Having recently finished “Brutal Legend” again for the umpteenth time, I wanted to post up a review, but a simple review didn’t seem to be justice enough for the fifth installment in one man’s legacy of video games. Enter Tim Schafer – not a house-hold name, and not associated with any mainstream games like Super Mario or Halo – but nonetheless, one of the finest creative minds that the medium has to offer and one of my personal heroes.
Tim Schafer is the video game equivalent of Joss Whedon or Tim Burton. His stories are original and inventive, his characters are funny and memorable, and he has a visionary eye for awesomeness that tends to go unappreciated by many (and stated as overrated by others.) Of course, I can’t accredit everything in his games to him (animators, programmers, and the musical works of Peter McConnell and Michael Land, for example. Not to mention David Grossman as “Day of the Tentacle” co-writer.) But because of Tim’s ongoing influence and place in the media spotlight, I’m just going to use his name in reference to himself and the fantastic teams he’s worked with.
He got his start at LucasArts several years ago as a programmer and co-writer of the Monkey Island series before getting promoted to producer, director, and writer for what I deem to be his “Holy Five” that continue on to this day under his new company “Double-Fine Productions.” And here they are:
Day of the Tentacle (1993)
“Kids who put hamsters in the microwaves back where I’m from, get taken away from their parents and put up for adoption, so DON’T DO IT!”
“Day of the Tentacle” is one of those sequels that’s so dramatically different from the original that it might as well be it’s own game. The original, “Maniac Mansion,” followed three teenagers trying to rescue their friend who was being held captive by the mad scientist, Dr. Fred. This one follows three more college students who must travel back in time to stop a crazed mutant tentacle from taking over the world, and end up getting trapped in three different time periods inside the same mansion/motel. The horror element is removed, and what remains is the funniest game ever made.
The main character, Bernard, is a science nerd who remains in the present where he must help his two friends repair their time machines in their respective ages. Hoagie (a heavy metal roadie) is trapped in colonial times and hobnobbing with the likes of Ben Franklin and George Washington, while Laverne (a mentally deranged med student who carries a scalpel) is trapped in a tentacle-controlled future where humans are treated like pets. Many puzzles revolve around changing the past in order to solve puzzles in the future – and with the fate of the world at stake, discretion isn’t necessary. Even the design of the US flag isn’t safe.
“Day of the Tentacle” is honestly my favorite game of all time. This is the game that made me want to be an animator, from the very second the main characters drove through a barn in the opening credits and come out the other side with a cow in the back. It’s over-the-top, it’s clever, well-animated, outrageously bizarre, and funny as hell.
Full Throttle (1995)
“When I’m on the road, I’m indestructible. No one can stop me. But they try.”
“Full Throttle” was Tim Schafer’s chance to prove he’s not all “weird, wacky and crazy.” This one thrusts the player into a Road Warrior-type future where biker gangs rule the roads – and you play Ben – leader of the Polecats, beaten, left for dead in a dumpster, and framed for murder. “Full Throttle” took adventure games on a different tangent – instead of wandering around an endless landscape filling your pockets with inventory items, all you had was your bike, your fists, your feet, and a collection of biker weapons. These were all the tools you needed to solve puzzles in this game.
The game’s drawback was it’s length and it’s difficulty – none. Playing out like a two hour movie, you could hit the road and be finished in half an afternoon. Yet simplicity is the charm of the game and what kept it alive for so long. The story keeps moving, the humor and action are dead-on awesome, and most problems can be solved by kicking them. It was the first action-adventure game where you needed more wits than reflexes to beat action sequences like the road battles or demolition derby, but everything still ended in people getting hurt and things exploding.
To top things off, it had a kick-ass soundtrack, a fantastic highway chase finale, a villain voiced by the multi-talented Mark Hamill, and the most exhaust pipes I’ve ever seen on a single bike.
Grim Fandango (1998)
“You can’t hide from the Grim Reaper. Especially when he’s got a gun.”
The most critically-acclaimed of the Schafer games was “Grim Fandango,” a film noire story set in the Mexican Land of the Dead. You play Manuel Calavera – the grim reaper who also doubles as a travel agent. His job involves reaping souls and selling them travel packages for their four-year journey of the soul, until he gets caught up in some dirty corporate politics, and must go on his own four-year journey of redemption to save a woman he supposedly sent to her doom. Along for the ride is his chauffeur, Glottis – the demon mechanic with a heart of gold who can pimp out any ride you bring him.
What makes the game so unique is how the character development is almost instantaneous. As the first chapter ends with Manny mopping floors in a diner, the “One Year Later” title pops up, and we quickly find out that over the course of one year, Manny has bought the diner and converted it into a night club. And every year holds new surprises as Manny takes on different adventures in different parts of the world – from the nightlife settings of Rubacava, to a Jules Verne journey at the bottom of the sea. The story itself seems taken piece by piece out of all the best old movies, most notably “Casablanca” and Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” while retaining Schafer’s sense of humor and rock ‘n roll style.
While the graphics are dated by today’s standards, it’s still an amazing game with great characters, an excellent jazz soundtrack, and a brilliant narrative. If anyone were to play one adventure game in their life, it should at least be this one.
“They bad news is that we’re going to have to remove your brain and place it in an armored tank to shoot down innocent civilians with its psychic death beam. The good news is that your insurance is gonna cover the whole thing.”
I reviewed this one ages so, but it’s still worth mentioning again. Tim Schafer’s first venture into action gaming held nothing but positive reviews in spite of bad marketing and sales. Fortunately, there was a loud uproar from the internet over this game that got a lot of investors interested in Schafer’s new company.
“Psychonauts” follows a young acrobat, Razputin, who runs away from the circus to join a summer camp for psychics, and finds himself waging a one-boy war against an evil urban legend from the lake. To date, it’s the most imaginative of Schafer’s works, as one of Raz’s powers involves going into the minds of other people’s where you have to literally battle personal demons in an M.C. Esher-type environment come to life.
There’s not much else left to cover on it that I haven’t touched down on before. It’s just one of those rare, comical treats-of-a-game that will likely find it’s way into an art museum one of these days.
Brutal Legend (2009)
“‘What do you do with a bunch of kids that just wanna bang their heads all the time? You start a revolution.”
Without a doubt, the most epic of the Schafer Five. “Brutal Legend” plays out like a love letter to heavy metal, transforming the music into mythology and building an entire continent out of song lyrics. You play Eddie Riggs (voice of Jack Black,) a roadie who, after a stage accident, finds himself in the rock fantasy to end all rock fantasies – leading a rebellion against the forces of the Tainted Coil to free the land and save the woman he loves.
Story-wise, it’s perfect. Every character is well-written, properly motivated, and doesn’t depend on Jack Black to make all the jokes. In fact, even though the game is practically marketed as “Jack Black: The Video Game,” so much thought is put into the supporting cast that they all get their own epic story arcs. A simple soldier becomes a savior, an evil henchmen becomes a best friend, a fallen comrade rises again to the dark side, and so on. Even an anonymous background character (Mangus) ends up becoming a prominent comic relief – even funnier than Jack Black’s character. Everyone has a personal relationship with each other, and this in part does a fantastic job of driving the story forward and coming full circle.
The game is a sheer marvel to look at and listen to. You can’t aim the camera anywhere without getting an eyeful of what could be the best album cover ever (i.e. a field of giant stone hands throwing up the horns.) The music library is huge, being a selection of songs hand-picked by Tim Schafer himself, most of which you’ve probably never heard of but will become a fan of by the time the game ends. Even when songs play during key points in the plot, they only lend themselves to enhance the experience.
Most of the game plays out like a mixture of “Grand Theft Auto” and “God of War” (where you drive around a open world fighting baddies with your axe and solving side-missions.) At times, the side-missions do get repetitive, being mostly made up of ambushes, races, and hunting challenges, but fortunately don’t need to be completed (unless you want to collect enough points to have Ozzie Osbourne seriously pimp out your car.) Then there’s the stage battles – real-time strategy games inside the plot where the stage is your base, the mosh pit is your army, and the only way to defeat the invaders is to put on the best rock show ever. It can be argued that the gameplay either overdoes it or provides just enough variety, but the end result still kicks ass.
Even as I write this, I feel the compulsive urge to just pick up the controller and play the whole thing over again. “Brutal Legend” is a prime example of how someone like Tim Schafer can sell out to a mainstream audience, and still deliver quality storytelling with the same amount of heart he puts into everything else.