Originally released in 1987, Maniac Mansion was a groundbreaking game in many respects.
Back then, most computer adventure games used a parser to let the player type on the keyboard what he wanted his character to do. This often resulted in a frustrating experience in which the player had to struggle to figure out what the program wanted to see (for example, phrases like "open door with key" or "use key in door" wouldn't work if the computer only wanted "unlock door with key", even though all of these phrases describe the same action).
When budding game programmer Ron Gilbert was hired by Lucasfilm Games (now LucasArts) and got the green light to create his own adventure game, he didn't want the player to struggle with the parser anymore. He created a tool to allow the player, using a mouse or a joystick, to choose from a set of common verbs displayed at the bottom of the screen, and combine them with the items and characters displayed in the game. This allowed the player to easily build sentences that the computer would always understand. He named this tool SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) which Lucasfilm would keep using for ten more years.
Maniac Mansion was also one of the very first games featuring "cut-scenes", scenes that cut away from the action to let you know what's going on in a different part of the game, providing background information or clues. The term was coined by the Maniac Mansion team. Nowadays this feature has become a staple of adventure games and RPGs.
Last but not least, Maniac Mansion featured different playable characters with different abilities, different ways to solve the game, and different endings. While this (unfortunately) didn't really catch on in later adventure games, it is definitely part of what made Maniac Mansion special.
Ron Gilbert published early drafts of Maniac Mansion concepts on his website. Some of them never made it to the final game. Some of the most notable instances are:
- The game was to feature four characters, whom the player would all control: Greg, Sandy, Bobby and Joey. They would have had different sizes and weights, giving each of them specific abilities, such as running faster or being able to lift heavier objects. The idea of having specific abilities for each kid stuck, but ended up being based on a kid's hobbies or professional abilities instead.
- It would have been impossible for a character to get hurt or die (a novel idea for the time, which eventually became common practice in point-and-click adventure games). Anything bad that would happen would be in the form of setbacks.
- Dr.Fred's family name was to be "Schwartz" (no family name is mentioned in the final game).
- The list of verbs the player could choose from was longer. It notably included "Win", which was to be a joke action that cleared the screen and said "You win, enter in your initials". The joke ended up being used, slightly differently, in Ron Gilbert's subsequent classic game "The Secret of Monkey Island".
- Dr.Fred's family would have been obsessed with disco music, which you could have used to win them over. Notably, a newspaper article called "Disco is Back" would have been a key item used to befriend Dr.Fred himself, which would eventually turn the mansion into a giant disco party.
- Dead Cousin Ted's cloth bandages would have been part of a puzzle.
- There was to be only one Tentacle.
- There would have been many different ways to interact with Dr.Fred's family members, either to befriend them or to keep them away. Each of them would love, hate, or feel neutral towards a character based on their actions, and would react accordingly (this could go from being friends with them, to angrily chasing them through the mansion until the end of the game). The gist of this idea was indeed used in the final game, albeit on a smaller scale.
- Possible locations that didn't make it to the final cut included Ed's bar room, a disco hall, a meat locker, and a dumbwaiter that would be used to travel from floor to floor. Only the smaller/lighter kids would have been able to fit inside, although the biggest kid might have been the only one strong enough to pull the rope attached to it.
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