Riddle me this: what’s common between Mexican Day of the Dead, Tim Schafer, Raymond Chandler, Casablanca, George Lucas, film noir, and Tim Burton’s early flicks? I admit, on the first glance, there’s absolutely no conceivable connection between these topics. Still, the older gamers among you had probably sensed a familiar tingling sensation in their synapses on the mention of this particular combination and have recalled Grim Fandango, a cult classic adventure developed by LucasArts in the late nineties.
As you might remember, this game was a proud title holder of multiple gaming awards, including one for the best adventure game of 1998, yet somehow it had suffered a fate that had befallen many other dazzling works of art – it was a commercial failure and was slowly forgotten, until it was even almost impossible to find a (legal) copy of the game. Lucky for us, benefactors from Double Fine Productions, led by Tim Shafer himself – the creator of the original Grim Fandango game, have decided to amend this great historic wrong. Thanks to them, this once beloved masterpiece was literally brought from the dead in 2015, and now we even have the opportunity to play it on our mobile phones.
Of course, regardless of whether we’re talking about old friends or movies, books and games we once cherished, there is always a certain amount of anxiety when we’re reuniting with them after a long time. Will they be as we remember them? Will they live up to our expectations? So many questions, until the harsh reality finally tramples down the idealized image that we’ve carried so long with us – at least that’s what experience has taught us. Well, players old and new, I am overjoyed to report that in every aspect Grim Fandango has aged beautifully: the game can be compared to some rich mulled Mexican wine which only gets better as it ages.
That particularly goes for the fantastic storyline inspired in equal measure by the Mexican folklore and noir crime fiction, as well as witty, wry, hard-boiled dialogues that are perfectly accentuated by the voice acting provided by a truly stellar cast. In fact, you won’t find many modern adventures that can parry this explosion of witticism, caustic humor, and generally excellent writing that would put to shame even the best writers of crime fiction.
As you might’ve guessed by all the skulls, bones, scythes, and other macabre details on the cover artwork, the plot of Grim Fandango has something to do with death, to put it mildly. In fact, things are a little bit more extreme than that – the whole game takes place in the Land of the Dead, inspired by the old Aztec concept of the four years long transmigration of souls through Mictlan, the Aztec underworld.
Just like death-worshiping Aztecs believed, this Land of the Dead isn’t the real deal, but just a first stage towards the final destination, an idyllic Ninth Underworld where the souls may finally have some well-deserved rest. Unfortunately, there’s no rest for the wicked, even in death, and nobody knows it better than Manny Calavera. A protagonist of the game and a travel agent at the Department of Death, he’s forced to atone his previous sins by playing the role of a classic grim reaper, but with a commercial twist. He’ll visit the Land of the Living, reap the souls of freshly departed, sell them the travel packages and thus aid them on their journey towards the Ninth Underworld.
There’s one little catch, though – their travel mode will depend on the way they lived. If they lived ordinary, selfish lives – or worse – they’ll have to make a perilous four years long journey on foot. If, however, they’ve lead a virtuous life, they might even qualify for the ride on the luxury Number Nine train which will get them there in just four minutes. Now, just as any hero from the noir novels, Calavera has problems of his own – if he doesn’t find a certain number of those exceptional saintly souls, he’ll never be able to take the journey himself. At the moment it seems that he’ll stay stuck where he is for all eternity, because all that he’s been getting lately are lousy, sub-par candidates. All that is about to change when Manny meets saintly and beautiful Mercedes Colomar (true, one skull is much like another, but it does seem that Miss Colomar has an exceptionally fine bone structure) who’s somehow robbed of her right to get a Number Nine ticket. Ever a gentleman at heart, it’s high time for Manny to take matters into his own hands and see who’s behind this conspiracy.
Tim Shafer’s supernatural masterpiece would easily stand the test of time even in its original, somewhat dated form. However, this remastered version we have the privilege of playing on our computers and mobile phones has introduced a number of innovations, which should make the game a bit more appealing for the modern audience. First of all, the 3D character models had a facelift, so now they look considerably more attractive in higher resolution and with new textures.
The dynamic lighting is another new feature. It so perfectly complements the noir atmosphere of the game that retroactively it seems that it’s the only thing that was truly missing from the 1998 original. Of course, it would be impossible to say that its years don’t show even in this remastered edition, but if you manage to look beyond blocky models, lack of polygons, and somewhat faded color palette, you’ll become aware of some great design ideas and nice-looking graphics a la Tim Burton, directly inspired by the Mexican Día de Muertos iconography such as calaca figures and calavera sugar skulls.
All LucasArts adventure games had truly great, dynamic soundtracks, with tunes that closely followed the plot and changed from location to location. The soundtrack of Grim Fandango by Peter McConnell is no different – it features the remarkable fusion of different influences, from jazz, through fiery Latin tunes, to classic movie scores such as the one from Casablanca. Now things got even better because the complete soundtrack was performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for the additional oomph.
Those of you who played the original game and had difficulties with the keyboard-based tank controls will be glad to hear that now you can enjoy a classic point and click system. Finally, the remastered version brought the director’s commentary option, which can be turned on at any time. It will provide you with a unique opportunity to hear a number of details, insights, amusing rants, and genuinely cool stories from the director Tim Shafer and his closest collaborators on this project.
Naturally, the story, dialogues, and puzzles, the holy trinity of all great adventure games, have remained unchanged – in fact, they couldn’t improve them even if they’ve tried. A feast for the eyes, a pleasure for the senses, and a delight for the soul, Grim Fandango was, and still is, one of the greatest adventure games of all times. As always, the secret behind any great piece of fiction are characters, and although in this particular case they are technically as dead as a doornail, you won’t have a choice but to start caring for Manny Calavera and his compatriots from the Land of the Dead.