There are several factors that contribute to making a point-and-click adventure game truly great, and rarely do they all manage to coalesce like they do in LucasArt’s 1993 classic Day of the Tentacle. Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman managed, in their first directorial roles no less, to create a sequel to Ron Gilbert’s ground-breaking Maniac Mansion as good as, if not better, in terms of pizazz, humour and critical acclaim. The game is a tightly paced, time-travelling, character swapping puzzle-fest complete with sharp dialogue, wonderfully weird music and a general design aesthetic that is completely to die for. Plot-wise, Day of the Tentacle features three playable protagonists, old-school geek Bernard Bernoulli, rotund valley-boy rocker Hoagie and unhinged medical student Laverne, as they face the threat of the titular Purple Tentacle who, after drinking toxic sludge, has developed plans to take over the world. The game takes place five years after the original, but in the exact same setting – the mansion of mad scientist Dr. Fred Edison. Indeed, a lot of the cast of Maniac Mansion return in this sequel, boasting fantastic new character designs that trade the creepy quasi-horror stylings of the original for outlandish Looney Tunes-esque wackiness. Bernard, however, is the only playable character to reappear, graced with the starring role and expertly voiced by actor Richard Sanders, who bestows the heroic nerd with an affable and earnest self-awareness. Truly, all the acting in Day of the Tentacle should be celebrated; every character has a distinct, emotive voice that really helps to sell the countless comical moments. I particularly enjoy Denny Delk’s performance as Hoagie, who imbues the roadie with a gut-busting 90’s bro-dude swagger, made all the more entertaining when he is flung back to colonial times and meets the Founding Fathers, recalling the best moments of Bill & Ted (modern-day ignoramus meets important historical figure): will any video game ever top the line ‘‘Mr. President? May I offer you an excellent smoke?’.
Of course, snappy writing and neat aesthetics are only one strand in the double helix of adventure gaming’s DNA, the other being the quality of its brain teasers – fortunately, Day of the Tentacle does not disappoint. One of the most impressive things the game manages to accomplish is getting the player fully on board with the surreal logic of its puzzles. It is easy to think that a game as wilfully out there as Day of the Tentacle would be chock full of ‘Babel fish puzzles’, (a term derived from Infocom’s 1984 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adventure game, a title notorious for a particularly obtuse puzzle involving a fish that has an initially straightforward seeming solution) cascading levels of increasingly difficult and absurdly illogical problems. The fact that this is not the case is a testament to the considered design of the game; everything just sort of makes sense. You can feel your brain snapping all the pieces together, slowly at first, but then it all starts to fit. Before you know it, you’ve given an exploding cigar to George Washington in order to blow his dentures out, so you can replace them with a pair of chattering teeth, which has the knock-on effect of convincing John Adams that the first President is cold and needs a fire lit. There is even another section after this, which involves placing a blanket over the chimney in order to set off the canary smoke alarm to get everyone to evacuate the building (which allows you to steal the golden quill used to sign the declaration of independence, of course). Out of context, this sounds like absolute nonsense, but within the wacky world of Day of the Tentacle, it is all well within the realms of reason. It takes no time at all to acclimatise to the peculiar, intoxicating loop the game envelopes the player in, and the challenge ramps up from simple to devious in a beautifully organic way. Granted, this isn’t to say that every single puzzle is a winner (I don’t think one point and click in existence nails every riddle) and some of Laverne’s future-based conundrums verge on the egregious. The worst example, at least for me personally, is a sequence involving a black cat that you must dress up as a skunk. Despite my distaste for this puzzle, there are at least some hints towards its solution, and the game never relies on outright leaps in logic.
To continue singing its praises, Day of the Tentacle also boasts fantastic pacing. The game will last you anywhere from four to six hours on a first playthrough (far less if you already know what to do), which is the perfect length for what it sets out to achieve. Even the best point and clicks, like Grim Fandango (which I absolutely love), can start to feel like they outstay their welcome towards the end of their runtime. Day of the Tentacle is a perfect little package, not so long it starts running stale and not so short that it feels inconsequential. It leaves you, as all good games do, wanting more. The actual explorable area for each character is compact, but dense (being alternate versions of the same house over three different time periods) and filled with shortcuts that allow you to get from point a to point b nice and quick. A key gameplay system involves passing items between characters using the Chron-o-Johns (portable toilets repurposed as time machines). The game’s flow is kept completely intact by allowing the player to pass items freely and easily between each character using a quick in-game menu. The first time you do this a cutscene plays, but every instance after is instantaneous. It may sound strange to praise Day of the Tentacle for this relatively slight feature, but so many games (even today) would make the player go through the laborious process of walking back and forth between the time machines in order to pass over objects and pad the game length. The game is not interested in wasting your time. The pacing is further improved by the game’s lack of fail-states and dead ends. Much like the first two Monkey Island games (which Schafer and Grossman also worked on), the threat of game over is completely eschewed. I do understand that some of the more hardcore, old-school PC adventure gamers see random death as part of the integral design (and comedy) of the genre – in my opinion, all early King’s Quest fans are masochists. No roadblocks and no repetition from dying and having to repeat long sequences is a blessing and gives the whole experience an immaculate flow. You, as the player, are free to bask in the branching conversational trees and relax into the puzzles stress-free. Also refreshingly absent is the genre’s somewhat common reliance on pixel-hunting; the act of searching each teeny tiny square dot of a room for a key item. Almost every needed object stands out and is easily identifiable against the grain of the cartoony backgrounds. The challenge is not to find the items to begin with but, as it should be, to figure out how to use them in tandem with each other and your surroundings. Again, I can only think of one misstep here, and even then, it’s a little unfair to label it as one, but there is a set of necessary cars keys completely hidden behind a door in an upstairs room in the mansion. To discover these keys, you must close the door behind you as you enter the room, which reveals them hanging off a hook. The more I think about this hidden item, the more I appreciate its placing – I’m just embarrassed to admit how long it took me to find it!
Unfortunately, I do have to dedicate space to talk about some of the distinct problems present with the Remastered edition of Day of the Tentacle. It is great to see the full, original version of the game preserved and available on modern platforms, but the redrawn art feels like a missed opportunity. There isn’t any reason to switch the graphics from the pleasing sprites of the old to the blurry, smooth outlines of the new. At best, it looks kind of ugly, at worst it makes it actively harder to see necessary items and tanks the level of detail. At least you get a pretty killer remixed soundtrack with the modern graphics, but it’s not enough to actually stomach playing with them for very long. The ability to switch between both versions whenever you want is appreciated, but rarely ever necessary (at least it’s not quite as bad as the remaster of Monkey Island 1, which was hideous with the added insult of locking its excellent voice acting behind the new art). Superfluous new features aside, Day of the Tentacle is still as fantastic as it was on release day 1993 – a time-bending, timeless tale of terrible tentacles that is sharp as a tack and as lean as the rake Bernard just stepped on. Cue laugh track.