You voted, I listened. After putting out there three possible candidates for a Halloween season retro playthrough, my Twitter followers selected LucasArt’s cult classic adventure game Grim Fandango for a romp.
That’s perfectly fine with me. My dirty secret is that I never got to finish GF. I owned it back in the day but the game glitched out on me a quarter of the way through and I wasn’t able to continue and complete my adventures. Then I threw it on the pile of “I really should go back and replay the whole thing” and kind of forgot about it. But now that there’s a remastered version on GOG.com and I have some time to retro game again, the excuses end here!
Grim Fandango was a really hard sell back in 1998 when it first came out. The whole premise of an adventure game themed to Mexico’s Day of the Dead was really strange (and even Pixar seemed to have difficulty wooing the masses with its talking skeleton flick Coco). I thought it was a wonderfully original idea, and the fact that it was created by Psychonauts’ Tim Schafer bumped it up in my estimation. Anyway, does it still hold up today, especially with old school adventure game mechanics? Let’s see!
The opening minutes lays out the bizarre premise here. Manny is a faux Grim Reaper in the underworld who works as a “travel agent” for the Department of Death to sell packages to the recently deceased who are about to embark on a four-year journey to find their eternal rest. Manny, however, is stuck doing this dead-end (heh) job until he makes enough money to work off some sort of debt.
One of the cool features of the remastered version is an audio developer commentary that can be toggled on so that every once in a while you can hear the team discuss various aspects of the game.
Grim Fandango is a wonderful mash-up of unlikely bedfellows, including film noir, the Aztec believe in the afterlife, and art deco, and all three of these influences run through the entire game. It’s such a unique look that has one foot in some version of our reality and one in another one entirely.
Anyway! The game! So Manny is not doing that well in the DOD, unable to land any big clients or make much money at all. Over the course of the first couple of hours, he discovers that this is because there’s something sinister going on in the DOD, as the best clients are always given to his rival Domino. Manny’s not without resources, and so befriends a beefy demon driver named Glottis and uncovers an underground revolutionary movement devoted to rooting out the truth.
While this is one of those adventure games where you can’t die (unlike most of Sierra’s crop), the puzzles can often be very fiendish and require a lot of experimentation and backtracking to solve. What I appreciate about Grim Fandango is that the interface is really streamlined — absent, for the most part. Manny’s head will turn toward any objects of note and the enter key will interact with people, things, etc. He does have a simple inventory, but no more than a half-dozen objects are in it at any given time.
At one point, Manny does return to the land of the living to reap a soul, and there we’re treated to this hellish display. I thought it really showed the imagination of the game’s developers, that the real world is the abnormal one while the underworld is, well, more acceptable to us.
Another imaginative twist is that “killing” the undead skeletons here requires shooting them with a special gun loaded with sprouts. The resulting flowers puts the dead to a permanent rest.
This is also a deeply weird and funny game, which is what we’ve all come to expect from a Schafer production. Some of the quotes here are just gold.
Eventually Manny crosses paths with a noteworthy client — a lady named Meche — who was a living saint and deserves nothing less than the best afterlife. However, it’s then that Manny discovers that the DOD has been stealing these rewards from good people and reselling them for a mysterious figure. Meche takes off on her four-year spiritual journey, and Manny soon follows after.
The rest of Manny’s first year takes place in a petrified forest (which wasn’t anything special) and a rather run-down port town named Rubacava. It’s here that he stops his journey for a while, becomes a businessman, and upgrades the place to a bustling port of call.