Sam & Max Hit the Road, video game, box art, Sam, Max, police car, lolly

Review: Sam & Max Hit the Road

What do you get when you cross a country singer from Brighton, a few hairy bigfoot intent on saving their race, a six-foot dog in a suit and a hyperkinetic rabbity thing? Kim finds out with Sam & Max Hit the Road.


Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview

Name: Sam & Max Hit the Road
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Release date: November 1993
PEGI rating: Not listed
Platforms: Mac, PC
More information: Wikipedia

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Initial impressions

Sam & Max Hit the Road was developed by a small team at LucasArts, many of whom had previous experience working on their other adventures. It was designed by Sean Clark, Michael Stemmle, creator Steve Purcell and his future wife Collette Michaud, who already knew each other from working on Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis in 1992. Sam and Max first appeared as video game characters in internal testing material for SCUMM engine programmers when animated versions and an office backdrop were created for them to practice on. Soon after, comic strips by Purcell were published in LucasArts’ quarterly newsletter; and the positive reaction to these, along with the success of the Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island franchises, encouraged the developer to make a game out of the characters.

This title is one I’ve always known about but never actually played before myself (shocking I know) – in fact it’s difficult to not be aware of it considering the huge number of easter eggs and references that can found within other video games. I jumped at the chance to finally pick it up when GOG recently announced they were adding a new publisher to their store and I completed it within a day or two of its digital release. Sam & Max Hit the Road is now regarded as a classic adventure game and is regularly featured in ‘top title’ listings; so did I fall in love with the Freelance Police as much as thousands of other gamers out there?

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Plot

The plot starts in a similar way to many of the comic stories, with Sam and Max receiving a telephone call from the Commissioner who tells them to visit a carnival. Upon arrival and getting past a French fire-blower named Flambé, the owners tell them that their first star attraction – a frozen bigfoot named Bruno – has been thawed and has fled with their second star attraction – Trixie the Giraffe-Necked Girl. It’s up to the Freelance Police to track them down and their pursuit takes them all over America, but will famous country singer Conroy Bumpus and his bodyguard Lee-Harvey stop them in their tracks?

The comedy element is one of the reasons why so many gamers love the title so much, but it’s also one of those things that all comes down to personal taste.

As you can probably tell from that brief description, Sam & Max Hit the Road’s storyline is pretty far out there. It’s definitely that ‘off-the-wall’ kind of humour we’ve all come to expect from LucasArts’ adventures and if you’ve played any of the Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island instalments, you’ll know just the kind of absurdity to expect. The comedy element is one of the reasons why so many gamers love the title so much, but it’s also one of those things that all comes down to personal taste; I’ll stop here for now as it’s a subject I’ll pick up on again later during this review.

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Gameplay

Anyone who has played an adventure title is likely to be very familiar with the controls. Players take on the role of Sam from a third-person perspective and use the cursor to dictate how he interacts with the environment: hovering it over a hotspot will cause the graphic to change, and a right-click determines whether Sam looks at, talks to, picks up or uses the object. This may sound like standard functionality for a game in the genre nowadays, but back in 1992 when Sam & Max Hit the Road was first released it was actually pretty innovative.

Players are given a choice of subjects to discuss when talking to other characters and these are depicted across the bottom of the screen as icons rather than text. In addition to these topics which specifically involve the game’s plot, Sam can also ask questions, make exclamations and inject non-sequiturs. After a while I found myself beginning a new conversation with a question to get the ball rolling, but then jumping straight to the icons as soon as I was able to; and as a result I think I probably missed out on a lot of the humour. This was kind of strange as it was completely the opposite of my experience with Sam & Max Save the World, where I was eager to hear all of Sam’s witty remarks.

Max can also be used as an inventory item at certain points to ‘confront, subdue and pummel’ – usually on characters where a solution to a problem requires a teeny bit of violence.

For those who are worrying that Max doesn’t get much of a look-in within this title, fear not! He wanders around the environment of his own accord but can also be used as an inventory item at certain points to ‘confront, subdue and pummel’ – usually on characters where a solution to a problem requires a teeny bit of violence. For me, his personality didn’t come through as much as it did during Sam & Max Save the World, and I gradually found myself starting to miss the furry little fella and his murderous inclinations.

Speaking of the inventory, most puzzles within Sam & Max Hit the Road are inventory-based and this can be opened using the icon found in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. Items found in one location can be used in another and at times it’s necessary to combine objects to come up with something new. Unfortunately, I found the challenges to be a bit on the moon-logic side – even for a LucasArts’ adventure! There are thankfully no red herrings and the solutions aren’t too far-fetched when you consider the game’s premise, but they’re all pretty surreal and you have to think outside the box to overcome them.

This has the potential of making it quite a difficult title for some but on the plus side, you can’t die and are therefore free to try out all potential fixes (regardless of how crazy they seem) until you find a solution that works. Personally, I don’t mind a bit of strangeness in my adventures, particularly when they fit the overall vibe of the game; but the puzzles here just didn’t feel ‘fluid’. Some are particularly short and you simply pick up an item in one area to use in another, while others are completely random and I wasn’t quite sure why I was completing them, and overall it would have been nice to see the challenges flow with the storyline a little better.

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Visuals and audio

In some ways it kinds of reminds you of being a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons and this fits the vibe of the title perfectly.

Sam & Max Hit the Road is depicted in a bright 2D world full of humorous little details, such as funny street signs and a rat running across the floor of the Freelance Police’s office. In some ways it kinds of reminds you of being a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons and this fits the vibe of the title perfectly. However, it’s the character depictions that make this game. Along with some great parodies including Woody Allen and Uri Geller, Sam and Max have a wonderful chemistry and it’s great to see them setting each other up for wisecracks.

The majority of the title’s humour comes from its witty dialogue with plenty of references to films, celebrities and pop culture in general. Speaking of that Geller parody, he was one of my favourite individuals within the title – even though he had a very brief appearance! As well as being able to bend metal tools, he has a talent for swearing and is consistently censored with the familiar ‘beep’ over his speech and special characters in the subtitles. This leads to Sam and Max telling him to ‘percent sign, ampersand, dollar sign’ and explaining that they’re ‘swearing in longhand, asterisk-mouth’, at which I laughed out loud whilst playing.

Smooth jazz tracks make up most of the background score and this suits the detective vibe of the Freelance Police, but you’ll also hear blues, tribal themes and a bit of rock. There’s even a terrible country song called King of the Creatures featuring lyrics such as ‘There ain’t nothing as excitin’ as exposing beasts to inhumanity’. And as if that wasn’t weird enough, it’s sung by a short guy from Brighton in a toupee with a backing chorus of stuffed animals. Very imaginative!

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Replay and innovation

Mini-games include a car-themed version of Battleship, crazy golf with alligators and a dress-up book starring Sam and Max themselves.

In addition to the main title, Sam & Max Hit the Road includes several mini-games. One of these – a carnival game based on Whac-A-Mole but instead using live rats – must be completed in order to receive a new item that progresses the plot. But the others are entirely optional and include a car-themed version of Battleship, crazy golf with alligators and a dress-up book starring Sam and Max themselves. While I appreciate that the developer added these touches and they could potentially be a nice break from the storyline, I don’t believe they add much replay value and can’t see myself going back to the game in the near future.

As mentioned above, the way Sam & Max Hit the Road was designed was actually pretty innovative and signified a major change in development for titles on the SCUMM engine. The interface was entirely redesigned from that introduced in Maniac Mansion: instead of selecting a verb function from a list at the bottom of the screen, all actions were compressed into a right-click of the mouse. In addition, the inventory was moved off-screen and conversation options were replaced by icons as, according to Stemmle, ‘nothing would kill a joke worse than reading it before you hear it’. These innovations were used in future LucasArts’ titles and are now commonplace in today’s adventures.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

As mentioned above, Sam & Max Hit the Road is now regarded as a classic adventure game and is regularly featured in ‘top title’ listings. In 1996 Computer Gaming World ranked it as the ninety-fifth best game of all time; in 2004 Adventure Gamers listed it as the eighth-best adventure of all time; in 2007 IGN noted Sam & Max in its top one-hundred games feature; and the year before, Adventure Classic Gaming noted that the title had ‘become [LucasArts’] most critically acclaimed adventure game of all time’.

Does this mean it’s now become one of my favourite adventure games and I’m enamoured with Sam and Max? Not necessarily.

So I guess for that reason alone, it should be included in the 1001 list. But does this mean it’s now become one of my favourite adventure games and I’m enamoured with Sam and Max? Not necessarily. As I mentioned above, humour is a personal thing and the comedy in this title is possibly a little too ‘slapstick’ for me; and the storyline and puzzles are just slightly too surreal and not fluid enough for my taste. That’s not to say that I thought Sam & Max Hit the Road was a bad title, just one which didn’t leave me wanting more.

Perhaps the fact that I played Telltale Games’ sequel before the original has something to do with my opinion. In some ways I think this kind of spoiled it for me: I knew the type of jokes to expect and some of them I’d already heard whilst playing Sam & Max Save the World. As a result, they didn’t have the effect that a new gag is supposed to have. I think I’ll sum up this review on that note: Sam & Max Hit the Road is definitely a game worth playing if you’re a fan of the adventure genre, but steer clear of the sequel until you’ve played it for that full-on LucasArts comedy effect.

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Review round-up

Reviewed: PC
Source: We purchased the game from GOG for £3.69
Positive: Extremely likeable main characters with plenty of chemistry
Negative: Could possibly be a little too ‘off-the-wall’ for some
Score: 39 out of 60
Grade: Worth a look
Sam & Max Hit the Road, video game, review, graph, Worth a look

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