Looking back at the early-90s classics from LucasArts

From The Secret Of Monkey Island to Star Wars: Dark Forces, Simon looks back at some of the LucasArts' great early 90s games...

George Lucas has a lot to answer for. He gave us a sci-fi film franchise that fired our collective imaginations, and made us fantasize about flying amongst the stars in the Millennium Falcon. It was amazing, exciting, and fun. And then he founded LucasArts – a studio responsible for some of the best games of the 80s and 90s.

No longer a game developer following the Disney buyout, LucasArts is now a publisher for other developers, which is a bit of a shame. But, there once was a time when they were one of the most exciting developers on the planet, and when the games they chose to publish didn’t rely solely on the bankable familiarity of a movie license.

I could spend many thousands of words on each and every game listed below, but in the interest of brevity, I shall keep it brief. So join me on this mini tour of some of the finest LucasArts games ever created.

The Secret Of Monkey Island (1990)

Okay, so we’re not starting at the very beginning. The Secret Of Monkey Island was released six years after the formation of LucasArts, and they made some fairly decent titles along the way. This particular game, however, was a genre defining moment. Monkey Island was so good that it was revamped and re-released in 2009 and still received critical praise. 

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“Hi, my name’s Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate” is the opening gambit from our protagonist, as he strolls up to the lookout on the hill, who subsequently berates Guybrush for scaring him. It is a simple, yet magical opening to a game which is indelibly etched on my memory.

Intent on becoming a pirate, you arrive on a Caribbean island, and during your mission, the governor is kidnapped by the dreaded Ghost Pirate LeChuck.

Both Monkey Island and the Pirates of the Caribbean film were influenced by the Disney theme park ride, and it is that romanticized vision of pirates that makes them so appealing.

From the ghost pirate LeChuck and his hapless first mate to Stan the used boat salesman, all the way through the stoic Governor Marley – what the game has in abundance is brilliantly realized characters. The joy of finally convincing a crew to sail with you to find Governor Marley brilliantly morphs into hilarity when you discover that once on the voyage, they really couldn’t care less about helping you.

There are so many memorable characters, jokes, and set pieces in Monkey Island, but one of the things that brings it all so wonderfully together is the music. When I first played it, I had to listen to it via the internal PC speaker, and no other rendition of the music, regardless of the subsequent 8-bit Sound Blaster quality soundtrack, will ever live up the internal speaker rendition. Even the sound effects are fantastic. I can hum many of the tunes now, having not played the game for 20 years. LeChuck’s theme, the circus music, the intro music. All of it was magic, and brilliantly conceived.

The Secret Of Monkey Island is a master class in design. While it wasn’t the first adventure game from LucasArts – games like Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, and Loom all came first – I’d argue it’s the game that really kicked off the point-and-click adventure golden age at LucasArts. Without it, many of the subsequent games listed below – not to mention classics from other studios, like Beneath a Steel Sky – would never have existed.

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Indiana Jones And the Fate of Atlantis (1992)

Back in the day, computer games used to come in a box the size of a capybara and had instruction manuals a few pages short of War and Peace. They also used to have weird and wonderful code breakers that attempted to prevent piracy. Unfortunately, these didn’t combat photocopiers.

Fate of Atlantis had a brilliant code breaker that was themed to fit with the Indiana Jones world. So it had a disc you’d have to rotate to find a code from the phases of the moon. It was less complicated than that sounds though, and a lovely touch.

The code breaking aside, this game was pure Indiana Jones. By which I mean it absolutely encapsulated the essence of Indy and put him into an adventure game. It was also the game that taught me what a capybara was, and how to effectively use a snake against one. As the title suggests, this quest saw Indy searching for the lost city of Atlantis, all the while attempting to get there ahead of the Nazis.

All the trademark LucasArts wit mixed delightfully with the Indy legend to create one of his best adventures. I would even put this game ahead of Temple of Doom as the third best Jones outing (I don’t count the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

From South America to New York, Crete to Cairo, our hero travels as only Indy can – via Nazi submarine under the waves, hot air balloon over the desert, and strange Atlantian subways deep underground. Supernatural powers are at work again in the form of Nur-Ab-Sal, the high priest of Atlantis whose essence was distilled into an amber necklace before his death, and many odd and otherworldly artifacts unearth themselves as you head to the fabled city.

One notable highlight was the ability to complete the adventure in three slightly different ways, bringing a fresh element of replayability to the genre. Not quite the diversity we see in some of today’s titles, but still worthy of a mention.

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Another stone cold classic point-and-click adventure, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is funny, engaging, sometimes enraging, but always hugely enjoyable.

Day of the Tentacle (1993)

The Secret of Monkey Island will always be my most treasured LucasArts adventure, but Day of the Tentacle will always be the best. At the peak of their creative power, and with technological advancements allowing them greater freedom, LucasArts delivered what I believe to be the best point-and-click adventure game ever. Full stop.

A delicious slice of the surreal with some truly gorgeous animations, Day of the Tentacle delivered joy on so many fronts.

A sequel to Maniac Mansion, released six years earlier, the game lets you play as three separate lead characters who you can switch between at any time. The genius of the setup is that they are all in the same location, but not in the same time period. So some of the puzzles involve doing something in the past (hiding a bottle of wine somewhere) to be accessible in the future (acquire the wine, which has now turned to vinegar). Marvelous!

The plot is that an evil maniac  – Purple Tentacle – is on a quest to take over the world in the style of Pinky and the Brain. Because the nerd Bernard has freed Purple Tentacle in order to free the nice Green Tentacle, both of whom were due to be executed, the boffin Dr Fred Edison decides to send him, Laverne (a mental medical student), and Hoagie (a rock and roll roadie) back in time to stop the imminent demise of the world. The time machine goes a bit wrong due to the cheap imitation crystal used, and they all end up stuck in different time periods – but all in the same venue: Edison Mansion.  

It’s difficult to describe just how witty, creative and well animated this game is. The puzzles are excellent, and the sound effects and voiceovers are brilliant.

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At the time of release, some were critical about the game’s length, but I would sacrifice longevity for such artistry as this any day of the week. Also, no other game will ever show you what a beard looks like on a tentacle.

Sam & Max Hit The Road (1993)

Yet another fantastic point-and-click adventure from LucasArts, but this time they changed the standard text commands into a simple mouse icon indicator. No longer would you use ‘Look at’ in conjunction with an object – the mouse would change automatically when an object was rolled over to display a relevant icon: an eye for looking, two fingers for walking, a fist for picking up, and so on. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it did save a lot of time testing random and totally wrong combinations like ‘talk to washing machine’.

Being a UK resident, I’d never even heard of Sam & Max before this title was released, but I later found out that it was a cartoon in the States several years earlier. The story follows a dog and a rabbit who are freelance detectives on a mission to find Bruno the bigfoot, who’s escaped the local carnival and taken a giraffe-necked girl with him. They were the circus’s two top attractions. What follows is a hilarious story, with weird and wonderful characters and colourful locations in abundance.

Yet again LucasArts demonstrated their skill with humour and animation, and their ability to make the absurd seem somehow plausible. There was something almost Python-esque, or even Pratchett-like, about their approach to storytelling and jokes. I loved the ‘Man or chicken dumpling?’ carnival attraction almost as much as the whack-a-rat.

The puzzles were mostly simple yet ridiculous – the driving range was swamped with alligators and impassable until you got hold of a bucket of fish and lined all those bad boys up in a row using a driver. The attendant at Snuckey’s (a snack bar and convenience store) was also definitely Bernard from Day of the Tentacle but without his spectacles, which was a lovely touch. Both games were released in the same year, which is pretty good going.

My third favourite of the LucasArts point and click bonanza, Sam & Max is an absolute treat from start to finish.

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Star Wars: X-Wing and Star Wars: Tie Fighter (1993 and 1994)

Moving away from point and click adventures, I’d like to talk about Star Wars, and in particular TIE Fighter and X-Wing. LucasArts themselves did not develop these games, but they speak volumes about their ability to spot major talent in other developers, in this case Totally Games.

X-Wing came first, out of nowhere seemingly, and it was brilliant and ruddy hard. The B-Wing expansion pack took absolutely none of the difficulty concerns into account when it was subsequently released, for which I am truly thankful.

We all watched Star Wars wishing we could jump into an X-Wing, and this game let you do exactly that. Rebel Assault was another Star Wars game released in the same year and actually developed by LucasArts, but it didn’t put you in the cockpit like X-Wing did, and really it was just an interactive movie more than a game.

As well as flying X-Wings, you also got to try out the more nimble but less armoured A-Wing, and the ‘strap a couple of heavy nukes to the chassis I don’t care about steering’ B-Wings. There were dogfights to be had in abundance, escort missions, convoy attacks – it was wonderful.

It was one of the first games I played that really gave me a feeling that I existed in a fully-realised 3D space. It also allowed you to shift power between lasers, engines and shields, front and aft, which meant you could be much more tactical with your fighting. When I play Elite: Dangerous now, I am taken straight back to playing this game, and Elite doesn’t even have front and aft shields.

It was a game miles ahead of its competitors, and I was lucky enough to have one fellow geek friend who also played this game. We spoke about it a lot at the time, and our minds almost imploded when TIE Fighter came out. One thing is true, though: this was an absurdly tough game.

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TIE: Fighter took all of the minor flaws of X-Wing and lovingly ironed them out (and it was also slightly easier). No longer were you with the rebels; you were now the one saying ‘you rebel scum’ before taking a bag of detonation charges in the chest and falling off a ledge.

Now you could fly TIE Interceptors, TIE Fighters, TIE Bombers, and the mysterious TIE Advanced, with the mission of crushing the rebel uprising. It was more fun being with the Empire, I am not sorry to say.

A joystick would have made these games a lot easier for me as I only had a mouse. This meant, when in a serious dog fight, I would be desperately slapping the mouse on the desk and drawing it back over and over and over again. Imagine trying to speed scroll through a word document with no wheel, just the power of moving the mouse forward and backwards. It was glorious insanity.

Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995)

I mention Dark Forces because even with its not-quite-gleaming reception, it was a real beauty that began a rather impressive series.

This was a first person shooter of the Doom ilk, and back in those days FPSs weren’t clogging up the gaming shelves as they are now. Although having said that, William Shatner’s TekWar was released in the same year, which was not as bad a game as you might think, and Rise of the Triad was still on the shelves, too.

With Dark Forces, I’d argue that LucasArts actually managed to improve on Doom, which is no small accolade, and all of this in the Star Wars universe.

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You took on the role of Kyle Katarn, a Hans Solo-esque mercenary with a very Luke Skywalker background. After freeing Jan Ors, a female double agent who assures him his parents were killed by the Empire, Kyle starts working for the rebel alliance.

The great variety of weaponry coupled with the exemplary level design made Dark Forces a treat from start to finish. The deployment and animation of the character models was very pleasingly realised. Back then, you didn’t have full 3D models as you do today, but flat, 2D sprites. This meant they always were anchored to face your character, and if they moved left or right, the corresponding animation was played. Done badly, this could be awfully clunky, but LucasArts pulled its sprite animation off with real style. Classic Star Wars music and sound effects only added to the atmosphere, and the whole game was really a great, thought provoking adventure. Alongside X-Wing and TIE Fighter, this was one of the first games that immersed you in the Star Wars universe and really made you feel like you were playing the part of Han Solo.

In the end

The first half of the 90s is where I really think LucasArts were at their peak. As the years went on, LucasArts’ talent and creativity seemed to sputter like a dying candle. There are still some absolute gems to be found in their post mid-90s output(see below), but the quality was, sadly, more than a little uneven.

I can already feel the indignation of Grim Fandango not getting a mention, and it is a marvelous, imaginative adventure which would go toe to toe with the any of the adventures above. It was a much later creation though, so it’s not for this list – maybe that’s for another time.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge is also brilliant and from the early 90s – well worth a play.

The Dig and Full Throttle are both very solid games too. The Dig was a bit all over the place and doesn’t really hold a candle to the other adventures, but Full Throttle was very amusing, if a tad too short.

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Pipe Dream (Pipe Mania) – developed by The Assembly Line, and published by LucasArts. A devastatingly simple windows game that sucked more hours off your life than Solitaire and Minefield combined.

As with Valve, Id, Blizzard, and a few other select developers, LucasArts was once a stamp of greatness. Even though they won’t be publishing any more games, there is a silver lining – they’re all still there to be found on the internet.

The Secret of Monkey Island is even available to play on your phone. Sam & Max has a whole new episodic release from TellTale games in lovely 3D, but I find there is something deeply charming about the original graphics of all the adventures above. I think they gave just enough detail for you to understand and feel what the developers where aiming for, whilst leaving a little for your imagination to fill in – like a good comic book does.

So, I salute George Lucas. To him I am indebted a charmed and magical youth, and to him I would say thank you.