The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of LucasArts’ Adventure Classics
With <i>Grim Fandango</i> remastered for 2015, <i>The Secret of Monkey Island</i> turning 25 and <i>Full Throttle</i> 20 this year, here's an overview of the company that made these adventure classics happen.
The Secret of Monkey Island. Star Wars: X-Wing. Full Throttle. Grim Fandango. The history of LucasArts (originally Lucasfilm Games) is a list of legends and fond memories that can't take full credit for the 1990s being thought of as the golden age of gaming, but certainly deserves its share. In its prime, the company's iconic logo on a box was a mark of quality in a way the likes of Nintendo's gold seal of licensing could only dream of. Even now, after what may as well have been a concentrated effort to piss all that goodwill down a wall, it's the good times people remember.
Lucasfilm Games was started in 1982, midway through the first Star Wars trilogy. It was an odd project, set up partly to explore the possibilities of computer gaming – but mostly to soak up the profits of Star Wars and Indiana Jones instead of paying mountains of tax. At this point, George Lucas largely stepped away, with former studio head Peter Langston describing the studio's official mandate as "Stay small, be the best and don't lose any money."
Lucasfilm Games' Habitat promotional video
The small team immediately set to work creating games with names like Rescue On Fractalus! and Ballblazer and Koronis Rift – and if a certain movie franchise is notable by its absence there, it's deliberate. Early on, Star Wars was officially off-limits, with the arcade games actually being made by Atari. Instead, Lucasfilm Games set about creating its own properties, exploring complex 3D technologies for Fractalus, and even creating a revolutionary MMO/virtual world called Habitat for the Commodore 64. This was a huge achievement in 1985.
The first defining release, though, came in 1987 with the launch of 1980s horror pastiche Maniac Mansion, created by programmer Ron Gilbert and artist Gary Winnick – both currently working on a spiritual successor, Thimbleweed Park. It wasn't the first graphic adventure, but it established the pattern that most continue to follow – as well as inventing the term "cut-scene" and popularising the idea of interactions through verbs.
Maniac Mansion is still a staggeringly complex game by modern standards, with the mansion's inhabitants able to move around, multiple paths, and seven characters (of which you get to pick three) with their own skills. Punkette Razor could use her music skills to help a tentacle dreaming of being a rock star, while geek Bernard could repair, and surfer Jeff could... well, there were six characters with skills; you can look the rest of them up.
Maniac Mansion opened the door for The Secret of Monkey Island, also headed up by Gilbert, along with Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, which many fans still consider Indy's unofficial fourth adventure, intricate time-travel puzzle-box Day of the Tentacle and, of course Tim Schafer's Grim Fandango, re-released in remastered form on the 27th of January.
LucasArts (for now it had become that) adventures are still held up as the pinnacle of the genre. They've held up extremely well, with Full Throttle arguably better now than it was at release in 1995. Modern gaming tastes are far more in sync with its short but cinematic approach to biking adventure.
Every one of the adventures, though, would raise the bar in some way. Fate of Atlantis offered three paths, for whether you preferred your Indy to use his wits, fists or team up with medium Sophia Hapgood. Monkey Island established the Three Trials puzzle structure that adventures still rely on to keep players interested when stuck somewhere. Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max Hit the Road were living cartoons. In addition, the company's roots in moviemaking pushed it to innovations that may seem obvious now, but weren't at the time, such as getting real actors to voice game characters instead of just casting around the office.
While this was going on, of course, the company finally embraced Star Wars, starting with 1993's X-Wing – notable for being the work of flight-simulator designers. It worked because it treated the famous spaceships as much as craft that took skill to fly as wish-fulfilment fantasies, wrapping the experience into military campaigns any Star Wars fan could be proud to serve in. LucasArts would follow on in style for the next few years, treating their access to the licence as a rare opportunity to play in such a beloved world, not just a license to print money. TIE Fighter. Jedi Knight. Even Rebel Assault (though that one didn't go down as well).
However, by the end of the 1990s, that was changing. As beloved as most of LucasArts games were, sales didn't always go hand-in-hand with popularity. The Secret of Monkey Island itself was no huge success, and Grim Fandango isn't believed to have cracked half-a-million. Star Wars games, however, routinely did big business, even the less-good ones like Rebel Assault.
Finally, it happened. Around the launch of The Phantom Menace in 1999, LucasArts embraced the dark side and began churning out little but Star Wars crap. Force Commander. Episode One. Racer. Obi-Wan. There were some highlights, including Star Wars Galaxies (which didn't quite work out, but was a solid attempt) and Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic, but no longer was the LucasArts logo a reason to buy anything. Especially promises.
Stories of bad blood from this era are not hard to find, from inside and outside, while beyond the walls of LucasArts new studios and franchises like Uncharted were routinely eating the company's lunch. The old guard was long gone, leaving the the glory days of LA a distant memory.
Things finally got so bad that even LucasArts had to admit it. In 2011, President Paul Meegan (one of four in just ten years) declared: "In recent years, LucasArts hasn't always done a good job of making games. We should be making games that define our medium, that are competitive with the best of our industry, but we're not. That has to change."
But, in the end, it didn't. Just two years later, Disney purchased the Lucas empire. As of April 2013, LucasArts was shut down, with what remained of it charged solely to licence Star Wars properties to other developers. At this point, it wasn't so much execution as euthanasia.
Grim Fandango remastered for the PlayStation 4
The irony is that – for adventure gamers, at least – this has an upside. Previously, LucasArts had canned an allegedly 80 percent complete remake of Day of the Tentacle, in the style of the (crap, beset with production difficulties) The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition and its far, far better sequel. Under Disney, it's actually happening: once Tim Schafer's Double Fine Studios has released the Grim Fandango remaster, it's going to see this new Day of the Tentacle through to completion.
It seems unlikely that Disney will throw any money behind any brand new games or sequels in the style of these LucasArts originals, but even Schafer has described getting this much as "a miracle".
"There were just some people at Disney, Sony and Lucasfilm that care about these games," he said to Polygon at December, 2014's PlayStation Experience event. "They're old enough that some of these people who are executives played them when they were kids."
If they do well enough, at least they've potential friends in high places – we'll just have to see whether nostalgia's enough to squeeze another Full Throttle into existence. Whatever happens, it's a tribute to LucasArts that fans still choose to remember them at their best, not for their slow and painful fall from grace and gaming royalty. Very few companies better deserve that favour, or have created as many memories worth holding onto forever.