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Pop CultureJune 19, 2017

My First Power Up: Sam and Max Hit The Road


My First Power Up is an occasional series in which writers reminisce and replay the first video game they ever played. In this inaugural installment Sam Brooks returns to the gag-laden point and click adventure Sam and Max: Hit the Road.

Our first video game can really define us. For some people it’s something benign like Pokémon, a cultural phenomenon that is unlikely to scar you like my first game scarred me. For others, it might be something worrying like Grand Theft Auto. Or for lame casual gamers who are terrifyingly younger than me, something like Wii Sports.

Or, they can just bloody warp you.

I was about three years old, and I remember my mother taking us to the computer store in Papakura. What Papakura was doing with a computer store in 1993 is beyond me, but you do you, Papakura. Work had given her a computer and she wanted to buy things for it like Microsoft Word, or DOS, or whatever the hell it was you loaded onto computers in 1993. Minesweeper? A VHS copy of The Piano?

For whatever reason, she ignored the edutainment games that I assume were all the rage in 1993, your Magic School Bus, your choose-your-own-adventure Arthur, and she settled on Sam and Max: Hit the Road, which had this cover.

Why would you buy your three year old child, who was just getting a handle on languages and complex motion and would never ever learn how to ride a bike even well into his twenties, this game? In fairness, my mother knew nothing about video games. She probably saw it placed next to the other games and thought it had the most interesting box art.

We got home, we loaded it up, and I started to play.

Now, Sam and Max: Hit the Road is a LucasArts (RIP) adventure game. For you young gamers, think about your Telltale games, like The Walking Dead or Tales of the Borderlands. Imagine the parts of those games where you actually walk around, solve puzzles and actually have to play the game. You know, the gameplay. Now imagine a game full of that. That’s what a LucasArts game is.

These games can be ludicrously difficult, not so much because of any skill required but because the puzzles are very long-winded. The puzzles have obscure as hell solutions, like where you have to attach Jesse James’ severed hand (which you can only get from a jar in the circus, which then has to be opened by the server at one of the three Snuckeys across the country) to a broken golf ball retriever (which can only be obtained from a rubbish bin in the Gator Golf Emporium, a gold course in Florida which has been overrun by gators) and then attach that to a magnet shaped like a fish (which can only be obtained by riding the Cone O’Tragedy at the circus, and then going to the lost property to get all your things back). You then have to use the hand at a very certain point on the Largest Ball of Twine in the World to retrieve a mood ring for the Shuv-Oohl the mole man.

Why would you let a three year old play this? What hope does a three year old have at solving a puzzle like that? There’s no logic to it! It’s like if David Lynch was asked to make a videogame.

Also, this is a screenshot from the introduction to the game:

A representation of high-end 1993 LucasArts graphics.

To explain, there is a woman being held hostage by a mad scientist. The dog and rabbit are our protagonists, Sam and Max, the freelance police. They’re here to save the woman, which Max does by ripping off his head. His head turns out to be a ticking time bomb, which Max later throws out the window. Again, I ask: Why would you let a three year old play this?

Then there’s the humour of the game. Some of it is heavily-reference based, like an impoverished fisherman who is clearly based on Woody Allen, or a resort that is just for Bigfoots. The one-liners are gold, and absolutely relentless. I remember laughing at jokes when I was a kid, but I have no idea how I possibly found them funny. Maybe I just recognised the cadence of a joke.

For examples, here’s a few choice lines:

Of all the Daliesque tourist traps in the world, we had to walk into this one.”

“I see that Mr. Bosco is generously giving away his profits to the underprivileged ski-mask-wearing youth of the neighborhood again.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll return your missing abominations back into your protective care before you can read the Koran.”

“There’s a book on the shelf over there. If I had even the slightest inclination to strain myself, I could probably relatively easily lean over and grab it. But I’m sure I can turn it into a meaningless puzzle of some sort.”

“Holy cripes on toast!”

Reader, I beat this game when I was about five years old. I did it without a guide, because there were no walkthroughs back then, and the only way you could get help was by ringing up helplines, and no way was my mother letting her stuttering four year old ring some dude in America to ask him for tips to beat a stupid video game she bought two years ago. I also did it without help, because none of my friend’s parents let them play the game with me (for good reason, good parenting job, friend’s parents!) and my mother refused to help because again, she is not going to play a stupid video game she bought two years ago.

Woody Allen as a fisherman, for some reason.

I’ve returned to the game a few times since then, and I can blitz through it in about three hours. Somehow I still remember the solutions to all the puzzles. It’s etched into my brain, like some kind of kill-phrase for a Russian sleeper agent. It’s a warm pleasure; I remember all the lines, the bright colours, the strangeness. When I think of the games I enjoy now, games where you can just sit back and enjoy the story and the dialogue and the characters, I can see a pretty clear through-line from Sam and Max: Hit the Road.

Also, it’s my first. Your first video game is like your first kiss, but it’s unlikely to be as awkward or as shoddily made. Sam and Max: Hit the Road is why I am literally incapable of playing first person shooters or anything that takes co-ordination or skill, but I still remember it fondly.

Holy cripes on toast, as they say.

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