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Retrospective: Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders • Page 2

Getting stupid.

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.

3

You can possess that yak. For no reason at all.

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.

4

I've a feeling this game might have predicted the plot of Defying Gravity. I'm not really kidding.

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.

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