Day of the Tentacle isn’t just arguably the best adventure ever made, but the Platonic Form of the genre in all its puzzle-solving, dialogue-tree ripping, twisted brain logic joy. It might not be the most exciting, nor has it the best story – it lacks the drama that intersperses Monkey Island’s comedy, and even Sam and Max has more bite. And hey, maybe your tastes lean towards Tex Murphy or Quest For Glory rather than puzzle-box adventures that pit you against the designers’ fiendish imagination. That’s cool and understandable and indeed totally groovy.
If, however, you think of the genre in terms of puzzles and comedy and those sudden moments of insane realisation that leave you sneaking to the computer at 2am on a school night, then I’m calling it. Day of the Tentacle is the best adventure game ever made. Ever. It is artistry in point and click form; a pitch-perfect example of how to make cartoon logic feel coherent, how to have a game full of dialogue that never outstays its welcome, and how to make it all feel utterly effortless.
Here’s the premise: having drunk its fill of mutagenic sludge, courtesy of mad scientist Doctor Fred’s Sludge-O-Matic machine – a device that exists solely to pollute a nearby river, because if he didn’t have something like that in his lab the other mad scientists will laugh – evil Purple Tentacle sets off to conquer the world. It’s too late to just run after him, apparently, so instead Doctor Fred comes up with a simpler solution – have three teens go back in time to yesterday and just switch off the machine before everything goes where hentai can only dream of.
Unfortunately the fake diamond at the heart of his time-machines – three converted toilets called ‘Chron-O-Johns’, of course, straight out of Palace Hill or every other Doctor Who parody – goes wrong. Geeky Bernard stays in the present. Dumb but resourceful roadie Hoagie ends up 200 years in the past, where Doctor Fred’s mansion is conveniently host to the US Founding Fathers as they work out the Constitution. Finally, psychotic medical student Laverne ends up 200 years in the future, a world ruled by Purple Tentacle, and his army of squelching minions. It’s your job to fix their time machines and bring them back to the present. Or 1993. Whichever’s closer.
Day of the Tentacle’s genius is in the casual but meticulous interlocks between these time zones and each teen’s quest. A basic example. Hoagie, in the past, needs vinegar to power a battery. In the future, Laverne finds a bottle of wine. She sends it back to Hoagie, who puts it into a time-capsule, so that it returns to the future four hundred years later, and then sends it back to him. Sorted. And that sound you can hear is the space time continuum weeping.
I won’t spoil any more puzzles, but almost all of them have a similar spark of genius. Many comedy puzzle games fail because they assume that anything goes. Day of the Tentacle doesn’t. It primes the logic, in dialogue options and descriptions and call-backs (and call-forwards) in the different timezones. It layers them, from having dialogue options where Bernard wonders what evil Purple Tentacle is up to with a list of things that you end up doing during the game, to cut-away gags that casually drop a clue in a slightly different context so that you still get to feel smart for making the connection. Only very occasionally does it go just a little too far into cartoon logic, moments easily forgotten next to all the other instances of finger-snapping brilliance when you finally figure out what a clue was getting at. Written down, yes, most of the puzzles sound utterly insane. On screen, there’s always a train of logic.
And it’s funny. That might sound obvious, but I’d argue that some LucasArts games get a little over-rated in that respect. The first Monkey Island, in particular, is charming, warm, wonderful and I love it immensely, but genuine laughs are few and far between. Day of the Tentacle still has them. It might be more spartan than you remember, with a lot of its animation having been designed to be quick, and fit on on floppy disks. But it works. Every visual gag earns its place, and while not every spoken joke lands, it’s got a pretty good hit rate in all three time-zones. Just a character’s grin can be enough to sell a line, especially when it’s Laverne’s ‘slasher-in-training’ one, with incidental animations like Hoagie’s inability to squeeze through small spaces without a big fatty ‘plop’ effect on his gut.
Day of the Tentacle is, in short, fantastic. It’s a crime that it’s taken so long to even be legally available again, with or without this edition’s all new remastered version.
And here’s where things go a little south. First things first though, you don’t actually have to care. Like the ghastly Monkey Island remaster, and the somewhat less ghastly Monkey Island 2 one, both of which I thought took wonderful original art and committed war crimes against it, you can play Day of the Tentacle in its original form just fine. You can also have the old verb interface (rather than pop-up icons when selecting something) with the new graphics, the new graphics with the new music, or any other variant you want. So, it’s fine. It’s all good.
The remastering is a bit disappointing though, especially in motion. The new higher resolution sprites show off just how few animation frames Day of the Tentacle actually has, and neither sprites or backgrounds are quite up to snuff. The original game is Chuck Jones by way of pixels, and it still more or less holds up. This feels like that and all the compromises that had to be made to pull it off in 1993 just vectorised from the original, upscaled and slightly retouched, which wouldn’t be a problem if the word that didn’t keep coming to mind was ‘just’.
Take the shading on backgrounds. Day of the Tentacle features lots of it to round out the scenery and help make everything feel chunky and rounded, but being restricted to 256 colours back in the day inherently meant it was going to be banded and dithered. The new versions however copy that banding exactly, looking like a 16-bit image file dropped down to 8-bit, and more importantly, really cheap. Likewise, character designs and levels of detail designed to look strong in about as much pixels as the average favicon tend to look cheap and amateurish when simply made bigger. Characters with dots for eyes are everywhere, along with inconsistent Flash style line-work, overly simple faces that are less Family Guy quality than something that Family Guy would mock, and no new shading or other techniques applied to make them look anything other than flat.
Once again, it stands as an example that just redrawing something in HD isn’t enough to make it modern. The original backgrounds, coloured with marker pen, have so much more texture and consistency and sense of place. I’m not saying the new graphics are terrible. It looks fine. The backgrounds hold up, and I appreciate the attempt. But it feels cheap; a straight-to-DVD Disney sequel compared to the original. That still impresses for what the original artists pulled off within incredibly tight limits. The update constantly cries out to have been taken a bit further.
As for other changes, they’re better. The music is good, and the new updated icon interface is comfortable enough that I soon stopped using the old verb screen entirely. The audio is straight from the original game recordings, cleaned up and at a higher bit-rate. It sounds great, especially if you’ve heard the somewhat scratchy CD version recently. The only catch is that some cut-scene lines seem to have been merged and so lose sync with the on-screen text. It only happens occasionally, but – like a graphical issue where Laverne’s head suddenly goes flat because she’s poked a pixel or two out of her sprite-sheet – it’s itchingly notable.
The big new feature is a Director’s Commentary that makes for good listening too, and while I’d have liked more, I could happily listen to hours and hours of deeper-dive discussion into this game and how it was made. Sometimes it kicks in during important cut-scenes if you don’t switch it off though, and being room based in a game that doesn’t have the travel of most adventures means that you’ll probably hear it all pretty early on. I’d have liked a few more nodes to unlock later, and, as with Grim Fandango, a proper subject description rather than just ‘press the key to listen’. You also unlock concept art throughout the game just by wandering about.
There’s no hints system in the game and no walkthrough, though those aren’t exactly hard to find. This version does add a handy helper though that will flag up usable items in the room. Day of the Tentacle isn’t a pixelbitching heavy game, but occasionally things can be overlooked when stuck and wandering around three versions of the same house in different time zones. There are of course also now achievements, which pop up with pretty tiresome regularity.
Finally, yes, you can still play the original version of Maniac Mansion within Day of the Tentacle. It’s completely untouched from the original (a shame – it would have been cool to see LucasArts settle its feud with the Maniac Mansion Deluxe creators or similar and package a remastered version of that game too), but for some reason you’re not allowed multiple saves – just one autosave baked into your current game. The original Maniac Mansion on C64 only offered one save too, but a) time has very much moved on since 1987 and b) Maniac Mansion is one you want multiple saves for, both for its many paths and it being one of the few LucasArts games where you can die. At least there’s always ScummVM if you want to play it on PC/Mac.
As for Day of the Tentacle itself – remastered or not, it’s great to have it back. There’s always a risk with games like this that nostalgia can overload everything or that rose-tinted glasses don’t work as well up close, but in this case, neither is the case. It’s every bit as well crafted now as it was in 1993. I won’t say that it’ll ignite a new love for the genre if you don’t already have it. Adventures are what they are, and they’re not for everyone, especially one that leans this far towards traditional puzzles instead of even as much story as the original Monkey Island. Go into it expecting it to blow your mind or convert you and you’ll probably be disappointed – though at the same time, hopefully amused and pleasantly brain-tickled.
More than most games though, this is a piece of art history – the defining game of its genre, still demanding respect regardless of what came later or how tastes changed. Now or maybe even two hundred years in the tentacle future, it’ll still be a fine answer if you ever find yourself asked what’s the best adventure game of all time.