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Gaming Retrospective: Grim Fandango

Gaming Retrospective celebrates the older classics of gaming history while comparing how well they hold up today. You’ll also find links to recommended mods to help you achieve the best possible experience.

16 years before Broken Age’s release on Tuesday, now defunct LucasArts published Grim Fandango, the final Tim Schafer-directed adventure game for over a decade. The game flopped, and caused LucasArts to shy away from the genre: the company released only one more adventure game before it was dissolved 15 years later. Grim Fandango has since amassed a devoted cult following.  It topped Adventure Gamers’ list of the 100 best adventure games ever made, and placed in Leviathyn’s own list of the 10 best video game narratives. What is it that makes Grim Fandango so beloved by those who have played it, and is it even possible to run on a modern system?

Grim Fandango follows down-on-his-luck grim reaper Manuel “Manny” Calavera through four consecutive Dia de los Muertos. The Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is, on our end, a festival honoring loved ones who have passed away; on Manny’s, in the Land of the Dead, it is the biggest vacation weekend of the year, but we find Manny working extra hours, ignoring the festivities. Manny’s reaping work, where he reaps souls and sells travel packages to the Ninth Underworld and salvation, hasn’t been going well. Manny has been unable to sell any Premium packages and finds his job, through which he hopes to atone for some unknown sin, in danger. In a (playable) fit of desperation, Manny steals a lead from his rival, young hotshot reaper Domino, and reaps Mercedes “Meche” Colomar, the purest, kindest soul he can find. Due to what seems like a clerical error, however, Meche does not qualify for any travel packages, and a now jobless Manny embarks on a three year journey to find Meche and correct his mistake.

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Grim Fandango has only improved with age; everything it does right is absolutely timeless. Manny’s story feels epic in scale, and is filled with sharp dialogue and brilliant characters. All the puzzles save for one feel like an organic part of the story, and though the game is funny, the tone never gets as exhaustingly wacky as Day of the Tentacle did. The jazz-heavy soundtrack is wonderful, and really complements the game’s film noir inspired atmosphere.

What Grim Fandango really excels at is rewarding aimless exploration. Getting stuck is a natural part of playing adventure games, and much of the player’s time is spent aimlessly wandering around environments examining hotspots, trying multiple solutions and repeatedly talking to NPCs. Some of my favorite moments in the game, like a sailor’s poem Manny recites upon examining the moon, Manny taking out his aggression on a hole punch or a hilarious beat-poetry performance, are completely optional. Every possible action in the game leads to an interesting moment, and as a result the world feels complete. The mechanics and story never feel at all separate from the rest of the game, and I loved exploring, talking to other characters and generally breathing Grim Fandango‘s take on the afterlife.

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It even still looks good. The art style is inspired by the masks traditionally worn on Dia de los Muertos, and the angular look of the game’s early 3D complements it perfectly. The pre-rendered backgrounds are clean, and blend in naturally with the character models and 3D environments. By default, you’ll control Manny through a Resident Evil-like character based system (there is also an optional camera-relative system that felt totally unplayable to me), with his head turning to indicate hotspots. The total lack of a user interface helps the film noir atmosphere tremendously and feels as effortless as the rest of the presentation.

Grim Fandango is a classic that is every bit as gripping as it was in 1998. It has not aged a minute, and I find more reasons to love it every time I replay it. A used copy online runs anywhere between $20 and $40, so let’s hope Disney makes some digital version of the game available soon. This is a game worth tracking down.

Recommended mods: Save for a currently incomplete HD texture pack, Grim Fandango is the sort of self-contained experienced that does not lead to any sort of modding community. One application absolutely worth downloading, however, is ResidualVM, an emulator created specifically to play the game. Running the game on a modern system without the emulator is extremely difficult, which explains the game’s absence from popular digital distribution sites despite its following. The emulator, which uses the .lab files stored on the game’s disk, is stable save for some very minor visual glitches, and works perfectly on Windows, Mac OSX or Linux.



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