Remembering Maniac Mansion

by Kimberley Wallace on Oct 24, 2013 at 08:00 AM

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...]

The Censored NES Version

Creator Ron Gilbert is humble and quick to point out that Maniac Mansion wasn’t considered a “successful” game. However, when the NES version hit in 1990, it gained more momentum. When people approach Gilbert about the game, he says that nine times out of ten, they played it on the NES. But Nintendo made some odd censorship requests. For instance, Nurse Edna couldn’t make obvious passes at the characters, a poster of a mummy posed seductively was too scandalous, and the nude statue had to go. Oddly, Nintendo still allowed a hamster to be microwaved. Nintendo also requested that each character have their own music track, a great addition that helped shape their personalities. The NES iteration also featured improved visuals.

The Hamster Gag

One of the most memorable moments in Maniac Mansion is that while playing with Razor or Syd you could steal Weird Ed’s hamster and put it in the microwave. That timed ding said it all: The hamster was roasted. If you gave the hamster to Weird Ed, he would murder the character. When we ask Ron Gilbert how the gag came to fruition, he says he can’t take the credit. Scripter David Fox and artist Gary Winnick concocted the idea together and showed Gilbert, who thought it was hilarious. “We knew it was really funny and certainly the timing of the ding and everything,” Gilbert says. But did he expect it to become one of the parts people latched onto? “You never know that. No game I have ever made did I ever guess correctly the things that became the catchphrases or the super-popular things,” Gilbert says, “You just don’t know…and I think if you try to design that stuff into the game, you fail. So what you do is put as much fun stuff as you can and hope two or three of them just stick with people, and I think the hamster is kind of like that.”

An Undying Legacy

To this day, Maniac Mansion still engenders strong feelings of notalgia. Even Gilbert can’t believe its legacy. “It certainly makes me feel good that [it’s] 25 years [later and] people still love and play that game and it meant so much to people,” he says. If Gilbert had to do it all over again, would he change anything? He admits he would fix the dead ends: “I would have made it so you can’t completely screw yourself. If you do something bad, you can always work your way out of it. It’s a philosophy I carried into all the other games I’ve done ever since.”

As for if we would ever see another Maniac Mansion, licensing aside, Gilbert isn’t sure. “There’s part of me that really would,” he says. “But then there’s another part of me that is like, ‘Do I really want to do that?’ [It’s] reached this state of nostalgia with people that part of me feels like I could never live up to their expectations…ever. No matter how good the game is, it will just never live up to 25 years of nostalgia in people. That’s the part that would scare me.”