“When convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?”
-Fox Mulder, The X-Files
Dis ma MS-DOS jam! And if you remember it, then carbon dating of your sedimentary layers would probably prove you’re just as old as I am.
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is a relic with a story as ridiculous as its breathlessly long name. It’s a point-and-click adventure game from a bygone time when DOS games came on floppy disk. Younger readers, you know that icon you click to save your homework in Microsoft Word? That’s floppy disk. Zak McKracken came on something like that, released for MS-DOS, Commodore 64, and later Amiga and Atari. We’re learning!Above, the original version and below, the updated graphics of a later re-release.
Point-and-click means that you can fully interact with your environment. You first select your verb at the bottom of the screen and then click on an object on screen and, if possible, Zak will complete the action. It seems tedious because it was. But what it always for is possibilities, true they’re possibilities hinging on trial and error, but possibilities nonetheless.For example, Zak needs to wake up the sleeping bus driver in order to get to the airport and progress on his journey. But you’ve got to get a hold of a kazoo in order to play “Pop goes the Weasel” (the only song Zak knows) to rouse him. You can’t just knock on the bus door. Except the kazoo happens to be in Zak’s drawers back in his apartment, so unless you snoop around you won’t find it.
Speaking of his apartment, if you look at the images above, you can spot a green card underneath his desk. No, it’s not his immigration info. It’s his CashCard. If you want it, you can just select “Pick up” and then select the card, but you’ll accidentally push it further under the desk out of reach. In order to get it, you have to a bit of torn wallpaper (from your own wall) and click on the CashCard, which lets you scrape it out from under the desk to retrieve it.
My favorite example happens to be collecting a loaf of extremely stale bread, which is so hard it shatters the sidewalk cement, by bugging the next door bakery. Just keep ringing his doorbell. After you get the incredible inedible comestible, later on in the game you’ll have to use a monkey wrench to take off the pipe under your kitchen sink, then stick the stale bread into the garbage disposal and turn it on, blending the rock hard loaf into bread crumbs and then you can use the crumbs as bird feed in Lima, Peru’s jungle maze, touch
the bird with a blue crystal, trade minds with the bird, fly into the eye of a giant image of an alien to get a scroll that you’ll need for still another tier of item-triggered operations: traveling to Stonehenge, using a flagpole as a lightning rod, and reading the magic words off the scroll to fuse two crystals together. Whew!
There’s a lot of attention to detail here, and if you’re lazy or too dim-witted, you won’t get far. Sorry. That’s just the way they made them back then. You watch a group of three bushpeople natives do a squatting dance in the savanna and then as a different character on Mars you have to push three buttons in the exact order of the primitive dance you witnessed earlier. How are you supposed to possibly make that kind of correlation?
But don’t worry if that doesn’t seem to make sense. Nothing in Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders does and that is its olde world charm!
The 8-Bit Review
To be honest, most MS-DOS games are a cobwebbed memory and looking at them is like trying to open my eyes underwater in a pool too concentrated with chlorine. It hurts is what I mean. All that to say I don’t really remember too many other comparable games except for a few images, and it seems to me as if Zak McKracken came out slightly above average in the graphics department among its DOS contemporaries Gauntlet, Arkanoid and the diarrhea-inducing Oregon Trail.
This ancient era wasn’t exactly renown for graphics, but this was the best there was. Hey, it’s either that or play a text-based role-playing game! Yuck.
There are only a few musical tracks scattered across the globe in Zak McKracken. Most of it is just beeps and boops for sound effects when you walk and use items and interact with things. HOWEVER, Zak McKracken opens with what is undoubtedly one of the sickest electronica beats to ever hit platinum! Well, maybe it wasn’t that popular. But it’s still catchy after all this time, played over a freaky dream sequence as Zak lies in bed… alone… again…
I’ve already belabored the gameplay. What I didn’t really mention is that the game switches between four different playable characters: two on Earth and two on Mars, who must all work together to reach some kind of unknown, nebulous goal. I like old point-and-click adventures, outdated as they undoubtedly are. They represent an age when gaming had more room for trial and error. The wacky happenstances in Zak McKracken will take you by surprise and that makes it all the more challenging as nearly all of its puzzles and item uses are never intuitive or even logical. But when I was a kid, there was just something about being able to interact with so many varied environments and objects that really captured my imagination. Playing it again as an adult? Not so much. Not anymore. But it still is one of LucasFilm’s great artifacts of the point-and-click adventure genre.
Zak McKracken is essentially based on every tabloid farce and conspiracy theory you can think of. It’s like a poor man’s X-Files. Stonehenge, Ankhs, the face on Mars, dreams, the Sphinx, hippies, alien astronauts, Elvis, and aliens.
But what is it all about? Glad you asked.
Set in the then-future year of 1997 (which the game itself even recognizes as mundane and normal) the story follows Francis Zachary McKracken, a tabloid columnist for the National Inquisitor. “That’s a joke, son. You’re built too low. The fast ones go over ya head, boy.”
The game also features Annie Larris, a scholar of ancient times, and two Yale coeds, Melissa and Leslie, who decided to convert their bus into a spaceship and take a trip to Mars, as guided by their shared dream experiences. They uncover a plot by the Caponians, tall headed aliens (who use oversized 10-gallon hats and nose glasses to disguise their Easter-island-statue shaped heads) to control the “Phone Company” and emit a frequency from every phone on earth that slowly reduces the intelligence of humanity via their “Mind Bending Machine”. The only way to stop them is to assemble the defensive machine left behind by the ancient aliens known as the Skolarians. Thanks, Skolarians. However, you are stuck with the task of finding the pieces of the machine scattered across the Red and Blue Planets, putting the components together and firing it up.
Clearly, Zak McKracken is a sci-fi comedy, if you haven’t surmised that already, Sherlock. It’s not just the circumstances and interactions in the game that are nuts, but the dialogue (with quips like: “Waycool earstuff! Those old aliens sure played herenow noizbop!”) and the narrative are clearly the work of nonsensically-comedic chimpanzees.
Does the task of reassembling a simple device sound simple? It isn’t. Zak McKracken is one of the hardest games I can think of, solely because its puzzles are indeed so counter-intuitive most of the time. Sure you might think about using a branch and bird’s nest as kindling for a fire, but would you really come to the conclusion that the only way to distract an airline stewardess in order to snag an oxygen tank during a flight is to stuff the restroom sink full of toilet paper and turn the water on, and then immediately put an egg in the microwave after that? It really seems like the further back you go, the harder they get.
Replay Value: 4/10
It’s hard to justify multiple playthroughs, especially now days when there are so many more games to play than there were back then. Further, the tedium of clicking on verb after verb wears one down, and they designed not one but several pitch-black mazes in the game (you can’t see nothing) just to fit it all on the one disk. Because Zak McKracken is as hard as it is, it’s really a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the challenging puzzles may bring a player back who suddenly wakes up at night in a cold sweat and says “Eureka! I’ve got it!” …or you could be the other shmoe who just gives up, never to return.
It’s hard to argue against Zak McKracken’s distinctive humor and gameplay, the kind that you hardly see anymore. As a hodge-podge of every weird idea and conspiracy theory imaginable, the game is a stew of bizarrity. There’s no other game that will really prepare you for everything Zak has to offer, yet at the same time, you may not care at all.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
If you liked the old point-and-clicks King’s Quest and Maniac Mansion, then odds are you’ve already played Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. You were probably around at their conception. If you haven’t heard of this game and others like it, odds are you probably won’t go out of your way to play Zak McKracken. I’ll freely admit that it doesn’t hold up, what with its heavy emphasis on absurd puzzles to convey its story, and that my affection for it is mostly driven by faded-polaroid nostalgia.
But in the words of Cowboy Bebop’s Jet Black: “I hate to say this… but it’s kind of heavy-handed. Children shouldn’t watch it. Ladies should avoid it, too. And on top of that, it’s better if you young guys don’t tune in, either… Oh. All you old guys? I wouldn’t miss this one if I were you.”
Aggregated Score: 6.4