Sam & Max: Season One

December 9, 2008

The name “Season One” is revealing, as this collection of Sam & Max adventures has a lot in common with a box set of your favourite cartoon or sitcom. The humour is wacky, the cast is familiar and the episodes all play out in a roughly similar way. Like a rerun it’s comforting and enjoyable, even if it isn’t as deep or engaging as other titles.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, here’s a quick primer. Sam & Max are freelance police officers (think Dick Tracy) who fight crime using sarcasm and cartoon violence, respectively. Their adventures began with the highly rated Hit The Road back in 1993, developed by LucasArts during their adventure game golden years. The market for the genre dried up soon after, and plans for a sequel were dropped to dismay of many. In 2005, Telltale Games, a company founded by ex-LucasArts employees, announced plans to revive the series in episodic format. Sam & Max: Season One collects the first six episodes of this new series ported from the PC.

While veteran fans will appreciate the return of long-running gags, each of the game’s episodes is an entirely self-contained adventure and no previous experience is required. Depending on your grasp of the game’s cartoon logic, it should take you under an hour to complete a particular case. The format works well, as it neatly excises two problems that plague most adventure games: large obscure inventories and tedious backtracking. Furthermore, it’s nice to be able to complete an entire story in one sitting.

The game features a simplified version of typical adventure game controls. The Wiimote functions as a competent mouse substitute, allowing you to move Sam around the environment and interact with objects and characters. While the puzzles are relatively straightforward for the genre, they do require some creative logic and lateral thinking. Fortunately, the wrong answer will never cause your game to end, so you’re free to experiment with clever solutions. The simplified mechanics make this an ideal game for genre newcomers and casual players.

Each episode follows a template: every mystery begins with Sam and Max in their apartment, fighting over who gets to answer the call from the Commissioner. Bosco the paranoid shopkeeper will always have a different disguise, and Sybil will always have found a new profession. The main street becomes so familiar that it’s possible to figure out which objects will require your attention just by observing the differences. The small variations are actually quite entertaining, and quickly establish a quirky regular cast.

While pointing with the Wiimote is rarely problematic, in all other respects Sam & Max has been ported rather poorly. There are fairly significant load times between screens, and the game stutters visibly when an event is triggered. This is especially noticeable during the occasional timing-based driving sequence, and makes them much more difficult as a result. It’s quite a disappointment too, as even older machines can handle the PC version’s system requirements.

Sam & Max: Season One is the gaming equivalent of a sitcom. It’s a light, fun way of spending half an hour with a wacky cast of characters, situations and locations. However, it won’t satisfy, compel or challenge you in the way that a game like Grim Fandango would. Even on the Wii, last year’s Zack & Wiki showed how the Wiimote could be used creatively in adventure games. Simply put: there are better options out there, including the cheaper and technically superior PC version.

Plays Like: A typical point-and-click adventure game

Pros: Humorous dialogue, fun characters and situations, puzzles have a good difficulty balance, strong jazz soundtrack

Cons: Stuttering graphics, moderate load times

ESRB: T for Teen. Cartoon Violence, Crude Humour, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco

Score: 3/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.