Returning to a favourite game of all time is a risky business. More so than novels, films and TV, a video game can age like milk, and it’s rare that you’ll find a truly timeless game. Design principles improve, graphics move on, countless sequels iterate on the original. Just return to play Goldeneye and, hand on heart, say that it’s retained everything that made it brilliant. Go on – it’s heartbreaking.
I came to Day of the Tentacle Remastered with The Fear. It was a game that I’d toss out as a GOAT when anyone asked. But I hadn’t played it for yonks, and there was every chance that the rot had set in. When Microsoft announced that they would be releasing it on Xbox Game Pass, remastered with Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, I knew I had to be the one to play it (don’t worry: reviews of the others are incoming).
If you’re wondering what the bejeezus I’m talking about, well, Day of the Tentacle was a point-and-click adventure from LucasArts’ purple patch. They’d just launched The Secret of Monkey Island II and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Day of the Tentacle was being worked on at the same time as Sam & Max Hit the Road. Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman were at the peak of their powers, and they were working from material that had come pre-supplied by Ron Gilbert in Maniac Mansion (this was kind of, but not really, a sequel). Day of the Tentacle was a colourful, B-Movie-riff on Roger Corman movies, The Twilight Zone and The Addam’s Family, and it was bursting with humour.
In Day of the Tentacle, you play as a trio of friends – Bernard, Laverne and Hoagie – who receive a letter from one of Bernard’s old acquaintances: Green Tentacle. He explains that the nefarious Purple Tentacle has swallowed some super-powered gunk and is looking to take over the world. When heading back to the Mansion in an effort to stop Purple, you meet the family of Edisons, and – through a bizarre sequence of events – end up traveling back in time. These time shenanigans take place through three Chron-O-Johns – outhouses, outfitted for time-travel – and they each crash-land in versions of the Edison mansion across three different time-zones: one during the founding moments of the United States (Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Thomas Edison included), one a single day in the past, and one a few decades in the future, when Purple Tentacle has achieved world domination, turning humans into preening poodles.
The Remastered version of Day of the Tentacle was released four years ago, on Steam, iOS and PS4, and this is a straight port of that version. There are a few notable differences from the original, with the pixel art updated to a crisp Saturday-morning cartoon look (you can switch back to the original with a touch of the button), audio tracks remastered, and – most dramatically – the text menu stripped out. All of the verbs to ‘Look At’, ‘Use’, etc, have been moved to radial buttons, making controls on console a bit more of a breeze.
If I’m being honest, The Fear stayed with me, and didn’t evaporate until a couple of hours of Day of the Tentacle Remastered. While the graphics were undoubtedly modernised and crisp, they weren’t exactly attractive; I can’t imagine a new player coming to the game and thinking that it’s anything other than functional. You only have to look back at the Secret of Monkey Island remasters, where everything looked like a reimagining of the original, while still being glorious in their own right. Here, it’s a reimagining and nothing more than that.
The audio, too, is a little ramshackle. The voice acting sounds like it was done in Tim Schafer’s basement bar with some mates, so it’s quirky but hardly professional. Again, it preserves the original, but feels cheap in isolation. While the audio tracks have been cleaned up, it would have been wonderful to hear a big-band give this do-over.
Then there are the radial menus, which are definitely an improvement (playing with the original menu on consoles is a special brand of torture), but countless point-and-clicks have improved on this setup (see Lair of the Clockwork God, for example). Using items on the environment is ponderous, as you drag it through the inventory and slooooowly over to the point of interest. There are no single-button operations (would it have killed the game to have ‘Look At’ as a default verb, for example?), and did there have to be so many options for each thing?
Luckily, The Fear came and went. While the remaster can feel a bit ‘will that do?’, the core of Day of the Tentacle is as madcap, ridiculous and hilarious as ever.
There are a few things that make Day of the Tentacle perfect. One is the mansion, seen through three (technically five) different lenses, with the player changing one of them to have ramifications on the other two. Sure, the wave of joy was smaller this time round, but getting Betsy Ross to alter the pattern of the American Flag to be tentacle-shaped in the past, and then skipping to the future to use it as a tentacle costume is still pure, crystalised genius. This ‘Butterfly Effect’ joke is used several times in Day of the Tentacle, and it never, ever gets old.
One of the joys of a graphic adventure is hoovering up all of the accessible items in an environment, and then working out which can be used to get you to the next step. In Day of the Tentacle, that joy is multiplied. You’re exploring the house threefold, getting loads of items, and then working out whether they’d be better off in different timezones. Some items can just be dumped into the Chron-O-John in a straight swap (it would have been nice to batch-move items from one character to another), while others won’t flush, so you’ll need to get creative if you want them spanning centuries (forgive me for what I did to you, hamster). Putting vintage wine into a time capsule, and then can-opening it a millenia later to get vinegar is inspired.
More impressive than any of this – the lightning that Day of the Tentacle bottles – is how it can create so many wild, outlandish problems, yet solving them rarely feels abstract. The best way to explain is an example: Edna Edison is in a CCTV room, moving from screen to screen on a desk chair. You can push her to access the CCTV screens, but she always catches herself on a sword that is being held by a statue near the door, and rolls back to interrupt you. Go back in time, however, and you can see the statue being sculpted. Swap the sculptor and the sculptee, and the sword moves from the right hand to the left hand. Skip forward in time, push Edna, and there’s no sword to grab, so she tumbles down the stairs. That kind of scenario is next-level, like nothing you’ve come across elsewhere, but it almost never feels contrived or impossible to resolve. There’s method in Day of the Tentacle’s madness.
As with most LucasArts adventures, so much of the quality is in the dialogue. I don’t remember there being this many Star Wars references (LucasArts must have had some contractual obligations), but I do remember laughing out loud multiple times, and it was no different this time out. Imagination oozes from everything: characters like George Washington, Harold the pet human, Oozo the clown, the Mummy and Purple Tentacle are all a hoot. The items, too, are just a little more inventive than the average: fake barf, a novelty gun, a clown’s speakerbox and the world’s tiniest jumper. I’ll never forget what I had to do with each of them.
Day of the Tentacle on Xbox One is the product of a studio on a roll. There was no popular franchise, no Star Wars or Indiana Jones to work with here, which meant – to hell with it – ideas could be its foundation. One mansion, three time-zones, and an inventory full of items to switch between them. Sure, the remaster is a missed opportunity, but the game is anything but: simultaneously timeless and sublime in how it uses time. We can wipe the sweat from our brow now, and be happy that Day of the Tentacle is as good as it ever was.