As most people know, LucasArts was a legendary video game developer before their sights turned primarily to the “Star Wars” license. They went under when Disney acquired LucasFilm, but thanks to the great folks at GOG.com, their old back catalog is available for purchase and download. And one of their most famous games, “Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders,” was recently made available. So after decades of unavailability, is this old classic worth playing again?
The answer is a heavy, “Eh… maybe, I guess?”
It’s a hilarious game, to be sure, and the main character is a journalist, which earns him extra points in my book. The premise is one of the funniest in any game: aliens have come to Earth with a machine that will make the human race even stupider than the aliens are. When tabloid writer Zak McKracken stumbles across this intelligence-reducing conspiracy, it’s up to him and his kleptomaniac tendencies to put a stop to the aliens’ evil plot.
And I use the word “kleptomaniac” very seriously here. The game is a classic point-and-click adventure in the oldest sense, meaning that the gameplay consists of picking objects up and using them with other objects, or people, or in certain spots, et cetera.
When I reviewed “Grim Fandango Remastered” a few weeks ago, one of the minor complaints was that the game’s point-and-click puzzles were quite obtuse. That problem increases tenfold in “Zak McKracken” to the point where an online walkthrough is absolutely necessary. The recent re-release does come with a PDF file full of hints, but with a guide in hand, the game’s length shortens considerably, and players will miss out on the many hilarious characters and dialogue. And while many purists out there enjoy the challenge, it will make the game infuriating for newer players to the genre who aren’t entirely used to thinking outside the box, as LucasArts was fond of making players do back in the day.
For example, there’s a puzzle early on where the solution – spoiler alert, skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it – is to take a butter knife, peel back a rug, try to pry the floorboards underneath it open with the butter knife, fail, and then sell the bent knife to a pawn shop as a modern art masterpiece. It’s a hilarious solution, but nobody can think to do that on their own.
It’s a shame that “Zak McKracken” hasn’t aged all that well, because it’s an incredibly funny game when progress is made. But adventure games have evolved to the point where the simplified puzzles of games like “The Walking Dead” can make the experience very meaningful without being obtuse, and “Zak McKracken” just comes from a different time. If you can put up with that, though, it’s a great laugh.