It's fitting that a game based on a comic book would be released in individual episodes, compiled into a box set much later. Of course, Sam & Max are not just comic book characters—they've seen their share of TV shows and videogames as well. LucasArts canceled the pair's last planned game, Sam & Max: Freelance Police, the sequel to the popular Sam & Max Hit the Road. Telltale Games acquired the license and began work on a new title. Now, fourteen years after the original game's release, the duo has been revived to great effect.
Sam & Max Season One is a point-and-click adventure game. You control Sam by clicking points or objects on the screen while Max, the bunny-like creature, paces around randomly. There are six episodes, and each fits you with a series of puzzles which compose a larger puzzle. These can be solved mostly by using items in the right way or satisfying the right events in a dialog tree. A small handful is solved, of course, by shooting things with Sam's big gun.
This is all standard adventure game fare. Some puzzles are perfectly logical, some make little sense, and some only make sense if you happen to have noticed and obtained the right object sitting in the background. Often the solution in later episodes requires interacting with items that were irrelevant in previous ones. This can be fun or exasperating, depending on how used to videogame puzzles you are. On the bright side, it's never as annoying as many older adventure games, because when you make a simple mistake in Sam & Max, you can't die and your game is never ruined. You always have access to the necessary areas, and you can always go back to find the item you need.
Speaking of necessary areas, most of the action in Sam & Max takes place along a single street containing three buildings: the duo's office, a convenience store operated by a lunatic named Bosco, and the personal office of Sybil Pandemik, whose new line of work varies in every episode. There is also one or two other buildings the freelance police can visit depending on where the story takes them, but the key to their item-collecting puzzles always involves helping Sybil in some way and paying Bosco ludicrous amounts of money for an item.
It's difficult for the game to get away with using the same locations and shticks six times in a row, but it makes up for it by being very funny. There are subtle changes in the background of each episode—for instance, Bosco's bubblegum machine is filled with something new every time. Even when the other characters get old, Sam and Max spice up every dialogue tree with zingers. In fact, this solves another problem of dialogue trees. In many games it's a chore to listen to your avatar repeat out loud whatever option you just chose. In Sam & Max, Sam always rephrases questions and responses in humorous ways, and Max often chimes in. It helps that the voice acting is top-notch, but the real strength is the writing. Sam can't say anything without employing sarcasm or solid wordplay, and the game's other characters respond appropriately. The jokes range from absurd non sequitur to setups that take all six episodes to build. Even when the game resorts reference humor, it remains funny in its own context. For example, when Max commands that Sam refer to him as a string of increasingly ludicrous titles, including "The Keeper of the Seven Keys," it fits perfectly well within the game but is also a great double-reference to a famous power metal album and a particularly insane African dictator. The jokes go on like this. Some of them, especially the end of episode five, are much funnier if the player is familiar with interactive fiction games like Zork. But for the most part the humor stands on its own.
Graphically, Sam & Max is simple and looks like a computer-animated cartoon. This game could easily run on any modern system. My four-year-old machine got caught up on loading screens between areas sometimes, but ran perfectly otherwise. The music is notable not only because of the funny songs sprinkled throughout various episodes, but also because the staff hired a genuine jazz ensemble to compose and play the background music, the result being quite excellent and listenable on its own. In fact, the Season One box set includes a bonus disc that offers a selection of mp3s from the soundtrack. The bonus offerings also include art, desktop wallpapers, and a brief "making of" video with staff interviews.
The only problem I had with the game, besides the sometimes tedious nature of the puzzles, is Sam's walking speed. There's no way to make him run, and the street where most of the action takes place is fairly long. In a game in which you're likely to be walking back and forth to gather clues and satisfy puzzle requirements, this gets extremely tedious. As Max paces around Sam, he'll get in the way sometimes, triggering Sam to toss Max high in the air. In the first episodes, Sam will keep walking afterwards, but in episode 6 Sam was bizarrely programmed to come to a dead halt when he collides with Max, making the pacing back and forth even more frustrating.
Overall: 9/10Your mileage with this game will probably be a function of your tolerance for traditional adventure game puzzles weighed against how well you click with the humor. I found most of the puzzles reasonable, and was relieved that I never once had to look up a guide to solve any of them. And in terms of comedy, it's been a long time since I've played a better-written game. For fans of adventure games, Sam and Max, or their general brand of entertainment, this collection is a treat.