Mickey Mouse's Mercy Killing: Farewell LucasArts
"You fight like a dairy farmer!"
"How appropriate, you fight like a cow."
On Wednesday The House of Mouse announced that LucasArts, the game development arm of George Lucas' company, would be closed and it's efforts moved towards licensing the titles it had amassed. Of course, this means licensing the golden goose (or should that be golden Bantha) that is Star Wars. The problem with LucasArt's games output over the last few years is that the Law of Diminishing Returns was in full effect. The development heads had basically been slapping the "Star Wars" name on any old rubbish (and that is being kind) and watching the cash and overwhelmingly bad reviews flood in. So, really, this shouldn't have been a surprise under Disney's headship, trimming the dross after a major acquisition is just good business. Normally, when a games company is shutdown or goes bust, you nod and move onto the next story. But for gamers of a certain age, LucasArts was special. Like Woody Allen, back in the day, LucasArts was the sure bet. A string of innovative games and ideas flooded from San Francisco and for us around at the time, it was a gaming golden age. My friend Matt Pollard wrote a great piece on his gaming blog about the closure today that got me thinking. Matt was being very sensible, which always catches me out when that happens, but he was bang on. For me, with a business hat on, while I totally agree with the decision, it does feel like another part of my youth has gone. Here's why.
For most people, when you mention LucasArts, they remember The Secret of Monkey Island. For me, my first LucasArts game was Their Finest Hour. It was 1990, the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain and this game was a flight simulator that put you in just about all of the aircraft from that long 1940 summer. Depending on just how Biggles or Fritz you were, you could either reenact or change history. It was ahead of its time, with mission building tools, mission recorders, pilot ratings based on past mission performance and a manual (192 bound pages long) that would break toes if you dropped it. It was the first time I got to "fly" a Spitfire. I loved it. Due to the imitations of my PC, I never got to play the follow up, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, but I spent hours winning the battle for both sides, reading and re-reading the manual alongside Len Deighton's books and usually not doing any homework. Then I was lent Monkey Island.
I'm going to sound really old now but, people today don't understand just how good adventure games were. They are spoon fed "hand holding" puzzle games that you polish off on your iPhone in a couple hours and then delete, forget and find something else as equally bland. An addictive game doesn't mean it's any good. SCUMM games were different. SCUMM, or Script Utility for Maniac Mansion, was developed by Legendary (that capital L is there on purpose) game designer Rob Gilbert. It was a coding tool that allowed him and guys like Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer to build point and click 2D adventure games, with intricate plots, fantastic dialogue, superb graphics for the day and fiendishly hard puzzles. When I say hard, I mean whole nights spent getting past one bit of the game. It was brilliant. The Monkey Island games introduced you to Guybrush Threepwood, wannabe pirate extraordinaire and his quest to best the undead pirate captain LeChuck to the hand of the fair, hard as nails Elaine Marley. The game was designed for you to complete it. You could kill Guybrush, but it was easier to beat the puzzles and complete the game than kill poor Guybrush. Along the way you had a wild ride. Sword fighting was insult based (see the quote above for an example), jokes and references to just about everything you could imagine flew at you, you didn't want it too end. LucasArts knew this and we are still getting installments now, even though now a days they are episodic, never long enough and too expensive.
During this period LucasArts made it name on the adventure games. The Gilbert/Grossman/Schafer team defined the genre. Best of all, Tim Schafer would go on to create two of my all time favorite games, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. I won't explain them. Go find them. Play them. Then come back to me.
As adventure games go, they are perfect. But LucasArts was growing too. Just as they put me in a Spitfire for the first time, they did the same with an X-Wing. And from there, as the Good Doctor once said, you can see the point where the wave broke rolled back. The first series of Star Wars games were great. X-Wing and Tie Fighter for example were made by Larry Holland's team, the guy who designed Their Finest Hour, they were a home run. Then id gave us Doom and the gaming world shifted to the first person. Again LucasArts made the move well with Jedi Knight and the Dark Forces games. The problem was, the prequels had landed and my disappointment walking out of Episode One put me off Star Wars and in a weird junction, LucasArts too. Which turned out to be a good thing because the standards dropped as the years have gone by, and like those standards, LucasArts too is now gone.
Am I sad? Not for LucasArts as such, but for what it once stood for. Quality gaming experiences with characters and stories I still go back too. I replay Full Throttle and Grim Fandango regularly and those games are nearly twenty years old. I'm sad for the missed opportunities and many cancelled sequels. But now, with the designers of those great games having their own independent studios and LucasArts licencing it's properties, maybe we will see Guybrush, Manny Calavera and Ben return. Kickstarter gives guys like Rob Gilbert, Tim Schafer and the Space Quest team of Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe, the backing to bring real adventure gaming back from the iOS purgatory it currently resides in. There are glimpses of life in the old genre, see the Fester Mudd game and the incredible Machinarium for signs of a heart beat and Tim Schafer's got the paddles charged with Broken Age over at Double Fine. Yes, the episodic business model means we get spoon fed these games at a tenner a hit, which isn't ideal, but a thirsty man doesn't turn down a drink of water, no matter how bite sized.
With LucasArts gone, I hope that the nostalgia that those of us with a gaming disposition, and a certain age, are feeling, we will start to see the return to the quality games of our youth. Or at the very least, a more stable SCUMMvm.