I wonder if I'm getting stupider. Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders came out in 1988, when I was 11 years old. It seems impossible to believe that at the age of 32 I can have become worse at games. And yet while my memories of playing Zak Mak when it first came out are extremely hazy, I certainly don't remember getting stuck quite as often. What I do remember is that I really enjoyed it. I've since been told by those who should know that this cannot possibly have been true. So I've gone back to find out.
LucasArts is much heralded as the company that refined the point-and-click adventure into something more coherent and fair than those of its rivals at Sierra Online, Westwood, and so on. However, while this may have eventually become true, it certainly wasn't in 1988. It's hard to believe that much of Zak McKracken came from the same studio that went on to create Monkey Island, and of course the greatest of them all, Day of the Tentacle.
And yet so much else feels like a prototype for those games to come. Alongside random deaths, the ability to play yourself into a dead end, and some extremely primitive storytelling, are also multiple-character puzzles, an elaborate plot, and a great deal of familiar daftness.
Worrying about stupidity is particularly apposite here. Aliens have invaded Earth, taking over telephone companies, and are broadcasting a signal that is making humanity increasingly stupid. Zak is a reporter for an American newspaper, based in San Francisco, who is asked to file a report on reputed sightings of a two-headed squirrel in Seattle. He is not pleased by this.
And so it begins in extremely familiar adventuring style. This is from the era of LucasArts games with the verb system at the bottom of the screen (see the screenshots), so you built instructions by clicking on words and objects in the world. "USE" "butter knife" "squirrel", for instance. Although it lacks the option to "LOOK AT" something, which makes for a strange time in an adventure world. (Maniac Mansion made the same decision.)
Despite not being able to look at anything, Zak can pick up anything that isn't glued down and add it to a really quite enormous inventory. The first stages are about getting to Seattle, which involves discovering aliens running the phone company. And waking a bus driver up with a kazoo. And psychically knowing to use a yellow crayon on a scrap of wallpaper to write down the contents of a dream. Indeed, even the reasonably good opening section is riddled with problems. And disappointingly this just gets worse.
It's packed with some really splendid ideas, but Zak McKracken turns out to be a blot - nay, a blight - on LucasArts' fantastic adventure CV. So why on Earth did I remember it being so brilliant?
I would never have gotten through this globe-trotting, multi-route, multi-character cacophony without using the mighty GameFAQs, and every other minute at that, because Zak McKracken is structured in a fascinating way. It could have been something extraordinary in a better game - you can travel to about eight different countries, in any order you choose, playing as four different characters (two of whom are on Mars), solving some puzzles in a variety of different ways - but it's such a pain to play that these wonderful elements only create further obfuscation.
The game is huge. Twice as long as most adventures of the era. It even has a complex money system. Zak (and indeed Annie) must pay their way, purchasing items from the pawn shop, and more frequently buying tickets for flights. While you start with a generous $12,000, head to the wrong country (which you've not been told about, nor told why you might need to go there, nor warned that you'll need to go there in order to fly somewhere else that can only be reached from there...) and you'll have wasted a thousand bucks.
So how do you make more? Well, you could always find your way to an alien base (proving your friendship with the alien leader by showing him the fan club membership card you have, because you filled out a membership form in the phone company offices and then posted it by, er, putting it in your own letterbox), and then use their lottery-predicting machine. Go back to San Fran, buy a ticket, pick the right numbers, and you'll soon get a bonus $10,000 in your account. Novel, but beyond insane.
By the time you're worrying about maintaining the oxygen levels for two characters on Mars, whether Annie's got enough money to travel to Cairo, or whether Zak picked up the lighter from the aeroplane that's going to be extremely necessary for playing any further, there's far too much going on to let you struggle with clicking everything on everything to get past the latest berserk situation.
But there are some really smart ideas. One is your decisions affecting a karma level and their repercussions later. Choose to kill the two-headed squirrel with a butter knife, or put your goldfish through the garbage disposal, and you'll be told off by a guru at a certain point. It's a cute recognition of your specific actions. It's not exactly Dragon Age, but it's nice that the game's noticing.
Another clever moment of recognition is the first time you meet with Annie. I was still wearing my comedy glasses/nose combination so as to blend in with the aliens so I could pay my phone bill, and as a result she didn't recognise me. Despite the lack of dialogue options, the conversations feel context-sensitive and unique to how you're playing.
But my favourite has to be the moment you're imprisoned by the aliens alongside their mind-bending machine, which is turning humans stupid. The longer you stay in there, the more of your verbs at the bottom of the screen disappear. It's a splendidly meta joke. It's one that somewhat backfires when you lose the button required for getting out of the cell, and thus have to reload yet again, but it's a lovely idea once you're watching the verbs reappearing during your recovery afterwards.
Oh, and Zak can control animals! Using a blue crystal he can possess any animal he sees. It's another sweet idea, thrown in to an already elaborately complex game.
So how was it that an 11-year-old me was able to play through this monstrously idiotic game approximately 400 years before the appearance of the world wide web? Well, it was thanks to an early form of the now familiar online walkthroughs: my dad's friend Ted.
I remember picking up the beige phone receiver, huge in my child hand, and nervously pressing the buttons for this mysterious oracle's number. The extremely friendly and avuncular man would ask with tremendous patience where exactly I was stuck with whichever game I might be playing, and then without hesitation say something like, "Have you taken the flight potion from the wizard's laundry?"
I love to think of Mrs Ted, should such a lady be lucky enough to have lived, hearing the phone ring, then a pause, then her husband uttering, "Did you remember to take the feather from the phoenix before refuelling the engines?"
So I can only imagine poor Ted was inundated with calls when I came to play this most lunatic of adventure games.
"Hi, Ted? I'm stuck in the water. I fell out the plane but I can't swim anywhere?"
"Did you remember to pick up the kazoo from the room in your apartment? If you blow the kazoo you'll attract a dolphin."
How did Ted know? How did it ever occur to Ted to blow the kazoo to attract a dolphin? Are dolphins attracted to kazoos? Does everyone else know that?
So no, I was more stupid then. Stupid enough not to have recognised quite how poor Zak McKracken is, or at least stupid enough to have allowed it to mutate into something stored fondly in my mind. Unquestionably as I reached certain scenes (and none more than the aliens in their hats and fake noses in the telephone company building) it evoked fuzzy 21-year-old warm, safe memories.
But certainly I had not remembered the game's obsession with "mazes", endlessly forcing you to wander blindly, madly, through identical corridors, through indistinguishable doors, hoping to eventually stumble into an important location by nothing other than miserable luck.
At the point near the end where the game so generously decides to force you to do this in the pitch black, clicking at random to find doorways - with a three in four chance of picking a route that would take you back to where you started - I almost gave up entirely, and certainly wailed out loud a number of times.
Zak McKracken is an oddly bland central character. The lack of the ability to LOOK AT anything means you almost never hear Zak's opinion, and without any narration, nor in fact any means of making the narrative clear to you as it's happening, he's a blank, dull vehicle.
There's so much here that's so interesting in terms of pushing the adventure game further than any had tried before. But sadly it all contributes to the bloated confusion, and incessantly maddening dead ends.
I was treated so very much at the very end when I realised I'd sent the two Mars characters back home on their ship, carrying one of the three crystals needed for the closing sequence. And then when finally replayed to avoid this, Zak keeled over and died as he placed the final crystal in place, because I'd forgotten to remove the goldfish bowl and duct tape he'd been wearing while on Mars. Erm, thanks.