There appears to be some sort of trend these days when it comes to acclaimed Underground adventure game developers turning out commercial projects. First we had Dave Gilbert's The Shivah and, more recently, The Blackwell Legacy. Now Ian and Greg Schlaepfer of Herculean Effort Productions, best known for their freeware Apprentice series, have arrived with a commercial undertaking of their own. With its unique premise and nostalgic look and feel, Super Jazz Man aims to bring back the warm, fuzzy feeling of playing a new adventure game from the early nineties, all for the bargain price of $8.95 US. That's certainly a lot less than the cost of trying to build your own time machine; still, is it worth it?
In Super Jazz Man, you play as a young man by the name of Stevie Jack Marcell. By night, he's a busboy at the upscale Zanzibar restaurant who lives with his significant other, Cadence, and their adorable little kitten, Bebop. By day, he turns into Super Jazz Man, a cape-toting hero who can not only fly and beat up bad guys, but also play soulful riffs on his trusty saxophone. Well-loved by his many fans, particularly after playing a successful jazz concert over the weekend that resulted in plenty of CD sales, things look to be rather pleasant and trouble-free.
That is, of course, until Stevie receives an unexpected phone call from Cadence while at work. It turns out that Bebop has mysteriously disappeared, and this time, he isn't just hiding inside a basket like he usually does. But then, as you would expect in an adventure game, you find that the lost kitten is actually the least of your worries. It turns out that a rapper by the name of Rio Grande, who embodies every dreadful commercialist hip-hop stereotype one could possibly think of, is lurking behind the scenes throughout this entire ordeal, and plotting something much more sinister.
The story, while not particularly epic or revolutionary, manages to be quite fun regardless. I found the twist on your average superhero tale to be refreshingly unique, taking me back to those days when even outlaw bikers and pharmacists could be adventure gaming heroes. Furthermore, there's a good handful of diverse characters to interact with, from an enthusiastic music store owner who happens to be a big fan of yours to a rather menacing-looking guard dog. My only complaint is that characters could have been fleshed out a bit more, as they seem rather flat and static as is. Still, what is shown of these characters is nicely executed, particularly their well-written dialogue lines, which sound natural with an appropriate balance of humour and seriousness.
Now, I did mention that one of the main aims of Super Jazz Man is nostalgia, and a nostalgic homage it is, from its pastel-coloured 320x200 graphics to its General MIDI soundtrack to its complete lack of voice acting. If you're looking for the next great cinematic masterpiece, you certainly won't find it here. However, what you will find is an awful lot of love and care put into trying to make this game the highest-quality retro experience possible. The point-and-click verb bar interface, very much reminiscent of old-school Sierra and LucasArts, is familiar and intuitive. The 16-colour pixel art is simple but attractive and, quality and detail-wise, wouldn't look out of place when compared to professionally-made titles of old. Better yet, there are plenty of character animations to suit practically every action one can think of, making the Super Jazz Man universe feel very much alive in its pixellated glory.
The music is equally well-composed and jazzy-sounding, which one would certainly expect from a game about, well, a jazz musician. There's certainly enough of it not to become tedious, and the themes for every room are very fitting and atmospheric, from the mellow lounge music played inside the restaurant where Stevie works to more boisterous tunes in places such as the fitness clinic and the music store.
The game's puzzles are mainly inventory and dialogue-based, in a sense that many players familiar with classic adventure games will recognise. They are, for the most part, not too difficult to solve, and make sense in the context of the story, moving it along at a reasonable pace. One thing I found particularly apt was the use of Stevie's saxophone as an inventory item, which he can play for other characters in the game with varying results. Disappointingly, I found that there were a couple of pixel hunts that had me stumped for a little while, as is characteristic of many games played at such a low resolution. There is also a short pattern-based fighting sequence near the end, which should be feasible to solve for most players, but might be challenging for those with especially slow reflexes.
Adding a bit more replay value to the game are four different endings -- some good, some not as good -- which are triggered depending on the decisions you've made earlier in the game. Additionally, you'll find a decent amount of optional interaction and humourous things to try that aren't necessarily puzzle-related. One notable example is the ability to make Stevie fly out of certain scenes rather than simply walk out the door, complete with him yelling "Jazz Away!" with his fist stuck in the air in true superhero style.
All in all, the developers expect an average playing time of about four to five hours, though in my case, it was somewhere closer to three. This puts Super Jazz Man's scope more in the neighbourhood of a single Sam & Max episode than of a whole Monkey Island game, which is certainly appropriate, given its cost. Yet with other games of a similar length and price point offering higher-resolution graphics, quality voice acting, and other bells and whistles, some people may find it hard to justify paying for it, particularly since several of the most prominent freeware games available achieve exactly what Super Jazz Man does just as well, if not better.
Still, Super Jazz Man in and of itself is definitely a game worth playing, particularly if you're in the mood for a light and fun homage to adventure gaming classics of old. There's a demo on Herculean Effort’s website that you can download to satisfy your curiosity and, should you decide that the rest of the game is indeed worth the asking price, the full version can be ordered from there as well. In any case, I found it to be a commendable first commercial endeavour for the Schlaepfer brothers, and will certainly be keeping an eye out for their future "Herculean" efforts.