There aren’t many games as important as Sam & Max Save the World (otherwise known as Sam & Max: Season One). It may sound like dodgy journalism hyperbole, but it really isn’t. Sam & Max Save the World was the first proper release for Telltale Games; certainly the first to properly bankroll them (remember the ropey Xbox 360 CSI games?). Its success meant that Telltale were deemed safe-hands to carry Batman, Walking Dead and Borderlands. These are the games that we associate with Telltale, and Sam & Max blasted a way forward for them.
What Sam & Max Save the World truly pioneered was episodic releases. It may not have been the first game to do them, but it was the first to make it a viable business model. It gave smaller companies an option: demo a concept to money-paying players, and make enough cash to keep future episodes ticking over. Without the success of Sam & Max Save the World, we might not have seen Life is Strange or Sonic the Hedgehog 4.
Take a bow, Sam & Max Save the World. But for all of its importance, the game wouldn’t drop into many people’s Telltale Top Ten. It’s not even the most beloved Sam & Max game. But there may be good reasons for that: it launched during the nadir of point-and-click games, well before the Telltale tidal wave hit, so it might be underrated because few people played it. That makes it a smart shout for a reappraisal, and who better to remaster it and bring it to a new audience than Skunkape Games, led by Telltale co-founder Dan Connors.
After the fall of Telltale in 2018, Skunkape Games got hold of the assets and source code, hoping that a swift re-release was on the cards. But no. It was messy and incomplete enough that they had to remaster it from the ground up. Fast forward to today and voilà, we have Sam & Max Save the World, packaging all of the episodes together, with updated lighting, graphics, lip sync, camerawork and a remastered soundtrack.
Honestly, Skunkape have done a sterling job here. If there are issues with Sam & Max Save the World, none of them come from the remaster. I remember thinking that the original Sam & Max Save the World was washed out and a little bit flat: a far cry from the technicolour Sam & Max Hit the Road that we played on a dusty 486. But in Skunkape’s remaster, there’s something Funko Pop! about the characters, and we mean that positively. Sam & Max have become chunky bits of plastic, cel-shaded just enough to give them some definition, and they look great. The improved lighting of each scene helps no-end too.
Some might kick up a fuss over the recasting of Bosco, one of the main characters in Sam & Max Save the World, but we didn’t notice, and the replacement does such a cracking job that it doesn’t matter (we can only imagine the direction: “you’re dressed as your mum now”, “now you’re half-elf”). Possibly the greatest positive is the chance to package Sam & Max Save the World correctly: the episodes are all accessible from a single menu, and you can skip to chapters within them for your achievement and replay needs. It just feels good to have it in one well-presented little bundle.
The controls and gameplay in Sam & Max Save the World are okay – nothing too traumatic. They’ve been a continued bugbear for point-and-click games on console, with some titles opting for a mouse-like cursor, while others have gone for one-to-one control of a character, with the ability to ‘snap’ to points of interest with the right-analogue stick. Sam & Max Save the World opts for the latter, and it works adequately, but still can’t help feeling awkward. Snapping to points of interest that are high in the sky, for example, takes a few goes as the game engine will fight you. Items in close proximity to each other can be a pain to highlight, and we had struggles when trying to point at something that Sam was obscuring. It’s been a problem since man emerged from the primordial swamp and booted up Monkey Island, so we’ll let it off.
You’re not going to be buying Sam & Max Save the World for the controls, you’re going to come for the chuckles. And it’s here where it delivers. The two ‘unofficial law enforcement officers’ are fantastic to spend time with, and capable of a real-life guffaw every five or six sentences. “Smell these two handkerchiefs”, says Max, “and which one smells of chloroform?”. The visual jokes are on-point too, as the duo pass a doomy sign on the White House that says ‘Suspect yourself’; “That’s so Madonna”, says Max in reply.
If there’s a down-side to the humour, it’s that you start to spot the formula when you’re bingeing six episodes in a row. It’s not quite as bad as South Park’s criticism of Family Guy, that their jokes come from manatees randomly grabbing idea balls and fudging them together, but it’s close. Sam makes a snide remark about a character, Max follows up with a bizarro or violent misunderstanding of the remark, and Sam tells Max how much he loves him. But hey, the characters themselves even acknowledge the template. Plus it works.
The episodes all hang together thanks to a hypnosis plot that would probably piss Tom Cruise off, as it’s a thinly veiled jab at Scientology. Hugh Bliss, a wellness guru, advocates ‘Prismatology’, the principle of moving your chakra from negative to positive soul-colours. The episodes take you to a casino, TV sound stage, the White House and even the Moon. Telltale clearly had fun with the stakes in Sam & Max Save the World, as the rules of its universe are elastic enough to allow Max become President of the USA, and for a DeSoto to be capable of space travel. The complete lack of realism is part of the charm.
What lets Sam & Max Save the World down, though, is the clear cost-cutting. Every episode starts with Sam & Max in their office, on the same street. It’s fine to give an anchoring familiarity to each episode, but roughly half of each episode is spent on this same street, and it starts to fatigue. Sam & Max Save the World has not one, but two episodes at the end where they reunite the cast (presumably so Telltale didn’t have to create new characters), and the world of Sam & Max Save the World often feels small and reheated.
It creates problems with the puzzles. Inconspicuous items in the background of Sam & Max’s office and street suddenly become important. You’ll have ignored a coffee pot, coat-hanger, unused door and set of posters, as you’ve passed them by dozens of times and they had no use in previous episodes. But very suddenly they’re needed, and you won’t have factored them in as potential solutions. You kind of take them for granted.
The puzzles are quite the mixed bag, actually. Some are truly stellar – a backward game of tic-tac-toe in the last episode is genius, for example. When Sam & Max Save the World is at its best, normal items butt up against the crazy rules of Sam & Max’s world. Of course it’s fine to inhale helium to hit the high notes in a Pop Idol competition. That makes a deranged sort of sense.
But too often we felt that the logic was skew-whiff. There just wasn’t enough to hint that two items would work together in a useful way. Why would I feed a rat to a hungry rabbit? How am I meant to know that a Lunar Lander is the perfect way to shatter a glass jar? Logic and surrealism aren’t very good bed partners.
Generally, there is a nagging feeling that Sam & Max’s DeSoto is stuck in second or third gear. Compared to some of their other outings, it just isn’t as memorable. That might be down to the unevenness of the episodes, with the first episode in particular feeling flat (child actors and afros aren’t that funny). But it’s often because Sam & Max say ridiculous things, but rarely do them. Max becomes President but you don’t see him abusing that power, not really. Often there will be anecdotes from past cases that sound better than the one you’re on.
But Sam & Max’s second gear is better than many games’ first, so it’s still a wild ride. The gag-o-meter is constantly filling up, and the writing is sharp. While the logic will admittedly have you scratching your head, more often than not there will be a payoff that makes the misstep worth it.
It’s not the best Sam & Max game, or even the second best, but Sam & Max Save the World is a milestone in the series, preserved with love by the best people to do so. If you’ve been looking for a reason to spend time with two of gaming’s best characters on an Xbox, grab it with all four paws.
You can buy Sam & Max Save the World for £16.74 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S