A Look Back at the Legacy of SCUMM

Michael Grimm
Games
Games

In honor of both the Day of the Tentacle: Remastered and Ron Gilbert’s upcoming Thimbleweed Park, we’re taking a look back at the games of the SCUMM engine. So what’s SCUMM? An abbreviation for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion. It was a game engine/programming language hybrid that allowed for the easier creation of visual adventure games. More importantly, it was the delivery device for some of the funniest, most charismatic characters games had ever seen at the time.

Led by gaming visionaries such as Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer, LucasArts had one of the all-time great runs in gaming throughout the ’80s and ’90s, creating 12 classic adventure games all based on the SCUMM engine. Let’s take a look:

Maniac Mansion (1987)

Maniac Mansion

The SCUMM engine’s namesake title, Maniac Mansion follows six teens attempting to rescue a kidnapped girlfriend from a mad scientist whose mind is being controlled by a sentient asteroid. Cinéma vérité this is not. The game’s non-linear progression allowed for players to find their own path through the game via six different playable characters, each with different skills.

The game was a massive success and proved SCUMM would work, setting the groundwork for a new wave of adventure games that would leave typing behind in favor of pointing and clicking.

Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988)

Zak Mckracken

The follow-up to Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken featured the titular tabloid reporter hero attempting to defeat an evil alien cabal that had taken over the world’s telecommunications. Steeped in references to the occult and supernatural, the game was intended to be more serious, until Ron Gilbert convinced project lead David Fox to double down on the humor.

While it may not be as readily recognizable as Indiana Jones or Monkey Island, the game still has a cult following and has spawned many fan sequels. Zak McKracken is currently available for PC and Mac via GoG.com.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (1989)

Indiana Jones Last Crusade

Given the direct involvement of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas it’s no surprise this was the best of the game adaptations for the Last Crusade (there were three). Hewing closely to the story of the movie, the game introduced the “Indy Quotient,” a system that replicated the points system of Sierra adventure games of that era, but allowed the player to solve puzzles in more than one way, revolutionary at the time. It attempted to address the issue of adventure games having little replayability; the player would have to play through several times to get the maximum number of points. This is one of LucasArts’ strongest offerings, and easily one of the best licensed games of all time.

Loom (1990)

Loom

Designed by former Infocom employee Brian Moriarty, Loom was — and still is — one of the most unique adventure games ever made. While still utilizing the classic fantasy setting that was commonplace to the genre, the game scrapped the clickable verbs (Take, Look, Talk, etc.) entirely, and replaced them with a musical themed “Distaff” system. This system had the protagonist Bobbin Threadbare utilize musical cues, or “drafts”, from witnessing various events around him, then replaying these drafts in the right situation to solve puzzles. While the game eschews the humor a lot of SCUMM games were famous for, it deserves credit for its bold innovation.

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

Monkey Island

One of the all-time great point and click adventures, The Secret of Monkey Island introduced players to Guybrush Threepwood, a fey, aspiring pirate whose feebleness forces him to rely mostly on his (ample) wits. It’s the classic hero story mixed up with the “fish out of water” trope, finished with a nice hint of old Hollywood swashbuckling. The game posits, what if Errol Flynn had to live alongside actual grizzled, nasty pirates?

Like a lot of early nerd humor, Monkey Island owed a big debt to Douglas Adams and Monty Python’s sensibilities, but the writing was whip-smart, and it was hard not to root for Guybrush, whose pluck and moxie seemed sure to get him out of any situation no matter how tight. The game was rereleased and remastered for several platforms in 2009.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991)

Monkey Island 2

The success of the original would have made a sequel inevitable, but Monkey Island 2’s development started immediately after the first game was finalized, long before its success was established. Monkey Island 2 was arguably better than the original, as Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer were still on-board, and warmed up from the first. The game utilized a system called iMUSE which allowed for the background music to dynamically change with the scene, ramping up the drama.

The game’s quality is indisputable, and it’s frequently considered one of the best adventure games of all time. It was rereleased and remastered for several platforms in 2010.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

While the first Indiana Jones SCUMM game hewed closely to the movie it arrived alongside, Fate of Atlantis was all original, and proved the LucasArts writers would have no issue capturing the tone of the franchise. The game resurrected the “Indy Quotient” mechanic, giving players a choice between Teamwork, with partner Sophia Hapgood; Wits, which was mostly puzzle based; and Fists, which was primarily combat and action based. As the title makes clear, the game revolves around the lost city of Atlantis, and the fictional super metal orichalcum, along with several other pseudoscientific tropes.

The overall quality of this game can’t be understated, from sprite work to music to voice acting and story, it legitimately felt like a real entry into the Indiana Jones canon. At the very least it’s better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Day of the Tentacle (1993)

Day of the Tentacle

The sequel to Maniac Mansion was six years in the making, but it showed. The game’s gorgeous sprites and fully voiced dialogue showed just how far the genre had come. It also built off the rotating cast of the first game, letting players switch on the fly between the nerdy Bernard, creepy Laverne, and slacker Hoagie.

With each character trapped in a different timeline, events in one world would invariably affect the other; one of the most comically convoluted storylines involved getting George Washington to chop down a kumquat tree instead of a cherry tree.

It’s also yet another SCUMM game routinely held to be one of the best Adventures ever. Day of the Tentacle Remastered was just released on PlayStation 4, PS Vita, and PC, and is well worth checking out!

Sam & Max Hit The Road (1993)

SamandMax

Sam & Max were a buddy cop duo comprised of Sam, a Mike Hammer wannabe, and Max, a psychopathic rabbit. The pair traveled across the U.S. looking for a sasquatch that had gone missing from a local carnival.

While some of the game’s puzzles were unintuitive and the pacing needed some work, the pair oozed charisma, and the writing was as good as ever, making Sam and Max some of the most charming characters in the LucasArts canon. The pair returned in 2005 for Telltale’s episodic take on the franchise.

Full Throttle (1995)

Full Throttle

Decidedly the most badass (or Poochie depending on your take) entry in the series, Full Throttle tells the tale of Ben, leader of the Polecats motorcycle gang. After being framed by a greedy exec looking to take over a Harley-Davidson-like company, Ben fights his way through rival bike gangs, goons, and adventure puzzles to clear his name. An action-packed take perfect for those who find traditional adventure games a little bland.

Uniquely, Full Throttle featured simplified combat with rival bikers, Road Rash style. Like several of the other games on this list, Full Throttle is planned for an HD rerelease sometime in 2017.

The Dig (1995)

The Dig

A notedly more somber SCUMM game, The Dig is based on a science-fiction story Steven Spielberg created for his ’80s TV show Amazing Stories. A doomsday asteroid heading towards Earth gets a visit from an Armageddon-esque crew sent there to blow it up, only to find it’s hollow, at which point it transports them to a far-off alien world.

The Dig is considered the hardest of the SCUMM games, utilizing alien languages, cryptography, and other environmental puzzles, which give it a much more abstract feel than traditional SCUMM games. The Dig is currently available on Steam, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a great starting point for getting into SCUMM games.

The Curse of Monkey Island (1997)

The Curse of Monkey Island

The swan song of SCUMM, The Curse of Monkey Island traded in sprites for a much more lush cartoon look, and a big list of verbs for the simplified interface of Full Throttle. It’s almost impossible to tell this was, at its core, the same engine that was running Maniac Mansion. Taking place immediately after the end of Monkey Island 2, Guybrush is once again tasked with defeating the evil pirate LeChuck.

The game was the first Monkey Island to feature voice acting, and it took full advantage of it, with great audio and vocal performances. The song “A Pirate I Was Meant to Be” was a highlight:

Sadly, Curse is one of the only games on this list currently unavailable for purchase and with no remaster on the horizon.

While Telltale currently wears the adventure game crown, LucasArts and its SCUMM engine deserve a lot of credit for innovating and guiding the genre through the ’90s. So next time you fire up The Walking Dead, Tales from the Borderlands, or Game of Thrones, pour one out for SCUMM, the engine that made it all possible.

Michael Grimm
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