Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (FMT)

The next chapter in Carl Houghton's comprehensive review of LucasArts SCUMM titles.

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  • System: FM Towns
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Max Players: 1
  • US Release: c. 1991
  • Developer: LucasArts
  • Publisher: LucasArts

So, we dealt with an alien brain plotting to take over the world last month, and this month we have more aliens trying to take over the world in Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders.

This game is very advanced compared to Maniac Mansion. The graphics are more detailed, there’s more to interact with in the environment, and the dialogue is also a lot more in-depth. In fact, considering there was only a year’s gap between these two games being released, it’s quite promising just how much better this game is.

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First of all, however, it is also very similar to Maniac Mansion. That’s understandable, as it followed MM in LucasArts’ catalogue. Of the 15 actions you can take in Maniac Mansion, 12 have followed in Zak, with new additions being “take off”, “switch”, and “put on”. Which, of course, means that there’s still no “look at” action. Or “talk to” action, either. Considering how adventure games ended up panning out, this seems to be a cardinal sin. And you definitely notice it here, because, unlike in MM, there are a lot of characters in this game. Yet you always feel like you’re being talked at, never properly responding. And with there being no “look at” option, we’re again doomed to use the “what is” function to simply allow us to see what items on screen are interactive. But at least there are more items on each screen to play around with this time.

This, however, is not necessarily a great thing, as a lot of the puzzles can be quite illogical. Even at the beginning, trying to get the cashcard from under the desk is relatively difficult for a newcomer, especially as an item you need to get the card can seem hidden on screen. And you can’t just turn the TV on by pressing a button on the actual set, like you can with every single TV in reality. Oh, no—you need to get a remote control to turn it on! This kind of puzzle feels like an excuse for the developers to make you work hard to do something that’s quite simple to do outside the game.

And all of that just goes on in Zak’s house! On the flipside, getting past the two-headed squirrel when Zak begins his journey is so easy that it almost feels like a wasted opportunity. This could have been a titanic tussle, a battle of wits against a crazy looking animal. Instead, use one item on it, and that puzzle’s done and dusted. And the fact that you can have about 20 items in your inventory within five minutes in the game was definitely an issue for me, as you’re given far too much to consider at far too early a stage.

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Storywise, it’s a hell of a lot better than MM, albeit a whole lot sillier. Aliens using phone dial-tones to take over the world?! What next—adventurers with aging fathers trying to recover the Holy Grail? But after MM‘s lackluster effort at a plot, McKracken‘s is refreshingly original, and it keeps you a whole lot more interested in the characters, who finally have some actual background to them. You’ll find out about the three ladies in Zak’s life who are all pulling together with a mission to Mars to help find the parts of a secret device which could help undo everything that the evil Caponians (the aliens) are plotting against the world.

The game looks a lot better than Maniac Mansion, as I mentioned earlier in the review. Everything is more detailed, each room and location has its own feel about it (although Mt. Rainier does look like a painting on a wall; this always irritated me), and the characters all have distinct features rather than the two-dots-and-a-curved-smile look that was prevalent in its predecessor. Also, if you can do as I did, play the FM Towns version of this game, because its graphics far surpass those of any other version of the game.

Now, the sound can be an issue, depending on what version you play. Play the FM Towns version, and you’re presented with a glorious-sounding soundtrack. Play one of the other versions, and you’re greeted with…well, I honestly don’t know. I have both the FM Towns and the PC EGA version, and I’ve never heard a peep from the EGA version. I’m sure it’s not just the FM Towns version that has the music, but I’ve yet to play another version that included it. But if it’s FM Towns you have, you’ve got the best-sounding Zak anyway, with sound effects and background noise all adding to the atmosphere. It is weird to be walking the streets of San Francisco, though, and being surrounded by the noise of loud traffic and the hustle and bustle of what seems to be a crowded city street…when there’s actually nothing going on on-screen.

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We no longer have the annoying three-character system of MM, so you’re with Zak all the way here. Same rules apply, mind you; you still have the SCUMM system to do all your deeds and help you solve the puzzles. Yes, it’s sorely missing the “look at” and “talk to” actions, but at least they came along in next month’s LucasArts classic. What you do have in Zak is a faster-paced, more involved system that, though flawed due to some of its very odd items that you may struggle to figure out how to use, is a lot more enjoyable to work through than MM‘s frustrating and long-winded game.

So it’s a bit hit and miss with Mr. McKracken. There’s still not a lot of talking, though the dialogue that is available has improved tenfold over MM. The graphics are a whole lot more detailed, and each room isn’t filled with items that just fill up space, a la MM. And best of all, you’re not limited to just one building anymore. McKracken will see you in Seattle, Stonehenge, and even away from Earth…all you need to know is that if you didn’t like MM, you may struggle to enjoy Zak, simply because it does more or less use the same engine and way of playing. However, the fact that there’s no longer a three-character system or crummy dialogue and you don’t feel as limited means that there’s a far more accessible game to be played through here; but please get the FM Towns version. No other touches it.

Next month, we join Dr. Jones and his father Henry in the quest for the Holy Grail, which, for anyone who has been living under a rock, is perfect timing, as the new Indiana Jones film arrives on the 22nd of May! Huzzah! *Cue stone ball rolling after me until I finish the review!!*

  • GameCola Rates This Game: 5 - Average
  • Score Breakdown

  • Fun Score: 5
  • Novelty Score: 6
  • Audio Score: 8
  • Visuals Score: 8
  • Controls Score: 6
  • Replay Value: 2
2 votes, average: 6.00 out of 102 votes, average: 6.00 out of 102 votes, average: 6.00 out of 102 votes, average: 6.00 out of 102 votes, average: 6.00 out of 102 votes, average: 6.00 out of 102 votes, average: 6.00 out of 102 votes, average: 6.00 out of 102 votes, average: 6.00 out of 102 votes, average: 6.00 out of 10 (You need to be a registered member to rate this post.)
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About the Contributor


From 2008 to 2009

Carl Houghton is a former staff member from GameCola's early days as a monthly email newsletter.

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