Sam & Max: Episode 1 – Culture Shock Review

Sam & Max Hit the Road landed on shelves in early 1993. The game was an instant hit with fans and critics alike, citing an acidic cult humor, and two of the most likable characters ever to hit adventure gaming.  A bit later in the 90s we were treated to the sadly short-lived animated series.  LucasArts handed the series to a development studio called Infinite Machine.  The studio set out to work on the next Sam & Max title but fell into bankruptcy shortly thereafter.  The game was shelved for several years.  LucasArts teased fans with a short announcement video of Sam & Max in 2004, but cancelled it almost as quickly as it was announced. It felt like we might never see Sam & Max again.

This spring, the rights to Sam & Max were secured by the original creator of the game, Steve Purcell. Working with Telltale Games, the group behind the similarly-episodic title Bone, Sam & Max: Culture Shock was put into production early this year.  The objective was a brisk release schedule of one episode a month, with each episode being released separately, and then combined into a full season.  Today is the day that people have been waiting for over a decade.  I have joined Sam & Max on their next great adventure, and it is everything you’ve been waiting for.

The graphics in Sam & Max: Culture Shock look very similar to the previous Telltale Games title Bone because it uses the same engine.  Steve Purcell took a break from his work at Pixar to work with Telltale to make sure that Sam & Max turned out to be the title fans have been clamoring for.  The result is a game that is visually similar to the original Sam & Max title, but updated in a significant way. 

The colors in the game are bright and vibrant with a comic flare that borders on, but doesn’t quite state, cel shaded.  The texture work is similarly superb, with great attention paid to Sam & Max.  Sam’s suit has a visual texture and shows creases and bunching where you’d expect it.  Similarly, the environments are well textured. Sam & Max’s office has a plaster covered drywall look with tire tracks (best not to know how those got there) and random illustrations from Max. In short, they’ve worked to give the game the look of a title that is normal mapped, bump mapped, and all that other graphic technobabble, but without the hit on your hardware.  Amazingly, this title will run on a fairly low-end system.  The game supports up to 1600×1200, and also supports a windowed mode if you are into that kind of thing. If you have a system that has been built in the last 4 years, you can run Sam & Max with max detail enabled. It just goes to show, a game doesn’t have to use the Unreal 3 engine to look fantastic.

OS: Windows XP
Processor: 800MHz (if using a video card with hardware T & L); 1.5GHz (if using a video card without hardware T & L)
RAM: 256MB
Video card: 32MB 3D-accelerated video card
Hard drive space: 230MB available

OS: Windows XP
Processor: 1.5 ghz
RAM: 512MB
Video card: 32MB 3D-accelerated video card
Hard drive space: 230MB available

The voice actors of Sam & Max: Hit the Road, Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson, were unavailable to reprise their roles as the Freelance Police.  In 1997, Harvey Atkin and Robert Tinkler voiced the duo in the cartoon adaptation.  For whatever reason, none of these four voice actors were available, and new voice actors had to be used for this title – a change that could easily bury the game. 

Hiring David Nowlin and Andrew Chaikin to handle the voices of Sam & Max, respectively, Telltale games sought to recreate the unique chemistry of the original game. How would new voice actors carry the weight of millions of fans?  How could they live up to the expectations of over a decade of anticipation?  I cannot imagine the pressure.  After getting my hands on the first episode of the title, I can say that they handled it very well.  Is it different?  Sure. Is it obvious how hard they are trying to approximate the original performances?  A little.  Does it work?  Absolutely. The other voice actors in the game deliver great performances as well, each adding to the overall production quality of the title.

The sound effects and music work in Sam & Max: Culture Shock couldn’t fit the location and subject matter any better than they do.  The driving sequence has a near circus-like soundtrack, with clangs and crunches of mailboxes and parking meters mixed in. 

Scoring a game that is episodic is problematic.  This particular episode is the first pass at recreating the original world.  As the team moves onto later episodes, the process will improve, and the voice acting will become more relaxed.  This is an excellent initial effort, and the thought of improvement from here is exciting.  Don’t fret over the change, embrace it and be happy that we’ve got a game to play at all.

Sam & Max: Culture Shock is a 3D title, unlike its 2D predecessor.  It uses the most simple and intuitive control scheme that you could possibly use – point and click.  Want to talk to somebody?  Click on them.  Want to interact with an object?  Click on it. Want to use an object?  Tip over your box, click the item you want, and then click on the object you want to manipulate.  Simple and effective.

The controls for conversations are as simple as the movement and interaction controls. When you click on someone who will talk to you a speech menu is displayed.  You select the phrase that you’d like to say, and then click it.  You can sometimes choose between something Max has to say versus what Sam has to say by simply clicking on their picture and then selecting their phrase.  A good bit of the insanity in this game is the wacky dialog, so going through multiple speech trees is a given.  Should you get tired of hearing the same dialog leading up to your choice, simply right click and the game skips to the next line.  Again, simple!

No Sam & Max game would be complete without a trip down the street in the Desoto.  Controlling the car is, once again, simple.  The car drives forward on its own, you simply click left or right to swerve in that direction.  While you drive you have three activities to chose from.  You can use a megaphone to heckle motorists, honk the horn, or pull out Sam’s big gun to shoot out the tail lights on other cars. I’m sure we’ll see more of the Desoto as we move into later chapters.  Hopefully they’ll nip some of the slight control delays in the bud as well. 

In short, the control scheme of Sam & Max harkens back to a simpler time.  Point and click without a complicated interface cluttering up the scene was the watchword of the adventure genre, and Telltale Games has seen fit to remind us why it was such a good idea.  

I have faith in this series because of the people involved with its production – Steve Purcell, the original creator, and Senior Designer Dave Grossman of Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island, and Monkey Island 2 fame. The episodic nature of the game means that each episode will only be a few hours long.  To complete this episode took me roughly 4 hours as I’m the type of adventure gamer that likes to check out every voiceover option.

The game kicks off just as Sam & Max: Hit the Road did, with the duo hanging out in their office.  Normally they’d be looking for a call from the Chief, but it seems their phone has been nabbed by the rat that lives in the hole next to Max’s desk.  The rat, named Jimmy Two-Teeth, demands Swiss cheese in exchange for the return of the phone. Thankfully Max has stockpiled a closet full of cheese, but unfortunately it isn’t Swiss.  How do you make it Swiss cheese?  Pull out Max’s gun and blow holes in it!  Jimmy Two-Teeth, being the rat that he is, decides to up the ante a little bit and decides to hold on to your phone. Initiating a dialog puzzle, you threaten the rat with bodily harm until the phone is once again yours.  It is these simple nonsensical good dog/bad rabbity-thing interactions that make the game everything that you’d hope it could be. 

As the adventure unfolds, you find that a conspiracy is unfolding involving former child stars called “The Sodapoppers” being masterminded by Brady Cultures.  Your job is to figure out the particulars of the conspiracy, how to disrupt it, and how you’ll track down the mastermind behind it.  Just as it is in other adventure games, you’ll do this through interacting with the basic logic puzzles throughout the various locations.  These puzzles can be simply using an object at the right time, saying the right thing, or using two objects together.  Naturally, the objects in the game often evade any sort of logical use, but when you figure it out it is often quite hilarious.  

Speaking of hilarious, there are other random aspects of the game that made me laugh out loud. Inspecting a file in the office, Sam quipped how he remembered the case as particularly gruesome.  The case file was dated 03/03/04 – the date that LucasArts killed the previous title. Occasionally, when Sam walks past Max he’ll smack him high into the air while Max yells “Wheee!” You’ll explore ink blots and crazy dreams.  It’s just insane! Other than the smacking, Max is utilized in the game quite a bit more than he was in Sam & Max: Hit the Road.  In Hit the Road, Max was often just spouting random craziness, adding to the conversation or offering a quip to fit the current situation.  In Culture Shock, both Sam & Max have more interaction with the many residents of their neighborhood.  That makes for even more lunacy, which is why we play Sam & Max in the first place.

Overall, the game is fairly simple and fun.  The interaction that made the first game so much fun is very much present in this title.  The only drawback is also one of the strengths – the episodic nature. Because this is the first episode of the game, the area is rather limited. You can get in the car and harass motorists, but you really can’t escape from the initial area quite yet.  Perhaps in subsequent episodes we’ll see a return to this area, as well as the new areas, but only time will tell.  As a result, you don’t get the crazy puzzles that you do in other adventure games where you might pick up a wrench in one location hundreds of miles away from where you use it. In Culture Shock, at least at this stage, the puzzles are still insane, but you really only have a small number of possible uses for some of the objects you obtain.  I’m hoping the difficulty ramps a little bit for future episodes. 

Another area where the game is a little too simple is the driving game.  While I didn’t expect Grand Theft Auto, there really is little you can do in the driving game.  Without a destination to head to, you really aren’t compelled to drive the Desoto except to solve a particular puzzle early in the game.  Again, perhaps this will change as the game moves into future episodes.

Sam & Max: Culture Shock is a game that has persevered more than even Duke Nuke’Em: Forever, and that is saying something!  This game has survived more potholes and falling anvils than any other game I’ve seen, and has survived to not only ship (virtually speaking), but also retain the humor and gameplay elements that made the original so incredibly great.  I don’t care if you subscribe to GameTap or not (although you get to play it first if you do), but I do believe this is a game that every adventure gamer should own. 

Adventure games have a big pitfall that is almost unavoidable.  To keep the game on pace, and to keep the story thread moving in the right direction, the game has to be linear.  Sad but true, this makes most adventure games essentially pointless to replay.  The humor in the LucasArts classic games such as Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max: Hit the Road, the Monkey Island series, Telltale game’s own comic adaptation, Bone, and many others makes those games worth revisiting for years to come.  The episodic nature means that you’ll have to be patient and play it for a few hours every month for 6 months before you see the end of this story.  The nice part is that Telltale will be offering the episodes for only $8.95 each or $34.95 for the whole season.  If you buy the whole season, you’ll get the option to receive a CD at the end of the season for only the price of shipping.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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