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PSN Review: Sam & Max – Beyond Time and Space

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Though most of my memories of the mid ‘90s tend to lean more towards large chunks of vacuity, there were some damn good times spent in front of the PC playing some of the funniest and most entertaining video games that were available then on the illustrious newfangled format of CD-ROM. There was Sierra Entertainment’s Leisure Suit Larry’s Greatest Hits & Misses, which combined eight different titles of the Al Lowe series one a single disc (as opposed to the numerous 3 1/2″ and 5 1/4″ floppies needed to play the previous, separate releases); the epic Space Quest franchise; and numerous goodies available in the 6-disc box sets called The LucasArts Archives.

One particular title in The LucasArts Archives, Vol. I struck an exceptionally favorable chord with me: something called Sam & Max Hit the Road (from 1993) — which was the first of several games inspired by an underground comic series about a duo of self-professed “Freelance Police” created by Steve Purcell. The pair consists of Sam, an anthropomorphic six-foot dog donned in a suit and a fedora, and his clothing-less, borderline-psychotic “hyperkinetic rabbity thing” of a partner, Max. While they’re allegedly on the side of the good guys, they seldom obey the law. In fact, they try to break every law they can just for the hell of it.

For several years, the two were a staple in many LucasArts games — and not just their own. I vividly recall a hidden cave on one of the levels of Lucas Arts’ Star Wars: Dark Forces that, were you to enter it and then look upon your onscreen map, you would only see an outline of the demented, grinning face of Max staring at you. They were that big in the scene. Sadly, though, they never quite achieved the mainstream success they, in all honesty, deserve — a trouncing of pop culture injustice, which, probably more than anything else, is attributable to the fact that Sam & Max deliver most of their laughs via obscure references to movies and history (though often warped), cartoonish violence (physically and verbally) and double entendres.

It didn’t help, either, that, on the verge of releasing the follow-up to Sam & Max Hit the Road in 2004, LucasArts pulled the plug on said project, pissing off Purcell and tens of thousands of fans in the process. Prior to that, there were several other proposed sequels to Sam & Max Hit the Road from various software companies which also never quite materialized as hoped. Thankfully, once Purcell’s license with LucasArts expired in 2005, he took his creations to Telltale Games, wherein the universe was treated to Sam & Max: Season One in 2006 (later to be christened Sam & Max Save the World in 2009 when the game was released to Xbox 360) via six episodic video games that retained the wonderful point-and-click charm of their now-outdated predecessors.

In 2007, Telltale released Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space (aka Sam & Max: Season Two) via GameTap, the continuing saga of lunacy. Now, four years after the first installment of Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space was made available online, the folks at PlayStation Network (PSN) have picked up the rights to distribute this madcap diversion from the perils of real life for all to enjoy — as well as the “third season” (originally released in 2010), Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse — as Downloadable Content (DLC).

For those of you who long to once again experience the classic formula of adventure games — wherein you must examine everything, pick up anything that hasn’t been bolted down in hopes that it will come in handy later (which usually comes true), and use the power of observation and reasoning in order to win — your ship has just crashed into the harbor. And there are dead bodies to loot everywhere.

We begin with “Ice Station Santa,” wherein Sam & Max (the latter of whom is now President of the United States, believe it or not) are attacked by a giant destructive robot sent by Jolly Ol’ St. Nick himself. Journeying between what’s left of their old neighborhood (the robot does just a wee bit of damage), the boys travel to the North Pole to unravel the mystery behind Santa’s sudden homicidal behavior (a classic case of demonic possession), and must eventually travel through three time portals to right the terrible wrongs they committed in the Christmases of the future, present and past in order to save the holiday season this year. Max, upon learning they can travel back in time to change things, expresses his desire to murder Charlie Chaplin to prevent World War II from happening.

It’s humor like that that keeps me coming back for more, kids. And I’m obviously not the only one, or else Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space would not have continued with installments “Moai Better Blues,” wherein we make way for Easter Island via a Bermuda Triangle (which appears in the middle of the street), only to find an upset volcano god, the legendary Fountain of Youth, and the various missing celebrities (Amelia Earhart, D.B. Cooper, Jimmy Hoffa, et al) who have since turned into infants after drinking from it. But the highlight for me in “Moai Better Blues” occurred with the examination of a device called the “Bomb-B-Gone” in the local neighborhood store (Bosco’s Inconvenience) leads Sam to quip “Because some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb” — a reference to the campy 1966 Batman movie with Adam West.

The references continue in “Night of the Raving Dead” (a nod to Young Frankenstein is of particular appeal), the tale of a fey, trendy and emo German vampire who is trying to take over the world with zombies (and whose castle, “The Zombie Factory,” is a giant rave). There’s also a Boris Karloff-inspired man-made monster whom you must complete (and who says “Happy Birthday!” once brought to life; a bizarre running gag centers around the mention of birthdays — you’ll just have to find out for yourself) in order to get an item from neighborhood tattoo artist Sybil, who has recently ended her relationship with (and is still pining over) the animated head of the Lincoln Memorial statue (!).

Episode IV, “Chariots of the Dogs,” opens with Sam & Max breaking into the closed (in)convenience store to look for the shop’s missing proprietor, Bosco: a man even more paranoid about alien conspiracies (hmm, sounds like my brother), but who has vanished completely. Together with private dick Flint Paper, the trio agree to combine every detective skill they have — and promptly start shooting up the place. Upon the realization that they won’t get too terribly far doing that, our antiheroes discover that Bosco’s irrational paranoia wasn’t far from the truth — and that he really has been abducted by aliens! And so, Sam & Max are beamed aboard an alien spacecraft, complete with a time-traveling elevator and the most unlikely starfaring crew imaginable.

Lastly, in “What’s New, Beelzebub?,” the boys return to Earth. Well, to be a bit more precise: underground. Actually, they’re in Hell. Kind of. The discovery of the (wait for it) Soul Train (pronounced exactly the way you think) enables you to travel to and from Hell in an effort to retrieve several souls of the millions of poor people whose fateful (and usually unintentional) run-ins with Sam & Max have resulted in their death (I’m sure Max’s presidency didn’t help those numbers any). Naturally, they get to destroy further lives in order to sort things out in a enjoyably-twisted finale that somehow manages to connect all of the extraneous loose ends intentionally exposed in the game’s previous episodes.

Gameplay-wise, Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space is much akin to the older method of point-and-click adventure gaming. In fact, it’s very similar too it — since these games are essentially re-releases of the 2007 PC version (complete with 3D graphics that were already outdated the first time ‘round), which was a bit of a retro flashback in itself. This method may irritate some of you, especially if you’re hoping for something more “modern.”

The controls take a few minutes to get accustomed to; there is no in-game manual to assist, although you can access the options menu by pressing the “Start” button, wherein you can adjust the sound level for the effects, music and voices. It is there that you can also set the rank of difficultly in the game’s puzzles. The easier you make it, the more likely it is for someone in the game — usually Max — to offer a hint when the game’s engine detects you might be a little stuck.

Speaking of Max, as much as I love the crazy l’il guy, his constant moving about tends to upset the game’s invisible cursor. You can be focused on something in particular like, say, a closet door (or the unlucky, bound feller on the top shelf inside of it) and prepared to use an item on it (e.g. your gun), when Max will walk past the entryway and Sam will then inadvertently try to shoot Max. Of course, Sam could never shoot Max. It’s his best buddy, after all. Why, even when Sam is old, senile, and resting comfortably in a chair that looks suspiciously like Captain Pike’s from the original Star Trek series — spouting off dialogue that pokes fun of the fact that he’s actually a video game character (the series never takes itself seriously, thankfully) — he still can’t see any sense in harming such a fiendishly-aggressive rabbity thing.

Whereas I couldn’t see any sense in not playing Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space. I was thoroughly hooked the whole time, and am looking forward to playing Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse and any future adventures that may unfurl in the future.

Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Content Descriptors. This game can also be found on: Wii, PC, Macintosh and Xbox 360.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
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