It's an all-time top five game for me. A thing that exists in my memory as a moment of sheer wonder. As I recently learned with Zak McKracken, it's not always safe to revisit such places. How can something live up to decades of emboldened memories? Well, by being as good as Day of the Tentacle.
I think if you surveyed people for their favourite LucasArts adventure, the chances are Grim Fandango would come top. For me it's always been Day of the Tentacle. Not because it's a deeper story, richer idea, more brilliant world, because it's definitely none of those things compared to Grim. But because it's a pure comedy. And that's one of the rarest gems in the world of gaming.
I remember buying it. From Guildford's only computer game shop in 1993, Ultima. Run by a moustachioed Italian called Mario, and his brother. True story. It was sold in a tall, triangular box, impossible to shelve, and thus stacked in a special display. Genius marketing. That giant triangular prism contained only a thin cardboard CD sleeve and a tall thin manual. It was a glorious waste of space. It was an object to treasure.
A sequel to Maniac Mansion - originally released in 1987 - it's quite peculiar how it makes little effort to bring players up to speed with the characters or previous incidents.
Six years on, you'd imagine a little of the history of the relationship between three protagonists, Bernard, Laverne and Hoagie, and the Edison family would be offered. But instead you're thrown in there, the knowledge assumed, but certainly not necessary. And of course the entire original game is found hidden inside this one for those determined to fill in the blanks.
So you have the nerdy Bernard, roadie metaller Hoagie, and space cadet Laverne returning to the mansion to help Dr Fred Edison with the calamity that has befallen him. One of his tentacle pets, Purple, has consumed toxic sludge and has been transformed into an evil genius planning to take over the world. Edison's plan: to send the three friends back in time to yesterday to switch off the sludge and thus prevent the incident from occurring.
Of course, this is time travel, so it goes wrong. Cheap imitation diamonds are responsible. So Hoagie gets sent back 200 years to Colonial America as the United States Constitution is being written in the same mansion. Laverne is sent 200 years into the future where tentacles have taken over the world, and now keep humans as their pets, stuck inside a futuristic version of the mansion.
Bernard finds himself still in the present day, and with the help of Dr Edison begins a rescue attempt to help the other two. And this is where DOTT's most brilliant feature begins: the port-a-loo-themed time machines, Chron-O-Johns, can flush objects through time between the characters, and as such you begin to think and play in four dimensions.
For instance, Laverne begins stuck in a tree. So what to do about that? Well, we all know George Washington had a thing for cutting down cherry trees, don't we? So that kumquat tree - paint it red. Point it out to the president-to-be, and he'll chop it down. Laverne's free!
This dynamic is so fantastically rewarding, and most pleasantly, almost never sensible. Perhaps the most real-world logic comes when attempting to create vinegar. Get some wine into a time capsule, then open it four hundred years in the future. Old wine = vinegar, so then flush that back to Hoagie and he has the ingredient he needs. Far more often you'll be deep-freezing hamsters, reversing statues (using a left-handed hammer, of course) and changing the American flag to be a tentacle costume.
What's most splendid about this is just how intuitive it is in its absence of logic. The hamster, once defrosted, is very cold. So to warm it up, why not use a jumper from the present day? But not only would it get soggy if flushed forward, but it's far too big for a hamster - let alone that it's stuck under a very heavy sleeping man.
Once retrieved the most obvious course of action is to put it into a tumble dryer with enough quarters stuffed into the coin slot to keep it drying for the next 200 years. The punchline, as you walk Laverne into the mysteriously preserved laundry room, is wonderful. As you walk through the door - DING! - it's finished. And of course hamster-sized.
The writing is also absolutely fantastic throughout. Day of the Tentacle is so refreshing, at no point attempting anything bordering on pathos, never reaching to make a serious point, only ever wanting to be funny and silly. It seems this takes far more bravery from a writing team than any amount of allegory on any topic.
Everything from horror shooters to alien world RTS games seem to try to mirror a modern world situation, say something about the human condition, or reflect classic literature. And let me stress: that's fantastic. Done well it's a special treat. But to be pure comedy, to be a cartoon for the sake of being a cartoon, funny because you want to make people laugh - it's as if there's something wrong with that. Something unacceptable. "Yes, sure, it's funny, but what's its deeper purpose?"
This was a story written by a LucasArts dream team, Ron Gilbert, David Grossman, Tim Schafer, and Gary Winnick. (Winnick more traditionally worked on the art in LucasArts games, but was co-creator and designer on Maniac Mansion along with Ron Gilbert.) Schafer's tone is very apparent throughout, and the dialogue is often blisteringly funny. My favourite line: "Well, you know what they say: If you want to save the world you have to push a few old ladies down the stairs."
Not a thing about this has aged despite being a frightening 17 years old. That's the magic of cartoons. Play it in a small enough window and it looks pristine. Play it full screen and the jaggedy edges are just the art style.
The SCUMM engine at this point was at its peak, letting you choose verbs from the bottom of the screen, but at the same time having smart default options on the right mouse button. Rarely do you have to build a sentence from all three parts (GIVE the EXPLODING CIGAR to GEORGE WASHINGTON) but most usually in just a couple of clicks (EXPLODING CIGAR on GEORGE WASHINGTON). The music is still absolutely fantastic, and the puzzles stand up completely.
The only problem, perhaps, is the lack of patience in the modern player. As a lot of people commented on the Zak McKracken retro article, adventure games used to take a few weeks to complete. You'd get stuck, walk away for that day, and come back to it the next. You'd maybe not progress, but you'd explore everywhere, in all three time zones, and try so many things.
I'm not sure how I possessed the tolerance for this. It's that way I would have found the keys on the back of the door in the sleeping man's room, and thus given them to the car thief, getting me the crowbar for the coins. Without that extraordinary, super-human patience I found myself this week on GameFAQs to get those keys. Things have changed. I've changed. I'm more disappointing now.
Day of the Tentacle isn't. It's damned funny. The writing, the puzzles, and oh! The voice acting! Good heavens, if you bought this on floppy disc you missed out so terribly. The three major protagonists are wonderfully acted, Laverne's "Hey there mister tentacle guy," being a pleasure to hear each time. Every other character is similarly brilliant, the car thief's Jack Nicholson drawl, Ben Franklin's crazy boffin accent, and my favourite, the future's purple doctor tentacle who sounds eerily like Willie Rushton.
This is a treat. If you've never played it, gosh, you lucky thing. My playthrough was haunted by every previous journey in years past, solving puzzles before they were presented simply because I knew that chattering teeth were needed to get the fire lit. If you have played it, I challenge you to watch the opening titles and not want to play the whole thing through again. Look at those colours, that design, the bird's cough. The moment the arms pop through. How can you resist?
Definitely one of the best games there is, and what a pleasure to learn it resists the passing of time. Possibly thanks to a battery-powered toilet.