“Forgotten Classics” is a celebration of obscure PC games that weren’t released to widespread fanfare – or simply fell of the radar of gamers at the time of their release – and deserve a second look. In this instalment: Grim Fandango, a 1998 adventure game by LucasArts Entertainment.
Grim Fandango was a weird game. The setting is a combination of Aztec mythology and The Maltese Falcon, and all the characters are already dead – and look it. You played Manny Calavera, a travel agent for recently deceased souls in the Land of the Dead, who is tasked with escorting a virtuous soul past the Land of the Dead’s many dangers to bring her to ultimate reward in the Ninth Underworld. But danger lurks as all is not as it seems, as his charge, the pure-hearted Mercedes “Meche” Colomar, should be taking the Number Nine luxury express train for a fast and safe trip through the Land of the Dead, yet has been slated for a four-year journey by foot. It’s a mystery, and the path to its solution will prove to be dangerous and difficult indeed.
The designer and writer of Grim Fandango was Tim Schafer, he of Day of the Tentacle fame. It did not use the SCUMM engine that previous LucasArts adventure games were coded on, but a modified version of the Sith engine that was used for Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, which was called the GrimE engine. GrimE allowed for true 3D, as characters were created from 3D-rendered polygons and permitted them to fully move about the environment, unlike the SCUMM engine, which permitted only verb-object associations. Use of the GrimE engine made for a beautiful game, and it was certainly unlike any adventure game that LucasArts had made before.
This was a wonderful game, and critics agreed. Grim Fandango won “Adventure Game of the Year” from PC Gamer, “Game of the Year” from Gamespot, and “Best Adventure Game of the Year” from IGN. It has since been on several best games of all time lists, also. But for all the critical acclaim, sales of Grim Fandango were slim, estimated to be as low as 100,000 units. Sales were so poor that LucasArts cancelled several adventure game projects, such as a sequel to Full Throttle, and moved out of the adventure game business altogether shortly thereafter.
An odd aspect of playing Grim Fandango was that Manny’s actions are controlled by a keyboard, joystick or game pad. There was no mouse support. For years adventure gamers had been playing their games with a mouse (which had replaced text-input games like Zork beforehand). Grim Fandango seemed a step backwards, not forwards. Was the game really the harbinger of the end of the adventure game genre or was it just a pain in the butt to play? Play it yourself and find out!