Videogame controversy springs up in the most unlikely of places.
While most people associate this controversy with modern games -- from the Grand Theft Autos to the God of Wars -- there were many cases of videogame scandal popping up during the retro era. Let’s call it “retroversy” for no other reason than I think it sounds cute.
These “retroversies” were not as widely talked about, but definitely significant -- maybe even more so given the fact that videogames were so new and hadn’t established themselves in the marketplace. If something extra violent or offensive happened in an older videogame, parents freaked out! What are my children playing?! It’s the devil’s work!
One example of a “retroversy” (cute!) occurs in classic adventure game Maniac Mansion. Admittedly, this is the smallest and most throwaway moment ever featured on the Memory Card, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t one of the most memorable. Heck, even without the ridiculous controversy surrounding it, it would still be one of my favorite videogame moments of all time.
Hit the jump for the MOST OFFENSIVE THING TO EVER BE FEATURED IN A VIDEOGAME!*
Before best company ever LucasArts changed its name to, well, LucasArts, the publisher was known as Lucasfilm Games. During this era, the company started producing what we now know as some of the most iconic adventure games ever created. One of the first of these adventure games was Maniac Mansion for the Commodore 64.
Maniac Mansion was the first Lucasfilm game to utilize the SCUMM engine. Basically, the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine was created specifically for Maniac Mansion as a means of interacting with the objects and characters on-screen. By choosing from a bunch of verbs listed on the bottom half of the screen, players could click on any object and interact with it. For example, clicking “Open” and then clicking on the door of a room would allow the player’s character to open the door.
Even though it seems limiting, the SCUMM engine made adventure games so much more enjoyable, as players wouldn’t be stuck finding the right verb to use in certain situations like in most previously released text-based adventure games (such as Sierra published King’s Quest or Police Quest). In addition, the wide variety of verbs still opened the door for numerous possibilities. All in all, the SCUMM engine worked very well and is adored by adventure game super fans such as myself.
But back to Maniac Mansion ...
In the game, you play as main character Dave Miller, a college student that travels to the titular mansion to find his kidnapped girlfriend Sandy.
In addition to Dave, the player also takes control of two other characters. In a cool feature, these two supporting characters are selected from a pool of six of Dave’s college friends, each with his/her own special skills.
After selecting his companions, Dave and friends enter the mansion in hopes of finding and rescuing Sandy.
The owners of the spooky mansion are the infamous Edison family: father Dr. Fred, mother Nurse Edna, their son Weird Ed, Dead Cousin Ted, and the two tentacles, Green and Purple. To say this family is odd is putting it mildly. After a meteor crashed in front of their mansion twenty years earlier, the family has slowly gone insane.
The mansion itself is composed of many rooms (including everything from a basic kitchen to a crazy laboratory), each containing bizarre items and characters for Dave and friends to interact with. In true adventure gaming fashion, the numerous items in the game can be collected, carried around, and used later to solve dastardly puzzles.
After traveling through the mansion for a while, Dave runs into Weird Ed, Fred and Edna’s seriously deranged son. Not only does Ed have a horrible temper, he is weirdly obsessed and super protective of his pet hamster.
Strangely enough, this seemingly random pet hamster becomes the focus of this week’s notorious Memory Card moment.
One thing that is great about Lucasfilm/LucasArts games is most objects on-screen can be collected or, at the very least, manipulated. Even better, some of these objects are not even needed to beat the game. In some situations, certain items can never be used at all (good luck trying to find a cool way to use the fuel-drained chainsaw, for example).
The same can be said for Weird Ed’s hamster. By distracting the disturbed Edison son, Nick and friends can steal the cute, helpless hamster from Ed’s bedroom.
While any other game would probably use the hamster for some adorable purpose, Maniac Mansion takes things to a hilariously sick level.
If punk rock character Razor is in the party, she can take the hamster to the kitchen and randomly place it in the microwave.
After closing the door on the innocent creature and turning the microwave on, Razor watches as 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... the hamster explodes.
That’s right: the hamster explodes, covering the inside of the microwave in blood.
To make things more disturbing (and more hilarious?) Razor can grab the hamster’s remains and return them to Weird Ed. Of course it comes as no surprise that the minute Ed sees his beloved pet’s remains he goes into a rage and kills the player.
Most games encourage the player to replay different scenarios to find multiple endings, but Maniac Mansion offers multiple deaths throughout its entirety. Sticking with the macabre theme of the entire game, finding these different death scenes is part of the overall fun.
You can watch Razor microwave the hamster and return what is left of it to Ed right here (and, yeah, I have no idea why it is all in German):
Let’s face it: microwaving the hamster in Maniac Mansion is hilarious. It is completely random and entirely unnecessary, but it is the perfect example of the dark and twisted humor found in all of the Lucasfilm/LucasArts games.
But back in the late ‘80s when this game was released some people didn’t find it so funny.
When Nintendo released a port of Maniac Mansion on their very own NES they heavily censored the game’s violence and sick jokes. In an awesome twist of fate, somehow the microwave in the hamster sequence was not taken out or even censored in the slightest. Granted, the blood that splatters the inside of the microwave is blue and not red in the NES version, but that was most likely due to the graphical downgrade than anything.
After thousands and thousands of copies ended up in the homes of families everywhere, the Jack Thompsons of that era had a field day. They demanded that Nintendo remove the “offensive” act.
But it was too late. Since Nintendo never printed a second batch of cartridges, the poor hamster’s violent death remained on every North American copy of the game.
It wasn’t until the game shipped overseas to Europe when the ability to microwave the hamster was taken out.
By this point, though, people were talking about this moment in Maniac Mansion and it quickly became videogame lore.
But looking past all this stupid controversy, microwaving the hamster really is one of the first examples of what truly defines LucasArts adventure games: mainly their creativity and their unequalled sense of humor.
After the hamster in the microwave became videogame legend, many other adventure games in the LucasArts line started including more “inside” jokes. In Maniac Mansion sequel Day of the Tentacle (best adventure game of all time!), one of the characters is actually required to thaw out a frozen hamster in a microwave to use it later in the game.
Similar inside jokes like this continued throughout the years and really established LucasArts as one of the most creative and humorous publishers in videogame history.
In a way, the asinine controversy surrounding Maniac Mansion actually helped the future of the adventure genre ... and gaming in general! Knowing that clever, sick humor garners a lot of attention, who knows? Maybe we wouldn’t have games like Earthworm Jim or Psychonauts if it wasn’t for that hamster in that microwave.
If only the dead hamster knew what he lost his life for.
He would be so proud ...
The Memory Card Save Files
.01 - .20 (Season 1)
What's Up? Our panel at PAX Prime 2014, Far Cry 4, Destiny Beta, Vietnam & a ferret
8:00 PM on 07.25.2014