If someone came to you and told you that one of the greatest games you’ll ever play started out in the office of a travel agent selling deluxe package trips for his roster of clients, you’d probably think that they we’re absolute fools for liking such a monotonous game. However you’d be totally wrong. What makes Grim Fandango so special, and astronomically good, is it’s humble opening that spans into a genre defining adventure, albeit an adventure that tested the boundaries of traditional game design.
Created by the gaming mastermind that is Tim Schafer, Grim Fandango took the point and click adventure title up and beyond it’s traditional forms of The Secret of Monkey Island and Beneath a Steel Sky, and threw in the rather unexpected introduction of 3D models and pre-rendered backgrounds. It was thanks to its unique visual style that these, frankly awful, models looked as beautiful as they did back in 1998, and arguably still do now. But even though the 3D world added an entirely new way to explore and interact in the environment it also threw up some tough challenges for the team, and for the player too.
As Grim Fandango saw you stepping into the shoes of Manny Calavera, a travel agent who sold package trips to the departed on their journey across the Land of the Dead to the Ninth Underworld. When you take a look at the games visual styling, along with its general setting, it’s clear that it’s influenced by the Mexican festival of El Dia De Los Muertos, or ‘The Day of the Dead’, even Manny’s name is a reference with Calavera being Spanish for skull. It certainly was a very odd setting for a point and click adventure title, and it’s storyline spanning across 4 years led to a somewhat disjointed tale of the underworld, regardless its charms shone though.
Due to being a 3D game, the mouse pointer was removed from the screen, leading to making Manny’s head do the ‘pointing’ for you. Moving around the pre-rendered 3D environments would see Manny’s gaze move to another interactive object, a press of the use button would see you ‘click’ on the item. It was a smart way to deal with this new technology, but it was also a very taxing way to make a game; no longer could a stuck player click on the screen to chance the way forward, now they had to know where they were going and what they were doing. Many of the puzzles on offer were much harder than what was available in other games in the genre, and it comes as no surprise to learn that on Manny’s four year adventure you’re going to find progress is slow for a fair while.
This was pretty much the only trouble with Grim Fandango, it’s obscene difficulty and so it’s very up and down progress. Due to the games development process each of the years in the games story feels different, and so some years – such as Rubacava in year 2 – are excellent, whilst others feel a little lacking. It’s evident that from the lack of sequel, or even attempt at another point and click adventure of the same scale or using the GrimE engine, that it wasn’t the most viable way to create a game. However it should be noted that if it wasn’t for Grim Fandango would we have the 3D interactive point and click adventures that Teltale games are producing now? Most likely we wouldn’t, or at least not in the same way they are produced now.
Grim Fandango never sold very well, but it’s a title that is loved unequivocally by all those who have played it. It gained universal praise from critics everywhere and has formed a cult following of gamers who yearn for it to be brought back into the limelight. It would be nice to see a re-make or even a steam port for the title, but a sequel or follow on would be too much too late for the game, only sullying its brilliant status and context.
Grim Fandango is a game that deserves to be played by all, no matter how frustrated they could possibly get with it too, It’s a title that should be played by all, in fact it cries out to be played! It may be a hard one to come across now, and even harder to play on a modern PC but it’s worth all of the effort. Thanks to the guys behind ScummVM, Residual will allow you to play both Grim Fandango and Escape from Monkey Island, the only two games to use the GrimE engine.