Classic Comeback | Grim Fandango
A couple bones to pick but a skele-ton of fun
I never played Grim Fandango when it was originally released by Double Fine in 1998, because funnily enough, I was 1 years old. About 18 years on from then I tried to play it, found it hideously boring and slow so stopped. A year or two on and a sprinkle more patience later, I realise what a gem this 2 decade old title is, and how it can still hold its own against other newer point and click titles.
The premise is this. You play as Manny Calavera, a dead man (much everyone in this game is a skeleton) who has a job as a grim reaper, which is basically a better name for a travel agent for dead people. You were once at the top of your game, selling premium travel packages to souls wanting to reach peace, but after year of trying to work off your debt, business slows and you’re threatened with losing your job. In an attempt to get back on top, something out of the ordinary happens. A woman, named Meche, who should be getting the best premium travel package around, doesn’t qualify for one, and it’s then Manny realises his job is a scam. He now needs to find the mysterious Meche, and find out who’s behind screwing up innocent people’s journey to the underworld, with a little help from some friends.
Something not to be underestimated about this game is how funny it can be. I chuckled here and there, but at times had to pause the game because I was laughing too hard to know exactly what was going on. For example, there is a Jazz club you visit and it appears our hero Manny Calavera knows it’s owner well. He unenthusiastically encourages her to perform some poetry. She politely declines at first and when Manny starts his next sentence, she interrupts in a dramatic sighing ‘if you insist’ and gets on stage to perform. She and her entire audience all wear the same outfit of black polo necks, berets and dark glasses whilst she performs and click their fingers rather than clap at the end. It’s adult humour, not in that way, but in a way where its humour is made for adults, which is refreshing.
I commend the game for being one of the few titles I can remember intended for an adult audience without taking the cheap shots of nudity, swearing or violence. The way it’s built around a guy working a dead end job, flirting unsuccessfully or a company car being vandalised. It’s perfectly fine for a kid to play, sure, but it really is made for those who can relate to the charming Manny, his take on the world and the mature struggles he experiences. I can’t name another game that makes a normal-ish (if you ignore the skeleton thing) job so entertaining and funny.
Although maybe a little intelligent, the style of the game and it’s blocky polygons have also been improved vastly by the remaster. The Switch version allows you to press the ‘-’ button on the left joycon to revert the graphics back to their original state, and apart from doing this out of curiosity once in awhile, the newer look suits the game well and looks pretty good on console.
There are a few things about the game I hoped a remaster might fix, beyond just making it look prettier, the first being your inventory. If you have any more items than 4 or 5, scrolling through the animation trying to find the right item you want is frustrating. I just want to see what I have in case I already possess a solution. This issue isn’t consistent throughout however. In Year 3 for example, you never have anywhere near the number of items you have in Year 1.
Secondly are controls either being unclear (not helped by playing on the Switch admittedly), or the triggers for different actions being too close together. The number of times I would get stuck climbing in and out of a trough rather than pulling a lever, or climbing up a ladder rather than closing a door. The perspective of where a camera is put meant it’s hard to distinguish where you should stand when pressing a button. This leads to mistakes a-plenty and even getting stuck in areas because although you could swear you pressed the character you wanted to speak to, you didn’t do it from the right angle to trigger the right dialogue. A related issue are ladders. Oh my lord I have never dreaded seeing something in a game more than a ladder in Grim Fandango. They are slow and when you spend as much time as I did going back and forth looking for clues, there is nothing more annoying than having to wait 10 seconds every scene because a ladder is your way to the next area.
Sadly, the biggest drawback of the game, which remains from its original release, is it’s absurd jumps of logic, and puzzles, that, without a guide, are frankly close to impossible. How on earth are you supposed to know to pick up a turkey baster from one club, take it to another club to suck up dirty dish water to take to a tattoo artist’s client, where you have to open the fridge, pull out a draw and then dump the dish water into a drink the client is indulging in? All so you knock the dude out, to steal his dog tag and then pretend he is dead? The entire sequence of events is so difficult to work out, I laughed when I finally had to cheat and look it up. I frequently used a guide for Grim Fandango, I admit. Right until the end are there strange things you absolutely won’t be able to work out not because you’re wrong, but because you’re in the wrong place or you had to combine two inventory items in a specific place rather than on the fly.
But I guess that’s the charm of these games isn’t it? You look at other older point and click adventure games like King’s Quest and jumps of logic are half the enjoyment some people had. Yes they are tedious and may take hours, if you decidedly don’t use a guide, but often times the outcome is worth the struggle. I wouldn’t say the ending of Grim Fandango is perfect, but what did strike me was Mr Calavera say it wasn’t the destination, but the journey that mattered. This game is a perfect example of this sentiment. I’m not going to remember the ending as well as I remember Grim Fandango’s comedy or charm, and that’s what has held up so well.