Retro Review – Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders – Amiga
Publisher: Lucasfilm Games Developer: Lucasfilm Games Genre: Puzzle, Point & Click Adventure
Players: 1 Other formats: Atari ST, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, FM Towns
Zak McKcraken and the Alien Mindbenders is an amusing title released for the Commodore Amiga in 1989. It tells the story of Zak, a journalist looking to write about more than just trivial matters, and being pointed at by the fickle finger of fate, he finds himself caught up in a race to save mankind from mind-altering aliens. What a scoop! With the help of a female ally known as Anne Larris, and two Yale University co-eds, known as Melissa China and Leslie Bennett, Zak sets out on a quest to build a mysterious machine, with the aim of the game being to find all the parts needed for said machine to prevent an alien mind take-over.
Zak McKraken is a steady puzzle game, one where you are able to explore many different regions of the world. Zak is able to travel through the spritely jungles of Miami, meet the Nepalese people of Kathmandu, visit the tribal people of Kinshasa, and even visit planet Mars. At first the game pulls you in with its quirky charm, and using Zak as he explores his home and the area outside is certainly appealing; he can visit the local shop to purchase items or play the Lotto, annoy a baker, pay off his phone bill at the local phone company, abruptly wake up a sleeping bus driver, and even steal the sign to a hair salon business. The start of the game is full of humorous moments. Unfortunately, once Zak meets Anne, the game slows to a crawl, with the focus becoming fixated on Zak building the machine as opposed to being able to experiment with the many items, people and places found in the games universe.
Zak must travel to different locations in order to find the pieces of the machine, and to do this he needs to solve many puzzles. There’s no denying that the puzzles are creative and well thought out. Unfortunately, a lot of the puzzles are rather tedious, and this is all due to the fact that most regions consist of Zak, or another character, exploring long forgotten mazes, and it can become repetitive and wearisome to amble around these sections after a while; go here, find this, go there and do that, becomes the main structure, and the initial charm of the first part of the game quickly fades. Once certain places in the game have also been completed, there is little to no reason to go back, and so the scope of the game reduces as the story progresses.
However, the game isn’t without its highlights. Using the power of ancient crystals, a perk is that, to solve certain puzzles, Zak can trade minds with an animal and is able to explore areas unreachable by human skill alone. It is a shame this idea wasn’t used more often, as it certainly adds a bit of diversity to the way puzzles are solved. Players can also switch between the four main characters, whom all have their own pivotal roles to play. Melissa and Leslie are stationed on planet Mars and can explore the vast, atmospheric planes of the red planet, uncovering hidden secrets that help Zak with his mission back on earth, offering more range in the puzzles that are included in the game. Anne also has her own role to play, helping Zak to complete puzzles in certain regions. Anne is an expert in ancient crystals, and so is able to assist Zak in finding the pieces to the machine and putting it all together. All characters will need to be used at some point, though Leslie is rather underused.
The characters themselves are fairly superficial, though Zak does show that he has a sense of humour, making off-the-cuff puns at certain points in the game. Melissa shows that she enjoys her music, and that she is fearful of anything alien, unlike Leslie, who is braver then her friend, showing that she is not scared to use an alien creature she finds to her advantage. Anne also has somewhat of a personality, showing that she is knowledgeable when it comes to ancient scrolls and crystals. The characters are likable enough, but their personalities fail to get you involved in the story, which is very thin. It is amazing how such complex puzzles can be created around such a shallow plot.
The game is colourful, and each location is created with its own characteristics, with bright, eye-catching visuals making what is on screen look as though the area is huge to explore. The locations are truly wondrous and well designed, and so it is a shame that the game is largely marred by lazy sections that pad out the game. The emphasis has been placed on gameplay, and players will need to use their logic in order to solve the puzzles to prevent hitting a dead-end, which can be very easy to do. Fortunately the game offers a save-anywhere mechanic, and it is advisable to use it as often as possible.
Unfortunately the game is a dull experience and offers little in the sense of rewards; puzzles become very tiresome and boring to complete, and this is all because of the maze and airport sections which are a chore to slog through. With too much trekking around maze and tunnel sections, lots of backtracking – should the player miss or forget an essential item – and too much time spent at airport terminals choosing locations, it slows down the pace of the game immensely, with these sections’ only purpose being to expand the game to 15+ hours of game play time – not the most creative way to increase the longevity of a game.
The game overall is very disappointing, which is a shame after such a promising start. The beginning of the game quickly pulls you into the world and makes you feel as though you can take your time, mess around and go off to complete optional tasks as opposed to having to complete the main goals. The game feels too much of a chore to complete, and not because of the difficulty; Zak McKracken is definitely a challenging game and could have been an enjoyable and fulfilling experience, so it is a shame that it is largely spoiled because of areas that solely exist to needlessly expand the game. There is not much of a story to keep the player interested in playing once tedium sets in, and offers very little in the way of rewards – except maybe for the sense of relief one feels after finishing the game. This is one game that should definitely stay in the memory banks.