While waiting for a rather large file to download the other day I stumbled across my ScummVM install of Day of the Tentacle. Day of the Tentacle is special to me. Most people cite Grim Fandango or one of the Monkey Island games as the pinnacle of Lucasarts’ adventure game prowess, but for my money nothing can quite beat the time-travelling screwiness of Day of the Tentacle. It’s an adventure split into three different games in three different periods that both run in parallel and in series with each other; changes made in the past will affect the present, changes made in the present affect the future, and items can be traded between different time periods. This all combines to make the game a twisty brain-teaser that’s somewhat akin to trying to complete three jigsaw puzzles at once that constantly affect each other as you add more and more pieces; the sort of thing that would burn your brain out if Day of the Tentacle wasn’t charming and funny to boot. I can usually finish old Lucasarts adventures in less than three hours (unless they’re The Dig) since the solutions to all the puzzles tend to be indelibly etched into my noggin. Let’s see how long Day of the Tentacle takes me, shall we?
00:05 – Good lord, I’d forgotten quite how excellent the art for DOTT is. It looks a little pixelated, sure, and I’m not sure if ScummVM is doing any post-processing to smoothen up the visuals like DOSBox does, but on the whole the cartoon style of the game has aged remarkably well.
00:07 — Okay, that’s the (excellent) intro and opening credits over and done with. Time to see how much of this game I can do from memory. Which could be tricky seeing as how DOTT is essentially three separate adventure games running in parallel and my inherent dislike of Laverne’s portion of the game means I can only remember how to win the human beauty contest. I’ll just have to hope I can pick things up as I go along.
00:08 — The item harvesting portion of the game. Any basic strategy for tackling an adventure game starts with picking up as many things as possible and stuffing them into your pockets; in my case it’s rather helpful since it jogs my memory for a lot of upcoming puzzles. DOTT is a little unusual in that it throws nearly all of the items you need to get through the first two thirds of the game at you right from the start.The Help Wanted sign from the front of the motel, the dime from the change slot of the payphone, the two jugs of coffee and the funnel, the red paint, the bucket of water and brush, the wine that needs to be turned into vinegar; all of this stuff and more can be swiped by Bernard and Hoagie right off the bat. Of course, with DOTT the process of actually using them to do something is a little more complicated as you first have to figure out which timestream (or timestreams) a given item will be useful in, and then send it there.
00:30 — This horse. This horse is going to end up plaguing me, I know it. I can never figure out how to get his teeth off of him. I’ll come back to him later. At least the puzzle with Jed and Ned Edison is easy, and DOTT is very good about showing you what you’ve changed in the future thanks to your actions in the past via cutscenes.
00:33 — Immediately switch back to Bernard so that I can push the old lady down the stairs. I love this part.
00:34 — And then hop across the corridor to visit Weird Ed Edison and his stamp collection. The computer in here plays the original Maniac Mansion if you use it. I never have because — whisper it — the original Maniac Mansion wasn’t that good to begin with and has dated terribly. Both the stamp and the hamster are collected and the hamster is immediately stuffed into a nearby ice box. This is just the first of many indignities this hamster is going to have to suffer, but the game plays the joke to the hilt with ever changing pictures and descriptions of the hamster in the inventory. One of the reasons I think modern adventure games (and especially the Monkey Island remakes) fall down a bit is that this avenue of simple visual humour is closed off to them in favour of a more streamlined UI that’s often more awkward for the player to use, not less.
00:40 — Is it bad that everything I know about the formation of the United States I learned from Day of the Tentacle? Like, if you asked me to summarise everything I know about George Washington the list would look something like this:
- Was first president of the United States.
- Liked cutting down cherry trees.
I don’t even know if the second one is accurate or not, but it’s in my head now thanks to this bizarre cultural osmosis. It’s odd that this specifically American humour translates across the Atlantic divide so well, but Lucasarts wisely stuck to the broadest, most popularly known facts and anecdotes about the historical figures in question. And then took the piss out of them. Which is why even twelve year old me got the jokes about Betsy Ross making the flag and Ben Franklin flying his kite. Hoagie’s irreverent tone works well with the situation too; I suspect the writers took more than a little bit of inspiration from Bill and Ted.
Unfortunately at this point I get George to chop down the cherry tree which — sigh — means I have to start dealing with Laverne and the future portion of the game, which requires you to do one of the worst designed puzzles in the game in order to get anywhere interesting and which I’ll be putting off as long as possible. At least I get her scalpel now, which means I can do this.
1:05 – The videotape puzzle to get Doctor Fred’s safe combination is a bit trial and error, but there’s a fantastic little touch at the end where the IRS men come in to take him away. Because you’re viewing the video in slow motion to get the combination, the speech of the IRS agent is also slowed down and — awesomely — they’ve actually gotten the voice actor to rerecord his dialogue speaking only one. word. at. a. time. very. slowly.
1:12 – No, Laverne still sucks. Let’s do some more Bernard for a bit.
1:20 — Swapping Doctor Fred for Dead Cousin Ted holds me up for five minutes or so as the IRS men keep hearing me and swapping them back again. Then I realise I can use the red paint I used to make the kumquat tree look like a cherry tree back in Hoagie’s time period to also make the mummy look like he’s bound up in red tape too (the humour in this game can be very literal at times). I think this is the only item in the game which is used twice in two different time periods, which is why it gave me a bit of trouble.
1:27 — Yeah okay, it’s time for me to start dealing with Laverne. The reason I hate the puzzle she starts off with is that it involves so much tedious repetition. First you have to pretend to be ill so that you can swipe the tentacle anatomy diagram from the wall of the doctor’s office. Then you have to say you need to use the bathroom so that you can send the diagram back in time to Hoagie. Hoagie gives the diagram to Betsy Ross, and the American flag flying from the motel in the future turns into a tentacle disguise. But Laverne needs to get up to the top of the motel to get it, which means pretending she’s ill to get into the doctor’s office again so that she can scurry up the chimney from there. If you forget to get the crank from Hoagie before doing this it’s a wasted trip; you need to use the bathroom again, get the crank from the Chron-o-John, pretend to be ill for a third time, and then lower the “flag” to the point where Laverne can grab it and put it on. There’s so much back and forthing here and it takes a minute each time. It’s not hard to figure out, just immensely tedious and time-consuming.
1:40 — Oh well, now that that’s over and done with I can at least start doing the good part of Laverne’s time period: the human beauty contest. This is a great and funny puzzle with a payoff that makes no sense whatsoever (you’re trying to win a dinner certificate so that you can give it to the guard in the human kennel so that he’ll leave it unattended so that you can frighten the inmates into escaping and drawing off the tentacle standing guard outside the lab entrance) but it’s miles better than what I just went through, so I’ll just run with it. Unfortunately this requires a number of items: spaghetti noodles for the mummy’s hair, Oozo’s voice box for his laugh; and the horse’s teeth.
I still don’t have the horse’s teeth.
1:49 — Yep, I give up. I don’t want to do the usual adventure game tactic of last resort of using every single item I have on the horse, especially since the items are scattered across three different time periods. So I figure what the hey, I’ve already completed this game like four or five times already, I can afford to look at a walkthrough without feeling like I’ve copped out here at all.
1:50 – Really? Really? It’s the goddamn science textbook Bernard starts with that you immediately forget about because you never physically picked it up from anywhere? This game has great humour and many good puzzles, but some of them are also completely wack.
1:55 — While I’m here I get Hoagie to give all the items needed for the patented super-battery required to power his Chron-o-John to Doctor Red Edison, which is then charged up by being stuck inside Ben Franklin’s kite during a thunderstorm. That’s Hoagie done.
2:05 — I also finish off Bernard by getting Doctor Fred to sign the job contract from the safe, getting Hoagie to mail it in the past using Weird Ed Edison’s stamp, and then using the proceeds to buy a mail-order diamond to make the time machine in the present work. These puzzles seem to flow quite naturally despite involving the headfuckery of time travel which puts them in stark contrast to the two described above. Maybe that’s just because I can remember them better than the other ones, though.
2:17 – With one suitably outfitted mummy in tow — and after removing Harold from the contest through nefarious means — Laverne wins the beauty contest, gets the food certificate and does all that stuff I said. Now she can get to Doctor Fred’s old basement lab to plug her Chron-o-John into the hamster power generator. This, naturally, means more hamster abuse.
First she has to retrieve the hamster from his 200 year cryogenic suspension in the ice box and thaw him out in the microwave (which is acknowledged to be a really bad idea and something you really shouldn’t try at home, kids). Unfortunately this leaves behind a shivering wet and cold hamster who is in no condition to power anything, so it’s a good thing I got Bernard to put a sweater into the motel’s dryer back in the present along with 200 years’ worth of dimes, really. Putting the shrunken sweater onto the hamster results in a toasty warm hamster who is all ready to run on the wheel powering the generator — or at least he would, if he didn’t take advantage of a distraction to run and hide in a mouse hole the minute Laverne lets him loose. Forward planning saves the day yet again; Hoagie slipped a sales pamphlet for vacuum cleaners into the Constitution suggestion box in the past that stipulated every American should have a vacuum cleaner in their basement, and so one magically appears there in the future as decreed by law. Laverne uses the vacuum cleaner to retreive the now rather dusty hamster from the hole, and this time he plays ball and powers her Chron-o-John. This is probably the best puzzle in the game as it requires doing stuff in all three timestreams that makes perfect sense according to the game’s twisted cartoon logic.
2:31 — Time for the end game! Sadly this is the part where adventure game convention dictates you’re stripped of all your items and everything runs along rails, and while DOTT’s finale is amusing it’s hardly taxing on the brain. Suffice to say that Purple Tentacle’s plan for world domination is defeated and everything goes back to normal.
Well, mostly normal, anyway. Just over two and a half hours and my nostalgia for the game was only slightly blunted by it relying on Adventure Game Logic rather more heavily than I remembered. Day of the Tentacle benefits greatly from being part of the last wave of 2D adventure games as its art has aged far more gracefully than (for example) Monkey Island’s, and as for the humour it’s absurdist take on both history and the future means it’s just as funny today. It’s merely some of the puzzles which seem rather anachronistic in the convoluted logical leaps required to solve them, but as long as you aren’t too proud to glance at a walkthrough every now and then this needn’t be a problem. I have a theory that adventure games are more about writing and humour than they are puzzles, and Day of the Tentacle bears this out rather well as far as I’m concerned. It’s still a classic.