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The Start of the Affair: Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders

TLDR Version - Zak McKracken totally changed my perspective about what games could be by telling a great story with interesting characters and clever (if obtuse) puzzles.

TL Version:

When I was a kid, about ten, after enough begging, crying, and lite-extortion, my mother would eventually break down and let me buy a video game.

The opportunity to buy a game was a really big deal because it didn't come around very often, and when it did I had to make absolutely certain I was getting the most out of it. The decision would often take the better part of a day. I'd wander up and down the aisle at Toys 'R Us or KB reading the back of every box flap (they didn't have the actual boxes on display, just laminated cards) carefully scrutinizing the box art and tiny screenshots to figure out what the game might be like.

At the time my only windows into larger gaming culture was the Nintendo Fun Club newsletter (later Nintendo Power) and whatever information filtered through my small group of gamer friends. With no internet to guide me, a lot was left to chance.

Sometimes, I took a gamble and was pleasantly surprised. For instance, Ice Climbers kept me thoroughly entertained despite the fact that it was a, "Pick something or I'll pick it for you" spur of the moment decision. Other times, I wasn't so lucky.

Shortly after I got my first computer, a Commodore 64, I decided I was done with the console racket and ready to move on to the more sophisticated offerings that only a legitimate computing machine could provide. Little did I realize what cesspool of crapulence I was wading into. I picked a box flap with an awesome laser blasting spaceship flying over a Death Star looking thing and headed home confident that I was about to enter the next generation.

PC games came in big boxes at the time. When I opened this one up a stained floppy disc fell out and a napkin with instructions scrawled in Korean. It emitted a foul vapor and a moan, as though an unholy seal had been broken.

I can't really describe the ancient evil that I experienced. It consisted of a slow moving box on-screen that occasionally emitted other slow moving boxes. The music was a single bass note that seemed to start and stop at irregular intervals. You did not appear to have any direct control over your "ship". It would arbitrarily explode in a seizure-inducing light show. This abortion wasn't so much a game as a cruel experiment dreamed up by B.F. Skinner and Josef Mengele. It was crime and I was its victim.

I was heartbroken. I had no idea when my next opportunity to buy a game would be, and I couldn't bring myself to blow into an NES game pak and return to that comfortable world, defeated.

So I decided to do the only thing a kid in my situation could do -- Lie. I told my mother that the game was broken, and we needed to go back to the store IMMEDIATELY and exchange it. I could be persuasive (intolerable) at that age, and so we were back in the car on the way to Toys 'R Us.

I tentatively approached the man in the cage - he was the one who controlled all the video games - and handed him the vile box. Apparently Geoffrey the Giraffe is a cruel task master.

"It's broken." I told him.

"Yeah, you have the receipt?"

What? I hadn't brought a receipt. He'd out-foxed me. I needed time to think. In lieu of a more clever diversionary tactic, I prepared to wet my pants.

"Here it is." My mother handed him the receipt and then lit up a Newport 100. Triumph!

"Alright, I'll go get you another one. It'll be awhile."

Another one?... There was more than one?? Oh no. I imagined the entire litter would have been incinerated.

"Wait," I said, "That kind of game doesn't work with my computer."

"Ugh," the cage-master sighed, "You need to read the label on these. I'll get the IBM one."

The IBM one!? I'd painted myself into a corner. Now I would be going home with the same game, but a version that I couldn't even use. The box would just sit on a shelf, laughing at me and inciting me to deaden my feelings and betray my friends and family just like that creepy book in the Care Bears Movie. Fuck that book.

"No, I think I need to pick a different game," I said.

"A different game? No no no, you can only exchange an opened game for the same game."

At that point my mother stamped her cigarette out on the side of her purse, flicked the butt onto the ground and stamped it out. She scratched the side of her face with her middle finger, "I don't have time for this. You're going to refund me the money for the DEFECTIVE game now. My son is going to pick out a new one. And then I am going to use the money that you're about to refund me to buy it." Her penciled-in eyebrow was cocked in its cuntiest position, the one that implied - "I will end you. Then eat you. Then shit you." The eyebrow had superpowers, and I was glad it wasn't aimed at me.

Cage-master withered under its rays and without further discussion he refunded the money.

"You have five minutes." My mother said as she lit up her next cigarette.

I ran back to the flap aisle looking for something - anything - that might not be a total abomination.

And then, across the crowded aisles, our eyes met and it was love at first sight.

Let's take a look at this picture at some of the things that tickled my young fancy:

1.) The hero is armed not with a machine gun, or a laser cannon, a +2 vorpal sword of wolvesbane, but instead with a loaf of bread. How badass is that?

2.) He's carrying a fucking fish.

3.) I hoped the game would be almost entirely about this broom. It appears to be checking out Zak's ass. Turns out the game wasn't about the broom so much, but his role is satisfying indeed.

4.) A cowboy hat paired with Groucho glasses. Not since Steve Martin stuck the arrow through his head has there been a better recipe for instant prop comedy.

5.) A two-headed squirrel guards an oversized peanut. Are you going to fuck with that squirrel? I don't think so.

6.) WHAT IS THAT? It's like an octopus shit out an entire human body. Amazing!

7.) This is Janeane Garofalo. She really wants to eat that bread. She's too ironic to be amused by the Groucho glasses, but she's being paid to hold them up and shill them.

8.) This statue is exhibiting what we on the school yard referred to as "blow cramps". This suggested that the ancient culture depicted here were masters of fellatio and perhaps this game would provide me with mouth sex.

Upon seeing all these wonders crammed into one image I had my first non-penetrative orgasm and grabbed its box-flap immediately.

We didn't get any guff from the man in the cage as he dutifully got the game for us. He may have wiped his ass on it for all I know, but at that point I would gladly have taken an ass-box if it meant getting a crack at the promised treasures inside.

On the ride home I got nervous. What if I had blundered again? It was an impulse buy. What if I'd been duped by the fancy packaging and all that was inside was broken dreams and the sound of a cat suffocating a baby?

So I started opening the game in the car against my mother's wishes, "For Christ's sake, you're going to lose all the pieces".

Inside there was not a waft of sadness, but instead a genuine manual, a secret decoder, official looking red documents, and an entire newspaper.

The newspaper, The National Inquisitor, was almost worth the price of admission alone. It was funny in a grown up way, but still silly. It was brilliantly illustrated. And when I later discovered that it was brimming with hints I would stay up late into the night poring over it to try and find hidden meanings in its fake news stories.

Check out the full scanned version of it here.

Before playing Zak McKracken there were a lot of games I had liked at the arcade, on the Atari 2600, the NES, and the Sega Master System. But even the games I truly loved like Super Mario Brothers, Zelda, and Phantasy Star, always felt "different" from other entertainment. They had basic plots and characters, but they didn't really have stories. Your interaction with the world was often limited to a handful of mechanics.

Not to knock the other games at the time, there were a lot of great ones. But what Zak did was open my eyes to the possibilities of what games could be.

When I started playing it I was first struck by the fact that you could interact with pretty much everything on screen. And not just by jumping on it or stabbing it, you could look, talk, touch, open, fix, pick up, and much more. Combined with your ever-growing inventory the possibilities seemed endless.

And while many of the interactions would trigger a canned response, quite a few of them had surprising or funny things to say even if you were doing the wrong thing. In fact, it seemed like the game wanted you to try the wrong thing, to mess around with the world just to see what would happen.

Nowadays sandbox gaming is commonplace so this might not seem like such a big idea. But at the time it was amazing that the game wanted you to play with it like a toy as much as it encouraged you to move the story along.

I think that attitude is summed up nicely in the game design philosophy from the manual:

Our Game Design Philosophy

We believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake. So we don't bring the game to a screeching halt when you poke you nose into a place you haven't visited before. In fact, we make it downright difficult to get a character "Killed."

We think you'd prefer to solve the games mysteries by exploring and discovering. Not by dying a thousand deaths. We also think you like to spend your time involved in the story. Not typing in synonyms until you stumble upon the computer's word for a certain object.

Unlike conventional computer adventures,Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders doesn't force you to save you progress every few minutes. Instead, you're free to concentrate on the puzzles, characters and outrageous good humor.

Keep in mind this was still in the heyday of arcades, and many games were designed so that you were killed as frequently as possible. The only way to survive was to master a single mechanic through trial and error and practice, practice, practice. Zak's philosophy, essentially - "We want you to have fun solving the puzzles, and enjoy the story," was ahead of its time.

Speaking of story, the game included many memorable characters with distinct personalities and well-written interactions. It felt like playing a movie, in a way that the FMV games that followed in the early-90's utterly failed to do. It was like you were inside an Indiana Jones world with the sensibility of Mad Magazine, and you could do anything that you wanted to. It was the first time a game felt epic to me in the sense that grand events were unfolding and that I was the one driving the action.

For its time, Zak was also a very cinematic game. It made use (for the time) elaborate cutscenes. In game many of the environments were "shot" in a cinematic way, meaning that the camera would sometimes be tight on something in the foreground and Zak would be large on the screen, and at other times Zak would be a single pixel dwarfed by these massive environments.

The meat of the game was really the puzzles. And while some were probably a bit too obtuse for their own good, and others were downright unfair (The mazes! Ugh... the mazes), most were just the right mix of lateral thinking and basic reasoning.

In one situation you need to book a biplane to the bermuda triangle and then parachute out of it before you are abducted by an alien ship helmed by an Elvis Impersonator who controls the lottery. After you splash down in the ocean you use a kazoo to summon a friendly dolphin and then take possession of his body and soul via a magical mind-melding crystal. Having hijacked the dolphin's body, you explore the ruins of Atlantis and recover a machine left behind by ancient astronauts.

In one single puzzle you have the bermuda triangle, Elvis impersonating aliens, dolphins that mistake the sound of a kazoo for a sweet sexy cetacean mating song. It's possible that wooing a dolphin into your clutches and then commandeering its body could be considered a form of date rape. But in this case the dolphin was totally asking for it.

Zak McKracken opened my eyes to what games could be. They could tell stories. They could form an emotional connection between the player and the characters. They could be cinematic. They could be open-ended. And they could be spring-loaded busy boxes full of fun and surprises just for their own sake.

To sum up, Zak McKracken made me feel like games were genuine entertainment in the same class as books, TV, and movies. From then on gaming wasn't just something something I'd do when I was bored. I threw myself into games on the computer, consoles, whatever just to see what's out there, experience it, and try to figure out what makes it tick. I've met some of my best friends through gaming, and have a ton of memories from games that I'd consider on par with any other form of entertainment.

So in the end there was no mouth sex in Zak McKracken, but maybe something just as good.

Well... maybe.

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About Secret Cowone of us since 7:11 PM on 06.26.2008

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