about the mad world, that's surrounding them. Like most adventure game protagonists they are constantly commenting on everything they see. The difference to most other video game characters is, however, that Sam and Max may come up with something surprisingly insightful from time to time. Actually they are studying the world in an almost analytical way. They deconstruct things, places and people with their intellectual rhetoric, as if they were looking at it from a remote distance. This gives the game some subversive potential, since the protagonists can (and sometimes subtly do) deride common ways of living and thinking with their ironic remarks. All in all they do it much too seldom, but listening to how Sam and Max perceive their world is at least very funny.

Speaking about humor: the puzzle design actually is an important part of it. As weird as the world of Sam and Max is, as weird are the tasks you have to fulfill – gameplay and narrative in perfect unity, so to speak. One of my favourite sequences comes from the second episode, where Sam and Max get caught in an incredibly brainless TV sitcom called "Midtown Cowboys", where they not only have to improvise a totally absurd scene, but also must place a product placement for toothpaste in it somehow. This hilarious sequence is completely interactive, all done via fairly traditional adventure puzzles. It surely is a highlight in terms of humorous puzzle design, but the season is generally strong in that regard. I even think of the puzzles as superior to those in the old predecessor "Sam and Max Hit the Road", since they are much more balanced and less likely to frustrate you. Don't get me wrong, though: it's still part of the fun to throw conventional logic overboard and resort to quite odd ways of thinking.

The episodic nature of "Season One" clearly is the most striking change towards the predecessor. As it was the first time I ever tried my hand at an episodic game, I wasn't so sure about what to expect. However, after playing the whole thing, I have to say: the idea works. The briefness of the episodes actually never bothered me. Since stretching a comedy is seldom a good idea, I actually liked the idea of finishing an episode in one funny evening. A really clever thing is, how each of the six parts has a self-contained plot, but at the same time connections to other episodes. Actually all the cases, which Sam and Max have to solve, somehow involve the theme of hypnosis. No matter whether the criminal nemesis of the day is a former child star, a living statue of Abraham Lincoln or a mafia mob: in some way or another they all try to hypnotize the population. As it turns out, each of these incidents is indeed part of a bigger plan and the real mastermind, who stands behind every crime committed, is revealed not before the final episode. So, while each episode is basically understandable on its own, only together they form a more complete story. To maximize the fun, my advice is therefore to play them in the proper order.

Last but not least I should mention, that the season has excellent production values. Particularly outstanding are the voice actors. I played some episodes in English, others in German: they were in both versions almost perfectly cast. Often enough you get the impression in video games, that some actors hadn't had a clue about the roles, they were performing. In this case the actors obviously understood not only their roles, but also the specific kind of comedy, that Sam and Max is. The performances are all completely over the top, just how they should be. Graphics, animations and music are also quite nice, by the way.

The Bad

There are certain aspects, where the old "Sam & Max Hit the Road" is still superior to Season One. For example, the aged classic was constantly surprising you. New locations kept popping up on the map, new characters were introduced, one insane situation was followed by another. The small episodes of Season One are pretty much straightforward and predictable in comparison, especially since certain key elements are repeated again and again. The similarities in the structure of the episodes and the continuous recycling of already known locations and characters can actually get quite tiresome.

Another thing is, that Sam and Max are often hilariously funny, but there's mostly not much behind it. Some may consider this a very stupid criticism, but what separates this game from a really brilliant satire is, that it is only interested in laughter. The protagonists deal out blows in all possible directions, but they are doing it more or less randomly. Basically Sam and Max are just nihilists, who put on a nice farce, while they waste their analytical skills on mostly meaningless targets. They are indeed very funny, but you ask yourself no questions, while you laugh.

The Bottom Line

I would have to play it again to say this for sure, but I don't think that "Hit the Road" was really so much better than "Season One". At least Sam and Max haven't changed: they are exactly like I remember them. Surely we all tend to glorify the past a little, but I think Telltale's take on the franchise is by all means a worthy successor to the old classic. It's witty, entertaining, funny and already available as a bargain...