In 1990 Lucasfilm Games (now Lucasarts) were the Blizzard of the hilarious adventure game subgenre. Everything they touched was gold, and sold like heroin in an orphanage. At the same time, the NES was the console of the era, crushing all competitors under a gray boot of market share, and absorbing every IP available. As such it’s no surprise that Lucasfilm Games’ Maniac Mansion — a 1987 hit adventure title — would find its way to the NES, but what was shocking is how ready Nintendo was to slap down anything even remotely related to sex, anatomy, drugs, violence, pubic hair, the letter “L,” and woodland animals not wearing pants.
Thankfully, the Internet serves as a timeless archive for opinions, historical records and really whiny personal pages about how Todd is a total bastard who only smokes pot and hangs out with his loser friends and never has time for me anymore unless he wants to screw and no one understands me and my parents think I’m on drugs and the new Disturbed album is soooo good.
With that in mind (well, at least that first bit), I bring you this: the story of Douglas Crockford, a former employee of Lucasfilm Games who was responsible for dealing with Nintendo’s draconian policies during the porting of Maniac Mansion. He goes into great detail about how insane The Big N was and how bizarre many of their requests were. Hit the jump for my favorite bits, or just go read the entire thing at that link up there.
For those unfamiliar with Maniac Mansion, Ron Gilbert, or anything of any importance from the last thirty years, here’s Doug’s synopsis of the game:
The original version of Maniac Mansion was designed by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. It is a graphic story game, in which you manipulate three teenagers in order to save Sandy the Cheerleader from Dr. Fred, whose mind is being controlled by an evil purple meteor from Outer Space. I didn’t contribute much to the original version beyond the package slogan: His ambition was to rule the world…one teenager at a time!
He fails to mention how utterly hilarious the title was. It was a brand new world when you came in contact with characters capable of gallows humor or sexual innuendo, and Maniac Mansion — like Sam and Max and the Monkey Island games — proves once again that Ron Gilbert is much funnier than any of you.
Even with all the dark humor and vague references to sex, all of the Lucasfilm Games’ adventures were tame. Nothing contained within them would have upset the censors at ABC or CBS, and sitcoms of the time regularly went much further. Of course, Nintendo ruled with an iron fist, and that iron fist just so happened to be made of soft-shelled crabs, and sensitive young girls. To wit:
The mansion contains a number of arcade video games. One was called KILL THRILL. The name had to be changed. Doug Glen, our Director of Marketing, suggested that we change it to MUFF DIVER, which I thought was a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, I later became aware of the NES Game Standards Policy, which stated in part:
“Nintendo will not approve NES cartridges…with sexually suggestive or explicit content”
Yikes, MUFF DIVER had to be changed again. In order to minimize the impact on the artwork, I needed to substitute MUFF with another four letter word that was less suggestive that could make sense with DIVER. We settled on the word TUNA.
Of course, it was Nintendo’s game to play as they saw fit, but they didn’t even seem to have a good idea of what their own standards were, or if they did they certainly had no ability to adequately explain them. Doug continues:
“Also, there are several places where nudity needs to be removed: the posters in the gym, and the statue in the hall.”
There were two posters in Dead Cousin Ted’s room: A swimsuit calendar, and a mummy poster. The mummy is in a playmate pose, completely wrapped in bandages, no skin visible. We ended up removing both.
The statue was a classical reclining nude. I told one of the Nintendo minions that it was a Michelangelo (the sculptor, not the turtle). There was a glimmer of hope that we could keep it if it was really art, so I sent Gary to find a book of Michelangelo’s work, in the hope that he had made a statue that was similar. In fact he had, a work called Dawn, for the Medici Chapel.
Nintendo’s minions said we could keep the statue if we did something about the crotch. But if they could see pubic hair where there is none, what would they see if we tried to hide it?
We removed the statue.
If that wasn’t enough to cause devs to tear their hair out in bloody clumps (which would also have to be censored), Nintendo seemingly went batshit insane from time to time:
“There is also a reference at the end of the game to an “NES Scumm System” that we’re not sure we understand. Please advise as to the meaning of this reference.”
In the credits, which are shown after the conclusion of the game, there are two occurrences of the word Scumm, which stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion. Scumm is the story game development system which was used to produce Maniac. They understood, and asked “What is NES SCUMM?” That is the version of Scumm that we did for the Nintendo. “Yeah, but it says NES SCUMM. What will people think?”
I don’t know what people will think. And we will never know what people will think. I took it out.
Obviously working under the old regime was no fun. Now developers are allowed to go to much greater lengths with sex, violence and statues with landing strips, and we can thank the powers of capitalist competition for that. If you ever find yourself hoping for a day when we once again only have one console to choose from, or you become frustrated over the violence-in-games debate, take a few moments to read over how it used to be, and pray to the ghost of Lenny Bruce that we’ll never again go down that route.