Adventure Gamers Awards
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders was the third adventure game from Lucasfilm Games, and the second to utilise the renowned SCUMM engine. Almost two decades later, this game seems to receive much less fanfare than other LucasArts adventures, but it's equally deserving, so it's time to bring this underloved classic to more people's attention.
Released in 1988 and set in a then-near-future 1997, Zak tells the story of the titular character, a mild-mannered reporter for a schlock paper called The National Inquisitor, whose search for a story uncovers a conspiracy involving a race of aliens plotting to invade the Earth. Using their not-so-cunning disguises of fake moustache and eyeglasses, they have infiltrated the phone company in Zak's hometown of San Francisco, and are broadcasting a high-pitched tone through the lines that reduces people's intelligence to such a degree that they're unable to resist the alien machinations.
In the intro to the game, Zak is having a weird dream featuring aliens, the planet Mars, some kind of strange machine, and a huge pair of noseglasses. If that sounds bizarre, hold tight, as it only gets stranger from here on in. Upon waking up, Zak gets dispatched by his boss to Seattle to investigate rumours of a two-headed squirrel that's been terrorising campers. Unusual, yeah, but not so out of the ordinary for a reporter who has actually made up stranger things in his time. It all really takes a turn for the weird, however, when Zak comes across a mysterious, seemily ancient artefact. As luck would have it, Zak caught an infomercial on TV earlier that advertised a nearby woman seeking ancient relics to study.
This brings us to Annie, a crystal expert. Annie is the girl of Zak's dreams -- literally, since she also appeared in Zak's dream, despite never having met before. She is a member of the Society for Ancient Wisdom, and along with her two friends Leslie and Melissa, shared a dream similar to the one Zak experienced. In this dream they were tasked with building a machine that could be humanity's only hope against the Phone Company aliens. The artefact Zak recently found proves to be one part of this device, and Zak, along with the three girls, must set out to find the other pieces.
Despite hogging the title, Zak isn't the only playable protagonist. Throughout the rest of the game, the player will also control Annie, Melissa and Leslie, switching between them at will. Thing is, Annie's co-ed friends aren't quite as local anymore -- they're on Mars. The dream they shared also instructed them how to convert their van into a spaceship and travel to the red planet to aid in the resistance effort. So far they haven't found much, but what players learn from Annie and Zak's escapades on Earth allow the girls to progress, and vice-versa. All four characters will work either alone or occasionally in pairs to succeed in the task of finding the machine parts and eventually rebuilding it.
The home team's hunt for parts takes them all around the world to places as diverse as Cairo, London, Mexico City and the Bermuda Triangle. Along the way it becomes apparent that the Caponian (as the Phone Company aliens are known) invasion was expected by a different race of benevolent aliens (the Skolarians, after whom the machine Zak and Annie dreamed of is named), and a trail of clues and puzzles was laid to assist in their defeat. Each artefact, with the exception of a couple that can be found by dumb luck and exploration, offers some kind of pointer as to where the next can be found, or at least something to help in retrieving it. As more and more locations become available, and more artefacts are found, the story behind the Skolarian Machine and its creators unfolds. The story is hardly a grand conspiracy, but for a light-hearted caper like Zak McKracken, it's strong enough to maintain interest and offer encouragement to continue wandering the globe.
As the concept of aliens in lame disguises subverting Earth's telephony probably suggests, Zak is by no means a serious game. From a golf-playing Nepalese mystic and his credit card-accepting devotees to an alien shaped like a broom, the game is full of the weird and wonderful. The humour tends to come through more in situations and events than in any fast and furious gag-telling like you'd find in Sam & Max. Indeed, there isn't a huge amount of dialogue in the game at all. There are occasional cutscenes that feature non-interactive dialogues, but there's no option to initiate a conversation with another character yourself. This also means that the protagonists' personalities aren't very well defined, since we don't see them speak to many people, least of all to each other. Zak is the character controlled most often, so he appears in most of the cutscenes. But while this offers at least a little insight into him, the other three PCs are particularly underdeveloped. Humour also comes through in the frequent headlines. Any time something out of the ordinary happens (so every few minutes, basically), Zak is quick to come up with a pun-laden potential news title for his paper. Similar headlines like "Sabotaged Sink Stifles Screeching Stewardess", "Reporter Becomes Space Cadet in Space Cadillac!", and "Man Trades Minds with Dolphin; Destroys Tuna Boat Fleet" also show up in the stands located in every airport in the game.
While the four characters may not have distinct personalities, they all have their uses. Zak is the only one who can learn how to utilise the secret powers of the artefacts he finds. Annie can use her knowledge of history and linguistics to decipher texts and markings. The other two are similar to each other, but Leslie is less afraid of the unknown, and Melissa has her boom-box (cassette player, for those unfamiliar with '80s jargon), which she refuses to let Leslie use. Certain puzzles also call for up to three of the characters to work in tandem. Any of the characters can die, and although it's possible to carry on without them, this is futile, since the team is useless without any one of its members. That's not to say that death is around every corner, though. The deaths are all very sensible; for instance, if you're on Mars, you shouldn't reasonably take off your oxygen-providing helmet. These deaths are very rare anyway, and never happen without fair warning or due cause.
At the risk of turning everyone against Zak at this stage, here's a small warning: Zak has mazes, and lots of 'em. These mazes vary in difficulty from complex passages where you'll need a pencil and paper handy to map your way around, to simple ones which just require wandering around for a set number of screens. The tougher mazes can be almost impossible to navigate without a map, but they are logically laid out, with no nasty surprises, so once you've worked them out you'll be all right. The sheer number of mazes in the game could be a turn-off for a lot of people, but rest assured that the majority are easy enough to get through, and they never really become too frustrating.
Puzzles in the game are rarely difficult nor complicated, though taking notes is definitely recommended. A lot of the puzzles revolve around the codes and markings used to access previously unavailable areas. A diagram found in some remote corner of the world will provide the means for unlocking some other far-flung treasure trove -- rinse and repeat until all the requisite areas have been accessed. Most of the other puzzles are of the inventory variety. This game differs from many others in that Zak isn't just a kleptomaniac who roams around thieving anything he sees; he actually pays for some things. There are a large number of items available for purchase in a pawn shop in Zak's hometown, all of which come in handy, even if they're not all essential to succeed. Zak and the other three use their CashCards to pay for such things, as well as air fare and other travel arrangements. It is actually possible to run out of money and become stranded, but if you keep an eye on your CashCard's balance, this isn't likely to happen. It's always possible to make money by hawking your stuff in the pawn shop, or by other means, so this money system acts as another puzzle. Splurge wildly without paying attention to your bank balance, and it's game over (or at least becoming stuck with no means of escape).
Zak McKracken follows the LucasArts tradition of containing in-jokes, though these were naturally limited at the time. In addition to Chuck the Plant (who first appeared in Maniac Mansion and went on to appear in several other games), there are other MM references as well. At one point in the game, one of the characters comes across a can of chainsaw gasoline with no apparent purpose; the joke being that in MM there was a chainsaw with no fuel. There is also a poster in Lou's Loans pawn shop advertising Maniac Mansion. Conversely, there is a poster advertising Zak on the wall in the games room in the enhanced version of MM (which was released slightly after the original version of Zak). It's not a major part of the game, but it's always a nice treat and a fun diversion to look for these bonus gags.
As with a lot of old games, there exist a number of different versions of Zak McKracken. Most of them we've probably all heard of -- PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Apple II -- but only real obsessives have probably ever heard of the Fujitsu FM-Towns release. This PC/console hybrid wasn't widely bought outside of its native Japan, so this version of the game is understandably rare.
There are three main versions of Zak, each released on a variety of platforms: the low resolution, 16-colour original edition; the higher resolution, 16-colour enhanced edition; and the 256-colour, hi-res version only on FM-Towns. With the wonders of ScummVM, it's now possible to play almost any version made for its respective platform (aside from the impossible-to-find Apple II version) on just about any machine imaginable these days. If at all possible, I would recommend the FM-Towns version with its vastly improved graphics and CD-quality music, but given its rarity, this review is based on the far more readily available enhanced PC version.
Below are screenshots from the various versions. The graphics are similar on all supported platforms for each version, with only minor differences in the colours.
Commodore 64 version:
PC enhanced version:
The music in the original versions used the PC speaker or equivalent. This resulted in a primitive range of sounds, but Zak still manages to have enjoyable music, with the main theme being a personal favourite. The blips and bloops of the speaker are used in varying tones and frequencies to create great electronic tracks, despite the obvious limitations of the hardware. There are also sound effects throughout the game, and although equally limited technically, they do well to emulate such things as footsteps, animal sounds, doors opening and closing.
The game's interface is the LucasArts point-and-click standard of the time. For those unfamiliar with this, interactions are performed by selecting a verb from a choice of 15 (walk to, pick up, open, close, push, pull, etc.), then clicking on an object in the game world upon which to perform that action. Plenty of possibilities, you might think, but unlike most adventure games there is no 'examine' or 'look at' option. This means hotspot interactions are often fairly limited, with none of the witty descriptions most comedy games would provide.
Those fortunate enough to have a boxed version of Zak get the additional benefit of a paper copy of The National Inquisitor. This comes in handy for tips to the solutions of quite a few of the game's puzzles. That's not to say the puzzles are impossible without the paper, but it definitely helps. Even if the hints aren't required, the paper is well worth reading for the kicks alone, being packed with amusing shock-news type articles and still more headlines such as "Alien Amusement Park Found on Mars" and "Bigfoot Wins Kissing Contest".
All in all, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is a very quirky, amusing game, with a wide variety of locations, an engaging story, and unusual characters. With better characterisation, more dialogues, and perhaps fewer mazes, it could have been even better. Still, it's a very good game with much to offer even today, and one deserving of a lot more attention that it receives. If you've played through the more celebrated LucasArts games and are wishing they still made them like they used to, Zak and the gang might be just what you're looking for.