Released: September 1990
US Cartridge ID: NES-JM-USA
Genre: Graphic Adventure
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC1 (256k PRG)
Initially developed for the Commodore 64 in 1987, Maniac Mansion was viewed as something of a revelation at the time of its release. Though it utilized many elements already familiar to graphic adventure game fans of the time, Maniac Mansion marked a significant departure from typical genre fare by combining the styles of Sierra On-Line’s hugely successful 1983 hit King’s Quest, placing the directly controllable player character on-screen in a navigable environment, with ICOM’s 1985 Macintosh title Déjà Vu (also ported to the NES), notable for completely eliminating the traditional text parser for input.
In drawing from these earlier titles, Maniac Mansion strove to eliminate the player’s sense of alienation from a game’s fictional world that the traditional interfaces tended to inspire. This avoidance of already well-worn conceits was further attempted in the inclusion of multiple paths through the game leading to several different endings, as well as in the complete removal of an omniscient narrator and the relative lack of situations that resulted in dead-ends or that most 80s adventure games were prone to abusing for the sake of “longevity” and “challenge.”
Of course, Maniac Mansion did not achieve its unprecedented success with the presentation of its narrative structure alone – the content of narrative is what sets the game apart from the pack. Tapping the bizarrely violent and perverse tone of 70s and 80s B-movies, Maniac Mansion features the twisted exploits of Dr. Fred Edison, a peculiarly green hued man who has been conducting experiments in his basement for the past several years, in addition to those of his family, including his neurotic son, Weird Ed, and his disconcertingly vulgar wife, Nurse Edna. When a local high school cheerleader goes missing, her boyfriend Dave brings his friends to check out the Edison Mansion, believing that Sandy fell victim to foul play at the hands of the mad scientist.
The game begins with an expository cut scene showing a meteorite landing in the Edison’s front yard twenty years prior, and then the player is prompted to select which two of Dave’s six friends will accompany him on the mission to save Sandy. Each of the high school students have unique abilities that allow them to approach problems in different ways: Bernard is an electronics whiz, Razor and Syd are both musically inclined, Michael is a photographer, and Wendy is a writer. Surfer Jeff also is available, though he offers no specialty skills that might benefit the party, true to the “stoner” portrayal of his character.
Once the game begins, each of the three kids are maneuvered and manipulated via a standard PC-style mouse driven control scheme, with the D-pad controlling the cursor and the A button confirming actions in the same way that the left-mouse button does on a PC. The bottom third of the screen provides the interface through which a kid may be directed to act, and a running inventory list. Twelve verb/verb phrases are listed, and eleven of these may be used to form simple sentence fragments in order to indicate a desired behavior: in order to gain entry to the house, for example, Dave can be told to “PULL DOORMAT,” which reveals a key hidden underneath. After telling Dave to “GET KEY,” he can then “USE KEY IN FRONT DOOR” to open it, allowing the crew access to the main foyer.
The twelfth and final option, “NEW KID,” switches control to a someone not currently in use. This is crucial in several situations, as many puzzles require two different people to cooperate in order to overcome an obstacle; many of Maniac Mansion’s puzzles rely on using the different abilities of Dave’s allies to creatively solve problems, and not all puzzles are solvable by all of the chosen kids in the party. For instance, while Bernard is the only one that can fix the radio in order to contact the Meteor Police, only Syd and Razor are capable of recording a music single that will impress the Green Tentacle into handing over his own demo tape. While the game is solvable with any combination of characters, the sheer number of paths the game makes available makes it impossible to see everything in the game during a single play through, and by extension significantly increases the game’s replay value – a trait that traditional adventure games are not typically known for.
The entire mansion (the layout of which is based off of Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch) has been amusingly decorated, filled with everyday items occupying each space alongside more bizarre, often macabre selections that accurately reflect their owners. While in the bathroom, someone may flush the toilet, take a sponge, or turn on the sink; however, if the shower curtain is opened, the mummified remains of Dead Cousin Ted can be found relaxing in the bathtub. The kitchen appears normal at first glance until the player notices a chainsaw mounted on the wall and red stains covering everything, implying something hideously gruesome, at least until the stains are explained by the contents of the refrigerator.
These settings aren’t merely for show, but serve to further characterize the mansion’s bizarre inhabitants. While each of the house’s residents can be directly interacted with, their behaviors around the house (like Ed going to the kitchen to get cheese for his hamster) and their immediate surroundings provide background far more effectively than long expository speeches could ever hope to. While Green Tentacle could have told the audience that he loves music, his personality is much more vibrantly portrayed when this type of detail can be inferred from the giant speakers in his room, or from the implications of loneliness rising from the presence of a “Tentacle Mating Calls” record sitting on the shelf.
Maniac Mansion, though suffering a few scratches from the porting process, made the transition admirably to the NES. In response to Nintendo’s strict content policies, some elements of the original have been excised (the racier signs of Edna’s hyper libidinous tendencies, graffiti scrawled in the bathroom promising a “good time,” a classically-styled nude statue, etc.), though there are some hilarious inappropriate things that have been left intact (most famously the ability to microwave Ed’s hamster, giving the player an item labelled “exploded hamster”). The console edition also includes a battery-backed save system, saving players from the headaches of the inordinately long codes given in the Japanese Famicom edition (please note, however, that though they are both based on the same computer game, the American and Japanese versions of Maniac Mansion are completely different ports).
The graphics have been significantly upgraded from the original release on the Commodore 64 (though they are a slight step down from the “enhanced” second IBM PC release), and all of the music except for the title theme is exclusive to the NES edition. Each kid has their own theme suited to their unique personalities, though it can be disabled by turning off the CD player in the inventory, and event cut scenes now have their own creepy and threatening music, adding significantly to the game’s already impressive sense of space and atmosphere.
The computer version of Maniac Mansion is still considered a paragon of the PC Adventure genre, and for excellent reason. As an early pioneer of the evolutionary progress the genre would tread well into the 1990s before eventually succumbing to the onslaught of 3D action games as hardware became more technologically advanced, Maniac Mansion combined genuinely funny humor, effective storytelling, and an abstract style of challenging game play, and all of these traits are lovingly recreated on the NES, giving Nintendo’s 8-bit machine one of its most offbeat, creative, and entertaining efforts.