For nearly 23 years, Day of the Tentacle has been resoundingly praised as one of the greatest adventure games of all time, a shining example of point-and-click glory. Two decades later, how does it hold up?
Pretty damn well, it turns out. Even without the graphical overhaul offered in Day of the Tentacle Remastered, which is out today for PC, Mac, PS4, and Vita, it’s easy to see why so many people look back at the game so fondly. Day of the Tentacle is smart, hilarious, and unrestrained in its embrace of the absurd.
Designer Tim Schafer has often said his team’s goal was to make a game that felt like a playable cartoon by Chuck Jones, the artist behind Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, and that’s even more apparent in Day of the Tentacle Remastered thanks to the lovely new coat of paint. Characters’ heads twirl like windmills. Their bodies stretch and snap like rubber bands. They get so angry, their faces turn red and steam comes out of their ears.
This physical comedy plays an integral role in the game’s several dozen puzzles, which ask you to, among other ridiculous tasks: make a cigar explode in a president’s mouth, dress up a mummy for a beauty competition, alter the United States Constitution, swap a left-handed hammer for a right-handed hammer, and pour steaming hot coffee down a sleeping man’s throat (with a funnel!).
Day of the Tentacle is a direct sequel to 1987’s Maniac Mansion, one of the first games released by Lucasfilm Games (which later became LucasArts). While Maniac Mansion was both critically and commercially successful, it was also brutal: playing too slowly or making the wrong decisions could leave you unable to complete the game.
In the years following Maniac Mansion, the designers and puzzle-makers at LucasArts decided to go with a more player-friendly approach, creating games like Monkey Island with the ethos that players should never be able to screw themselves over. Day of the Tentacle followed a similar path, which made it feel far more welcoming. Where the absurdity in Maniac Mansion was often coupled with horror — the tentacle mating call is less hilarious when a tentacle comes along and ends your game — Day of the Tentacle just wants to make you laugh. In that, it’s always successful.
Like its predecessor, Day of the Tentacle is set entirely in the mansion of the mad scientist Fred Edison, who is far more chilled out than he was in his last game, probably because he needs your characters’ help. One of his pet tentacles went and swallowed up some toxic sludge outside the mansion, which caused it to grow arms and subsequently run for president of the USA.
Long story short, your three characters — the medical student Laverne, the roadie Hoagie, and the geek Bernard, who returns from the first game — have to travel back through time to stop this purple tentacle from conquering the world. Things go wrong, and the three friends wind up separated: Hoagie is sent to colonial times, Laverne winds up in a hellish tentacle-dominated future, and Bernard stays right where he is. Hijinks ensue.
En route to preventing tentacle domination, you have to guide all three characters through a series of silly yet logical puzzles that build on one another in fascinating ways, often involving time travel. You can switch between characters at any time, plunging objects back and forth through time so you can jam them together in point-and-click fashion. Many of Day of the Tentacle’s puzzles require you to snatch up items with one character and then send them to another, or alter the past in some way to affect circumstances in the future, so if you ever get stuck, the solution is usually to swap characters and see what else you can do.
As with all adventure games, solving puzzles in Day of the Tentacle sometimes feels like trying to get inside the designers’ heads and understand exactly what they want you to do. It’s there that the 23-year-old wrinkles sometimes show. During one particularly annoying sequence in an attic, I knew what I needed to do but didn’t know exactly how to execute it, which led to some irritating repetition as Hoagie whined “I don’t wanna!” every time I clicked the wrong action.
It’s at this point I should make a confession: when I first played Day of the Tentacle in the early 90s, I memorised most of the puzzles. I didn’t realise it until I revisited the game this month, but as I started replaying Day of the Tentacle, I found myself guided by muscle memory, following the same old paths as if I were filling out a paint-by-numbers kit. Oh, right, I have to send the textbook here so I can use it on [SPOILER] and then get [SPOILER] and pass it to Laverne so I can win [SPOILER]. It turns out it’s tough to determine the fairness of puzzles when you know them by heart.
Still, as I experimented and talked to the residents and guests of Fred’s mansion, I found that Day of the Tentacle is actually rather excellent at giving players the hints and tools they’d need to solve everything by themselves, especially with the new interface, which replaces traditional point-and-click verbs with the action wheel you’ll find in more modern adventure games. Those of you who prefer the old-school version can actually switch on the verbs, and in fact, all it takes is a button (F3 on PCs) to swap seamlessly between the newer, high-def interface and the pixelated graphics of 1993. You can even mix and match.
Those 23-year-old pixels still look pretty good, believe it or not. At times they look even better than the newer graphics, mostly thanks to the lack of lipsyncing. It’s one thing to see characters’ mouths flap up and down when everything looks jagged and low-res, but when everything else has been spruced up to be 2016-ready, it’s a little jarring to see characters talking without proper lip movements.
Double Fine has also added some light developer commentary, which is entertaining but could have used a better interface. When you toggle commentary on, the game will prompt you to hit “A” when you enter certain rooms or solve certain puzzles, but it won’t tell you whether you’ve prompted a new piece of commentary or an old one. There’s also no way to fast forward the commentary, pause it, or listen to it separately.
Players of the original Day of the Tentacle will no doubt remember that it contains one of the best easter eggs in video game history: an entire playable version of Maniac Mansion. I’m pleased to report that this remastered version has it too. It makes for an incredible contrast to Day of the Tentacle, and a profound look at just how far things have come.
And if you ever get stuck, just remember the golden rule of adventure games: Click everything.