My Personal Canon: Maniac Mansion

This is a crossover from my personal blog but I wanted it here for posterity because Maniac Mansion is very special.

Maniac Mansion is a game that features an alien meteor that moonlights as an aspiring writer, feuding rock and roll tentacles, and a plant named Chuck. And when I was ten years old, it scared the shit out of me. It also features a pasty, sex crazed nurse who locks random teens in her dungeon to starve to death and almost as many ways to die as Shadowgate. And yet it was the first game to make me laugh. Maniac Mansion is all things to all people. It contains multitudes.

In 1990, adventure games were a rare thing on the NES. Sure, we had our MacVenture titles and King’s Quest 5 for some reason, but dyed in the wool PC adventure game ports were a poor fit for the system. The D-pad was a clunky replacement for the mouse and Nintendo of America’s draconian censorship policies meant that the subversive humor often found in the genre would have a hard time finding a place next to Mario and company. But here’s the thing: kids had affordable Nintendo Entertainment Systems at a time when a PC could run thousands of dollars. So when a game like Maniac Mansion slipped through the cracks, against all odds, it had the power to BLOW MY YOUNG MIND.

Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s classic Commodore 64 title features a group of seven kids exploring a spooky mansion in order to rescue their friend from the insane Dr. Fred. How this shakes out depends on which kids you choose. Each teen has his own strengths and weaknesses, corresponding to stereotypical social cliques and every combination of characters can reach the end of the game. Unlike most horror movies, you’re not screwed just for choosing to take the stoned surf enthusiast into the mansion of death.

Regardless of who you choose, you’re going to be moving throughout the house, a veritable adventure game Roomba, taking everything that isn’t nailed down and getting the lay of the land. The single house setting contributes a couple of important factors to the gameplay. By constraining all of the action to a single domicile, exploration is manageable. There are less than 40 rooms in the game, opulent for a living space, but modest for a game. Each room has a purpose which means that there’s very little need for the player to engage in abstraction. When you explore a town in Final Fantasy, you have to shut up the part of your brain that’s screaming, “Why are there only six people here and where do they sleep?” Maniac Mansion dodges this and does it in a way that aids memorization. It might be hard to remember exactly what The Towne of Hildeshire refers to but it’s easy to remember where the weight room is. And it’s easy to believe that there is a weight room.

Further, this house is occupied. In most games, NPCs walk back and forth waiting for you to ask them about the Orcs down at the Safeway. Not so here. Ed and Edna are active presences in the house, moving this way and that. Characters receive mail, they go to the kitchen for a snack, they visit one another. Since you’re trespassing, this adds an immense amount of tension. When you’re rifling through the fridge and you see a cutscene where Ed says he’s feelin’ snacky, it’s thrilling. Hiding one room over, waiting for the goofy psychopath to get his cheese, you don’t know know if he’s going to make a side trip to the dining room or not. It plays on the common childhood fear of being somewhere you’re not supposed to be. The aliens in Maniac Mansion aren’t scary but being caught is.

What’s even more ingenious is that you can learn to manipulate the denizens. Need to get into Ed’s room to steal a certain infamous hamster? Well, you know he’s expecting a package so why not have someone ring the doorbell? This gives you a precious few minutes to get in and out and the feeling of manipulative transgression.

The combination of fear and humor is masterful. You can win this game by editing the meteor’s memoirs and getting him a publishing deal and that’s one of the best jokes in gaming history not to mention a great example of defeating someone by giving them what they want. But when you see a trail of unexplained slime coming from an abandoned crate or when you walk past the rotting pot roasts and desiccated turkeys in the dining room, like something out of Great Expectations, it’s unsettling. Humor tinged with horror has rarely been done as well in games, before or since.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack, which is the best reason to choose this version over any other port. Previous versions of Maniac Mansion were almost entirely silent but Jaleco knew this wouldn't fly on the NES and commissioned one of the best video game soundtracks of all time. Each teen has a theme and in addition to being incredibly catchy, each reveals something about their character. Ubernerd Bernard listens to twitchy electronica, Metal chick Razor listens to hard punk and, well, regrettably, Michael listens to funk. Seriously, go listen to some of the soundtrack on Youtube. I’ll wait.

The NES version of Maniac Mansion isn’t without flaws. It’s sometimes tough to figure out what to do next and a few of the censorship changes were a bummer. And the D-Pad controls take a while to get used to. But it’s still important today because it rubbed shoulders with Link and Donkey Kong. Sometimes by forcing a round peg into a square hole, you get diamonds.