While waiting for the next part of Strong Bad, you can now play Telltale's other episodic series on Wii. But is it funny?
In understanding the gross inconsistencies contained within the disc version of Sam & Max: Season One, it helps to be aware of the game's origins. The six episodes were originally released on PC, one per month, from late 2006 through mid-2007. Telltale kept their monthly schedule by developing the first two or three episodes before any of them launched. Therefore, all the feedback and criticism they got on the first episode wasn't incorporated until the second half of the season. The result is a game that's unbearably dull early on and legitimately funny and interesting in the later episodes.
The good news is that you can skip around to any episode from the main menu; everything is unlocked from the start. Even though you'll miss some character development, I recommend going straight to the third or even fourth episode if you want the game to make a good first impression. The first two episodes are boring and poorly paced, with lame puzzles and, worst of all, horribly unfunny writing. I may have chuckled once in the five or six hours it took to play through those first two episodes. Considering the PC-style adventure genre doesn't exactly have the most compelling gameplay (you collect items and figure out where to use them to solve puzzles), the experience depends heavily on the quality of its writing. This game is meant to be funny, and until that promise is fulfilled in the later episodes, it feels like a test of endurance.
Sam is a man-sized dog with a dry wit who sounds just like Humphrey Bogart. Max is a huge rabbit with an imposing set of teeth; he's also psychotic, or at least claims to be so, and his voice sounds just like Roger Rabbit. Much of the humor revolves around their repartee, with Sam clearly serving as the straight man to Max's sarcasm and derangement. They are "freelance police" who can't arrest anyone and don't seem to get paid for solving the crime mysteries handed down by the unseen "commissioner".
The relationship between Sam and Max seems to blossom as the episodes proceed, as their banter is much funnier in the second half of the disc. The quality of the writing and voice acting are both important, because at least 50% of the game is spent listening to characters talk to each other. Absolutely everything is voiced, which is impressive in a sense, but it also means that simple actions take a long time to complete. You can always skip dialogue with the touch of a button; it's a welcome feature for when characters repeat themselves, but you can't afford to miss any clues or good jokes on the first pass.
When you aren't navigating dialogue trees or listening to Sam describe every single object in a room, the gameplay is about clicking everything in sight, moving from place to place, and using inventory items in the right situation. In these respects, the game has significant problems. Some are the result of design flaws, while others are due to a miserable Wii conversion. Collecting useful items is extremely important, but there's no way to tell which items can be stored away except to click… on everything. This can be rather tedious, due to the game's aforementioned talky nature and terrible Wii pointer interface. The pointer control never feels smooth or accurate, and many important objects are so tiny on the screen that you may only find them by sheer luck. Some method of zooming in on the detailed scenes might help here, but there is no camera control at all. Navigating the environments is generally frustrating, as Sam walks very slowly unless you double-click, which sometimes doesn't work. If you click on an empty space, he'll walk over in that direction, except when he doesn't feel like it. Frequently, Sam will instead walk in the complete opposite direction of where you clicked, and that's when you'll curse Telltale for not including direct character movement with the D-pad or joystick. The same issue came up in Capcom's Zack & Wiki, but it's considerably worse here.
Special discussion is required for the item-based puzzles, since they are the essential core of the gameplay in Sam & Max and other so-called "adventure" games. As with genre classics like King's Quest, Maniac Mansion, and Gabriel Knight, the story is pushed forward by using items to solve problems. Sam & Max's puzzles aren't the least logical I've seen in the genre, but solutions are often strange and sometimes even seemingly arbitrary. It helps if you have played other games like this one and can put yourself into that weird mode of "game designer logic". It's a way of thinking in which you try to solve problems from the perspective of an ostensibly funny game designer rather than applying real-world logic. It also helps to have a lot of patience for trial-and-error testing, in which you use every item on every character and object until something finally works. It's surprising that Sam & Max relies so heavily on these archaic design principles, and because of that, the game is not very well suited for players new to the genre, namely most Wii owners.
In fact, Sam & Max: Season One is a strikingly niche title very much in love with its PC predecessors from LucasArts and Sierra. I'm a fan of those games too, but I've partially outgrown my tolerance for their goofy, frustrating puzzles, so there were times when Sam & Max really tried my patience. The writing is inconsistent, but it definitely hits a stride in the latter half, proving to be an unusually funny video game with some memorable scenarios. The shoddy Wii port is a shame, but even in its purest form, this set of Sam & Max episodes is a lumpy tribute to better games of yore. Starry-eyed fans of the genre will find ways to enjoy it, but then, they've probably already played this season and the next on their PCs.