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Sam & Max Season One

A chance to watch a funny game
What's It All About:
Sam & Max are a pair of unusual detectives, mainly because they are an anthropomorphic dog and rabbitish thing, though also because they have a bizarre way of going about their business. After a well-respected run in comic books, as well as a classic 1993 PC point-and-click game, the duo returned in 2006 in episodic form, with six graphic adventures downloadable for the PC. Now, those six episodes have been gathered together and released for the Wii, the perfect point-and-click console.

Most any gamer born before 1980 has played a graphical adventure game, a system of play that brought the world some true classics, like "Maniac Mansion" and "Grim Fandango," but which lost popularity as computers became more powerful and consoles took over gaming. The idea of exploring a world, examining the objects therein and interacting with them to solve puzzles and eventually win the game was enthralling stuff, as it was about as interactive as it got, allowing you to use almost anything in the game, while requiring some real mental dexterity to figure out exactly what to do at any given point.

The idea of a point and click game on the Wii makes perfect sense, as the remote control system is the perfect console set-up to select on-screen options quickly, the key to playing in this genre (as anyone who's played Maniac Mansion on the NES can attest to.) The Wii's everyone-and anyone philosophy also makes it a great home for a game that's goofy yet challenging and obscurely funny, while also accessible. Outside of some of Max's more homicidal tendencies and the more juvenile jokes, it's practically a family game.

As you guide Sam and Max through each of the six cases included (which can be played in any order, though they are more coherent and fulfilling when played in order), you pick up stuff you find, talk to people and try to figure out exactly who's responsible for the trouble. Along the way, you have to make sure to take your time and explore, as the comedy is inside the interactions, especially during dialogue segments, and with no time clock, no score to worry about and no real way to lose, it's more about having fun than winning.

Of course, to have that fun, you've got to solve the many puzzles, and they aren't always obvious. It's a symptom of many point-and-click games, resulting in many random attempts to use items properly, but the complexity of the solutions seems a bit higher on average here. To find out information, you're also going to find yourself involved in extensive interrogations that seem to go on much longer than usual for such games (all the better to jam in more jokes.) Compare the pace to the CSI series, and this feels like Sam & Ben Stein.

The thing about this series is the gameplay is almost like a bonus feature, or better put, a means to an end, and that end is the comedy. Unfortunately, the jokes frequently don't hit very high on the humor scale, in large part because of a lack of timing caused by the function of the game. There's also the fact that many of the gags aim for bizarre or weird and instead hit cute, with somewhat tired (at this point) pop-culture parodies being a oft-used path to a laugh (as well as many obscure references to old graphical adventure games.) Yes, there are some very funny moments throughout (with episode 4, "Abe Lincoln Must Die!" being a high point) but often the jokes fell a bit flat.

The controls here are as simple as you would expect from a point-and-click adventure game, as you point with the Wiimote, and press the A button to activate whatever it is you want to do, be it picking up an object, talking to a character or just walking somewhere. That even goes for the in-game driving, which asks you to point at what part of the road you want to travel (though the story explains the lack of acceleration control.) The only other real control is the use of the directional control pad on the Wiimote, which, handily, can scroll through dialogue choices and the inventory box. In a nice touch, the control menu and inventory are available directly in-game, by clicking on their icon at the top and bottom of the screen, respectively. That's really all there is to it, though it's worth noting there's an option to have "tip text" appear on items and people who can be interacted with, when you mouse over them, which is pretty helpful for players not accustomed to the world of point-and-click.

This game does nothing to help Wii-vangelists who claim that cutting-edge graphics aren't all that important. Despite some fantastic character and set design, and a switch to widescreen, making the world of Sam & Max look perfect in this 3D style, the image has noticeable issues with pixilation and suffers some dramatic slowdown throughout the episodes, resulting in stuttering and annoying pauses, which in a game with pacing issues feels much worse. Another problem that affects gameplay is the use of a dark color on the dialogue options, which are set in front of a dark background.

From the moment you click on the game channel in your Wii menu and hear the music for Sam & Max, you know it's going to be an entertaining time, as the jazzy score and cartoony sound effects set the stage for a fun, film noir kind of detective adventure. It's not the most powerful audio you'll hear on the Wii, but it's appropriate for the game. The voices, on the other hand, actually do feature some of the best work heard on the Wii, as the actors maintain the tradition of the characters' previous incarnations, while the new cast is actually even more fun. Oddly though, there seems to be a glitch that cuts out a fraction of the end of random lines of dialogue, which is as frustrating as the framerate issue. Each aspect of the audio presentation, including the voices, music and sound effects can be adjusted separately, plus subtitles are available for the dialogue.

Bonus Time
As extras, there's a tutorial for players unable to read the well-written instruction manual, along with character biographies and a gallery of concept art that's quite nice. Why they didn't include any of the extras found on the PC Season One box sets is a good question, as it was just sitting there waiting.

And in the End...
Your own personal taste for point-and-click adventures will go a long way toward deciding if Sam & Max will be your cup of tea, but even if you're an old-school SCUMM fan, you may find the pace of these episodes a bit slow, and honestly, they aren't as funny as you might expect, hitting the level of amusing more often. Saying that, if you've enjoyed the characters in the past, there's more than a good chance you'll like these adventures, especially as they get better as you move along, even if the video presentation doesn't make a similar improvement.