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Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (PC) artwork

Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (PC) review


"Before Sam, Max and Guybrush, Zak McKracken saved the world from stupidity in LucasArts's first PC/SCUMM engine point-and-click farce. The rough edges are evident, but so are the laughs, and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (ZM) even manages to poke fun at mistakes a lot of point-and-click games make today. I laughed at the jokes even though a walkthrough tipped them off--a credit to ZM's bizarre graphics and polished absurdism. "



Before Sam, Max and Guybrush, Zak McKracken saved the world from stupidity in LucasArts's first PC/SCUMM engine point-and-click farce. The rough edges are evident, but so are the laughs, and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (ZM) even manages to poke fun at mistakes a lot of point-and-click games make today. I laughed at the jokes even though a walkthrough tipped them off--a credit to ZM's bizarre graphics and polished absurdism.

Zak's a tabloid reporter, sent from his San Francisco flat to Seattle to track down a two-headed squirrel. Meanwhile, a Weekly World News scenario is unfolding. Caponians, aliens with weird heads and tall hats to disguise them, have established a phone company that's a front for a mass stupidity ray. Only someone building the Skolarian Device (named after ancient protectors of humans) from three crystals and some other junk can stop them. Guess who?

Yup. But he needs help from three women interested in paranormal stuff. There's no romance here--Zak's no Leisure Suit Larry, but he's a red tie wearing schlemiel whose dopey smile never fades, even in jail. Once Zak drops the first crystal in a mail slot a block from his home, Annie Larris, who shared a dream with him, helps Zak understand the artifacts. Melissa China and Leslie Bennett are Yale students who went to Mars instead of Fort Lauderdale for spring break. Players must trade items at first. Near the end, switching between all four of these characters becomes necessary, with some timed puzzles and levers to flip in tandem. This isn't terribly awkward except for when three of them must all punch in to a shuttle car in fifteen seconds. There's also some confusion as Melissa and Leslie are only differentiated by spacesuit color and Melissa's boom box.

Most of ZM, though, is about Zak crossing the Earth and Mars. Trading items found in Zak's apartment, or Lou's Loans down the street, with bizarre flaneurs helps Zak come ever closer to entering impressive pyramids. Some items combine--creating a makeshift helmet is quite fun--and others rely on the messy-room gag, whether for finding hidden items or ruining a sink. Finding all the items at the beginning is overwhelming and makes inventory searching a hassle, but if you don't get them, there's happily a map near the game's end, which allows Zak to teleport everywhere else.

Backtracking's not that painful, actually. The "What is" option in the bottom-third interface shows fifteen actions, which the QTBZ rectangle encompasses, labels the funny objects that matter if the cursor's over them. If something's not game-critical, moving the cursor over it shows nothing. UJ scrolls through the inventory while IOKL chooses from the four displayed items. Command, item, second item, verify second item. It takes some learning, but it makes good sense and even allows a great gag later on--a minor dose of the stupid ray, causes the actions to disappear, then reappear one at a time.

The less subtle humor works well, from how to wake a bus driver to disguising yourself from the Caponians. Many objects serve as unwitting keys, if you pay attention to a lock's shape. Lou's Loans is a wonderful place with banter as you buy or pawn an item, and finding tomorrow's lotto number to keep up in cash (airline tickets aren't cheap) riffs nicely on the old save-learn-restore trick or on point-and-clicks where you have to assume something ludicrous. The save screen has a sphinx with fake nose glasses. Dying occurs only with gross safety violations. And don't forget to flub the copy protection on a flight out of the US, either. The lecture's half socially relevant!

The only real downer may be the mazes. Half are random, and many are relatively unmarked, or dark, where you've only got a flashlight to see a sliver of the area. While educated guesswork prevails, the mazes contribute less replay enjoyment than the clever random alien glyphs Zak needs to draw in with his yellow crayon, or even the patterns he must remember from a guru in Kathmandu or a Kinshashan witch doctor, which still isn't much. There are one or two no-win traps, and only being able to remove sushi from a fishbowl in one place is the wrong sort of absurdism.

ZM's unquestionably funny and creative, skirting logistical problems and improbable coincidences with humor, and some of its jokes still skewer games years ahead of its time. The laughs are well balanced between the graphics and text, and the jokes elicit just the right groans. It's not quite LucasArts's later franchises, but it certainly has enough on its own, and it certainly deserves the sequel it'll get soon.

Rating: 8/10

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Community review by aschultz (December 30, 2009)

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