Day of the Tentacle review
Insane, mutant tentacles. A frozen hamster. Three distinct playable characters. Time travel. Fake barf. Truly, this game has it all.
One other thing Day of the Tentacle has in no short supply is charm. It's got that in spades. Everything about this game just comes together beautifully. The brilliant, hilarious, and innovative creation of design veterans Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, Day of the Tentacle is a sequel to Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick's venerable 1988 point & click progenitor, Maniac Mansion (the entirety of which is playable on a computer from within DOTT). While the two games share a few characters and some story elements, in many ways Day of the Tentacle is a radical departure from its predecessor and very much reinvents the franchise. There is a notable similarity in the gameplay element of multiple playable characters, but while Maniac Mansion allows the player to assemble a team from a list of playable characters, DOTT's characters are preselected, allowing for tighter storytelling.
But enough comparisons to Maniac Mansion. Day of the Tentacle stands up perfectly well on its own. The game begins when Purple Tentacle, one of insane Dr. Fred Edison's bizarre biological brainchildren, takes a sip of toxic industrial waste. The vile substance endows him with formidable intelligence and a deep ambition for world domination, as well as a couple previously nonexistant stubby arms. Bernard Bernoulli, the über-nerd who first appeared in the previous game, enlists two rather unlikely friends to accompany him and investigate the situation: laid-back metalhead Hoagie and perpetually on-edge anatomy enthusiast Laverne. The three make their way to Dr. Fred's mansion amidst one of the best-executed opening credit sequences in game history.
In a risky attempt to go back in time and prevent Purple Tentacle from ingesting the toxic sludge, Hoagie, Bernard, and Laverne end up in three separate time periods, none of which seem appropriate for fixing the problem at hand. Hoagie is stranded in colonial times and happens upon America's founding fathers struggling with a bit of Constitutional writer's block. Laverne is taken two hundred years into the future, by which time the tentacles have effectively subjugated the human race, and Bernard finds himself right back in the present day. Soon, the player gains the ability to switch between characters at will and transfer inventory items between them. It is in large part because of this amazingly well-realized gameplay element that Day of the Tentacle succeeds on so many levels.
The most obvious impact of the three-character setup is on the puzzles. The ability to share most inventory items allows for unique methods of problem solving. Certain characters are often required to find items in their respective time periods and send them to other characters, who might in turn combine them with their own inventory items and use the result to solve a puzzle. This model is used throughout the game, and while it is not necessarily revolutionary from a game design standpoint, it most definitely serves to keep things fresh and distinct from almost any other adventure game. Completing an otherwise traditional task spread across three temporal dimensions can be quite a satisfying accomplishment.
Fortunately, many of DOTT's puzzles are anything but traditional. While each character exists in a different time period, all three settings are geographically congruent; the entire game is played within different incarnations of Dr. Fred's mansion. This leads to some excellent puzzles in which, for example, Hoagie can indirectly influence Laverne's world, since his actions in the past have an effect on the future. More than a mere gimmick, this bizarre connection is integral to DOTT's top-notch puzzle design. There are very few unreasonably obscure puzzles, and many that are simply classic. The writers did a superb job dropping hints by way of dialogue, without being either too obvious or too obtuse. Then again, as in many of LucasArts' titles, particularly humorous ones, puzzle solutions are sometimes discovered accidentally as the result of haphazard interactions. While some may take issue with this, the game's puzzles never quite reach the level of nonsense, despite the absurdity of the plot and characters. If anything, these moments serve to reinforce the game's insanity while keeping it grounded in well-crafted puzzles.
Indeed, the story of the game and the gameplay itself are deftly intertwined. Almost without exception, the puzzles tie directly into the plot, rather than existing on a separate plane. Certainly the main story itself is nothing that hasn't been done before (a mad genius sets out to conquer the world and our heroes must go back in time to set things right), but the way this story is developed and mutated in accordance with the puzzles, rather than simply progressing parallel to the puzzles, is extremely impressive and a fairly unique feat. This achievement is largely made possible by the time travel element, which provides the aforementioned ability to affect the game world itself.
So how does the game look? In a word: deranged. This is, of course, intended to be taken in the most positive possible way. DOTT, which was released in 1993, features 320x240 resolution graphics which have aged remarkably well. The backgrounds are very cartoonish, with skewed perspective and bright contrasting colors, and the sprites ooze character. This is not a game that is visually generic. The art direction is exceptional and, as one would expect from a LucasArts release of the time, very solid throughout. Sprite animations are fluid, funny, and abundant. Considering how much effort it takes to animate a sprite, it is particularly impressive that so few shortcuts were taken with the animation. Even today, when characters are generally real-time 3D models, animators often do not take the time to create unique animations for all in-game actions. DOTT certainly does not suffer from any such deficiency. Just about every sprite in the game, from the playable characters to the NPCs, has at least one idle animation and myriad context-related animations, all of which are completely appropriate for the character and the situation at hand.
Day of the Tentacle completely succeeds in the sound department, as well. The score by Michael Land, Peter McConnel, and Clint Bajakian, LucasArts' former Holy Trinity of composition, is masterfully created and suitably bizarre. The music is at times goofy, at times eerie, and alternately evocative of classic cartoon music and Danny Elfman. The main Tentacle theme, first introduced near the end of the opening titles, is a bit of inspired genius. MIDI is the order of the day, as one would expect given the year of the game's release, but the soundtrack holds up pretty well regardless. Often, with more traditionally orchestrated soundtracks, MIDI tends to really diminish the effectiveness of the music, but in this case the music is eclectic enough that the pitfalls of MIDI instruments are at least partially offset. The sound quality isn't remarkable, but it gets the job done.
LucasArts had a knack for producing quality voice work for their adventure games, and this one is no exception. DOTT's voice acting is right on target. The game had a full talkie release--still something of a novelty in 1993--and the result was very professional. The hilarious script is well-delivered by the game's voice talent, and the actors who portray Bernard and Hoagie stand out in particular. (Note: There were two versions of the game released. The CD version has full voice acting and the floppy disk version has voice only during cutscenes and a few key gameplay moments.)
The sound effects are generally well-done and appropriate, and were very obviously inspired by the wacky sounds of cartoon shows such as Looney Tunes. However, one of DOTT's few flaws (and a relatively minor one at that) comes courtesy of the sound effects. Many of the sound clips are overused and start to become repetitive. For example, there appears to be only one tentacle "footstep" sample in the whole game. There are also a few cases of the same sound effect being used in two completely different contexts, which comes off sounding like a bit of a cop-out. These easily-overlooked problems may simply have been borne of the necessities of saving space, but in such an otherwise excellent game, they are occasionally disappointing.
Day of the Tentacle really does just about everything right. I can't claim it's the ideal adventure game, or that everybody will love it, but it's hard to argue with the fact that it does an extraordinarily good job of all the elements a great adventure game needs. If someone were to ask for a few examples of games that exemplify the best of the graphic adventure genre, Day of the Tentacle would certainly be near the top. This is a title that can be recommended to any open-minded mainstream gamer, and is essential for anyone who identifies as an adventure gamer. If you haven't played through this gem, go track down a copy. There's no time to waste.