Today is a big day for adventure game fans: The classic Lucasarts game Grim Fandango has been remastered and re-released. But what if you've never played it? Should you care?
If you follow video games even casually, you've probably heard 30-something farts like me carrying on about Grim Fandango. Blah blah, best adventure game ever, blah unforgettable story and characters, blah blah soundtrack and art blah jazz blah. Today, you can finally just go experience the game for yourself, without having to mount any torrented .iso files or figure out how to get the game running in Windows without the graphics melting all over the screen. Not that I ever did that or anything.
If you're curious about Grim Fandango, you're in the right place. Here's a brief explainer that will hopefully shed some light on why so many people love it so much.
So everyone's always talking about "Grim Fandango". I've never played it. What is it? Why do people love it so much? Why am I supposed to be excited that it's coming back out?
Whoa, slow down. That's a lot of questions at once. Let's start with the first one: What is Grim Fandango?
OK, works for me.
So, it's an adventure game published by Lucasarts. It came out on PC in 1998, and is held up as "the last great adventure game," more or less.
The last? Haven't there been adventure games since then?
Oh, totally. But the late 90s were the end of an era for the sorts of puzzle-based adventure games a lot of people (including me) grew up on. We've seen a resurgence of adventure games lately, but for a long time there, the common narrative was that adventure games had "died." Anyway, they're definitely not dead now. Proof positive: There's a new, remastered version of Grim Fandango!
Yeah! So, ok. Grim Fandango. What's it all about?
It's a noir adventure game set in the land of the dead.
Huh. That already sounds interesting.
It really is! That's a lot of what people thought, even at the time. The game was made at LucasArts, and was headed up by Tim Schafer — it's widely regarded as one of his best games. You play as a guy — ok, a skeleton — named Manny Calavera, a supernatural travel agent who reaps the souls of the recently departed and sells them passage across the land of the dead. It's all based on Aztec beliefs about the afterlife, and loaded with nifty art deco design.
Here, watch a trailer for the remastered edition:
Looks neat. Does it hold up?
It really does. Grim is as unusually well-written now as it was then, and the art is as strange and lovely. It's aged well, even visually. It was one of the first adventure games to try to be in actual 3D, which is part of why everyone is a cuboid skeleton — they're already full of right angles, so they're much easier to render in blocky 3D without them looking ridiculous.
What's the story all about?
Well, like I said before, Manny spends his time selling travel options to the recently departed. Depending on how good his client was in life, they get a variety of different travel options for the four-year journey across the land of the dead. Manny's been having a run of bad luck with his clients, until he snags a perfect one: A woman named Mercedes Colomar. Something goes sideways with her fare, however, and before too long Manny has set out after her, determined to get to the bottom of whatever's going on. I could go into particulars, but really, the story is the whole point of the game, so if you think the setup sounds good you should just play it for yourself.
So what's the deal with the new version? What's new about it?
The remastered edition actually isn't all that different from the original version. They have spruced up some of the graphics and lighting, though most of the backdrops remain unchanged. Here's a comparison screenshot they sent in their press kit:
It moves a bit oddly, actually — on PC, the characters are all sharp and move at 60 frames per second, but some of the backdrops are lower-res and run at different frame-rates, which can make things feel a little disjointed. It actually feels more seamless on the Vita, though the Vita has some kind of annoying — if very short — loading hangs in between scenes.
What else is different?
Throughout the game, there are a bunch of cool little audio diaries from the various developers who worked on the game. When you click on one, they will share a little story about the puzzles, the art, the decisions that led them to create the scene you're playing. Some of the conversations can get kind of wandering, but from what I've heard, the commentary track adds a lot for people who are already fans of the game.
Also, the music has been totally redone, which is awesome.
I've heard people talk about the Grim Fandango soundtrack before. It's good, yeah?
It's one of the best video game soundtracks of all time. For the remastered version, composer Peter McConnell went and re-recorded everything with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and it all sounds better than ever. I haven't been able to find it online yet, but here's a good compilation of the original:
Anything else new?
The last big overhaul is to the control scheme, which was notoriously crusty in the original game. When it came out, Grim Fandango used 3D "tank" controls that could be a real pain in the arse. You had to push Manny around each screen with the arrow keys, which moved him relative to the placement of the camera, sort of like Resident Evil. The new version works with a controller, and on PC and Mac it has mouse and keyboard controls, so it works like a regular ol' adventure game. Some aspects are still kinda rough — the inventory system, in particular, is cumbersome — but in general, the game works much better than it did.
You're being pretty positive. Is anything particularly bad about the remastered edition?
Well, the game did crash for me a couple times on PC, which is a bummer because there's no autosave. So, you'll need to get into the habit of saving your game manually at regular intervals. It runs in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which looks fine, but while you can select a widescreen option, it looks kinda terrible. But those are pretty small things... by and large, it's solid.
OK. That all sounds fine, but why do people love this game so much?
Several reasons. The biggest one: People love Grim Fandango because… well, it's a pretty brilliant game. It's got great characters, a good story, good acting and dialogue, and incredible music and atmosphere. It's not really very much like anything else.
This next reason is just a theory, but I think another reason people love it so much is that it was so hard to get for so long.
Yeah, what was that about?
Until today, Grim Fandango has been one of the Great Lost PC Games, along with other classics like Full Throttle, No One Lives Forever, and System Shock 2, though that last one was also recently re-released. A lot of people loved Grim, but the rights to the game had been tied up in the quagmire of Lucasarts' implosion, and for many years the game was impossible to buy digitally. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the longer people couldn't easily play it, the more the game was lent a sort of mythic quality.
But it deserves that reputation, yeah? I mean, you're saying the game is good.
Yeah, it's great. It's got some problems, but it's a terrific game.
What systems can I play it on? Is one version better than the others?
At the moment, it's on PS4, Vita, PC, Mac and Linux. I'd say if you can, play it on a computer, because I like the mouse & keyboard interface better than using a controller. People who pre-downloaded on PS4 have been having some trouble getting the game to work — you can apparently fix that by following these instructions and re-downloading the game.
Any other tips?
Don't be afraid to google the solutions to some of the puzzles. Most of the puzzles are logical and solvable, but there are a few that go past reason into weird-adventure-game-logicville, and you can lose a frustrating amount of time being flat-out stuck. Thankfully, it's very easy to look up the solution to a given puzzle. This game isn't good because of its puzzles — though most of them are enjoyable and clever — it's good because of the story. So, don't be afraid to lean on a FAQ.
Got it. Well, thanks, this has been helpful!
Oh... so, before, you mentioned No One Lives Forever. You think that's gonna get a re-release anytime soon?
It looks like that may well happen. I hope it does. I'll keep you posted.