Green and purple tentacles. Microwavable hamsters. A mind-controlling meteor. When Maniac Mansion debuted in 1987 for the Commodore 64 and Apple II, it was unlike anything players had experienced before. Not only did it make a mark with its quirky humor, it helped popularize the point-and-click adventure. It later came to the PC and NES, charming whole new audiences. Creator Ron Gilbert, who recently designed The Cave, sat down to reminisce about the game that launched his career and redefined adventure games.

Editor's note: This feature originally appeared in issue #241

Drawing From B-Horror Movies and Life

Dave and friends’ quest into a creepy mansion to save his girlfriend from an evil scientist was born from the minds of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, who met while working together at Lucasfilm Games. As a programmer, Gilbert ported games from the Atari to the Commodore  64, and Winnick was the sole artist on staff. Gilbert and Winnick bonded over their love for B-horror movies and decided to craft a game in that vein. The influence permeated Maniac Mansion right down to the man-eating plant, eerie dungeon, and ketchup-splattered walls.

The duo also found plenty of influence from their own lives. The mansion is reminiscent of George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, and even the villainous Edisons are based off a family that Gilbert and Winnick knew. Gilbert says he’ll never reveal who the family really is, but he abhors and denies the rumor that Nurse Edna is based off his mother.

Gilbert also strove to change adventure games after his own frustrations with the genre. He liked games like King’s Quest, but hated the language parser because it was too reliant on finding a specific word. The difference between calling something a plant, bush, or shrub separated success from failure. Gilbert just wanted to point at the object instead of typing out a word. This led him to create the Maniac Mansion interface, where you interact with objects using a set of various verbs. He forever changed the graphic adventure genre. “There were games before it that were kind of point-and-click stuff, but they weren’t [using] that same animated, list of verbs, [presentation],” Gilbert says. “…had Maniac Mansion not been made I don’t think we would have had the point-and-click games the way we do,” Gilbert says. “They probably would have evolved eventually, but it definitely set the whole style for [the genre].”

Adding Suspense

The “Tuna Head” Catchphrase

The “Don’t be a tuna head” line remains a classic, and it was created in an act of rebellion. Originally, when Bernard wants to bail at the beginning, Dave said, “Don’t be a s--- head.” Gilbert’s boss didn’t want a swear word, so he requested he change it. “I was 21 years old, and I was like, ‘No, you have to say s---. You’re ruining my art!’ Eventually I had to change it, so rather than rewrite the line, I just said, ‘Don’t be a tuna head,’” Gilbert recalls. “That was a little bit defiance on my part, ‘Well, I’m not going to write a good line then.’ But that line is something a lot of people quote and remember. So if I think back to the game, that’s a very memorable piece of the development and genesis of that line.”

Playing Maniac Mansion was tense, thanks to a goosebump-inducing setting and its always-prowling inhabitants. “We wanted the house to feel like a place that you weren’t supposed to be,” Gilbert says. Timed events also kept players on their toes, especially when Weird Ed and Nurse Edna would leave their rooms and could catch a character, banishing them to the dungeon. “It did lend to being paranoid and scared about what was going to happen, because you just never knew when the camera was going to get yanked from you and somebody was going to start walking down the stairs.” The team started calling these sequences “cutscenes” around the office, because they were literally cutting away from the player to show a scene that the player might not have been a part of. The neologism caught on in the office and became the term used within the game’s SCUMM engine. The term is still used in gaming today.

The Commodore 64 version unintentionally added more trepidation due to the idiosyncratic hardware. Gilbert noted they couldn’t fit everything into memory, so before the cutscenes started, the disk drive would spin up. Players would freak out because they knew something was going to happen. “That weird Commodore 64 disk light became this Pavlov’s dog thing for people playing the game, because whenever it came on they’d tense up,” Gilbert says. After Maniac Mansion, Gilbert swapped to event-driven sequences. He realized it was problematic to randomly cut away from the player, especially if they were solving a puzzle.

[Up next, hamster gags, NES censorship, and the continuing legacy...]