At this point, we’re all pretty used to calling Maniac Mansion “the first graphic adventure game,” and just kind of leave it at that. By that, I mean that the natural evolution of graphic adventure games is mostly centered on what LucasArts and Sierra were doing with the fancy new pointing-and-clicking peripherals, and not much attention has been given to the other early adopters out there.
Take, for example, this one: Murder on the Mississippi, released in 1986 for the Commodore 64 by … the fuck? Activision? Okay, didn’t see that one coming. Ironic, considering what happened to Sierra, really. But let’s not dwell on that.
MotM is a pretty straight-forward murder mystery set on board a sternwheeler in ye olden days when people still used the word “manservant” to explain why they had an attention-starved lackey follow them around everywhere.
It’s impressive in that, unlike its adventure game contemporaries on the Commodore 64, it has no parser whatsoever. That is, it’s controlled entirely with the joystick (there were no mouse peripherals for the C64). And it came out a year before Maniac Mansion!
Most of the time, you’re walking Sir Foxworth around the ship with your puppy-dog Regis tailing your every move like he’s on a leash. When you encounter NPCs, though, the game brings up a list of options:
You can ask the characters about any other character you’ve met so far, show them items you’re carrying, get them to follow you (until they get bored of you) … and accuse them of murder, even before you’ve discovered the actual body. I guess that’s just something Foxworth enjoys doing on his off days.
Ah yes, inventory. You do pick up objects along the way, but they’re not used in the way we’ve come to expect from graphic adventures. Most of the time, they’re just used to show other NPCs, or to take back to your own room and deduce clues by “combining” them.
In fact, there’s only one “inventory puzzle” in the game — where you use an object in the game world to acquire another object — and it’s one of the most unfair ones I have ever seen in my life.
As you walk around the game, you can at various points inspect objects. Usually, these are clearly visible on the screen — and are usually found in rooms. This one, however, is near one of the stairs you use to traverse from the passenger deck to the engineering deck. And … I don’t know about you, but do you see anything here?
Remember, this was the day before walkthroughs or anything of that sort. How long do you think players in 1986 were walking around this boat before they just, on a whim, decided to inspect the stairs out of sheer boredom?
There are other peculiar quirks about this game, such as when you enter one of the guest rooms to find a knife shooting straight at you.
There’s no one throwing the knife. There’s no launch mechanism. It’s not like Jigsaw was in there rigging this shit up; there’s just a magical knife speeding towards you as soon as you enter the room.
And if you don’t dodge it, you’re dead. I mean, in an instant. There are no saves; no continues; no try-again. You enter a room, you get a knife in the face. Boom. Dead.
Anyway, the game proceeds along this path: You walk into a room, talk to an NPC, and rummage around their rooms (hilariously, Foxworth’s method of “inspecting,” say, a dresser is to violently kick it to make objects fall out).
Once you’ve progressed far enough and have collected enough information, you can then use the game’s rather strange but fascinating mechanic of using characters’ testimonies against each other.
In your notebook, you construct a sentence from the last heard testimony — word for word, mind you — which then sort of becomes an inventory object. Though not really, because you can only hold one “snippet” of dialogue at a time.
This puts you at the awkward disadvantage of having to clairvoyantly foresee what piece of dialogue could be used against another NPC, which isn’t always clear. For instance, in the above example, you’re supposed to go tell the Captain that Madame Des Plaines had her jewels stored in his safe, which I guess implies that he should hand them over immediately for some reason (which he does).
Had you received this information early in the game, and then went and talked to another NPC, this piece of conversation would now be lost — as if Regis, the little fucknugget, only has one page in his fucking journal and keeps erasing the previous conversation every time you start a new one.
Never mind. Once you’ve gathered enough evidence, you can then accuse the person, which unlocks the accusing parlor!
No, just kidding, it looks like this:
You then tell everyone who you think committed the murder, and then … well, something quite anti-climactic happens. I’m almost reticent to spoil it, because even though we are talking about a game released over 30 years ago, and I doubt anyone reading this is going to go out and fire up their C64 emulator and trudge through the whole game just to get to the ending, but it’s such a weird, non-committal turn of events that I was really kind of blown away.
Basically (highlight the following section for spoilers), everyone decides that the murder was entirely justified, and the perpetrator gets off scot-free.
All in all, it’s a curious, probably mostly forgotten (at least, I don’t see it mentioned that often!), little oddity from the days when adventure game developers were starting to wonder if there were, perhaps, other ways of playing adventure games besides typing in commands.
For its time, the interface is actually very impressive — despite its odd quirks. It technically pioneers the conversation system that we’re used to from LucasArts, despite Maniac Mansion being a year away (and not having a conversation system at all).
There was also a version released for the Nintendo system, which I’m not going to get into. Hardcore Gaming 101 has more information which is a very good read, including an interesting theory that Regis may, in fact, be evil. (He certainly looks it.)
You can watch a Let’s Play of the entire game from start to finish here (from which I also grabbed the screenshots):