Sam & Max have always been somewhat of an underground phenomenon. They had a show in the 90s that only got one season, and the last game they appeared in was in Poker Night 2 in 2013. In the often strange world of point and click adventure games much credit is given to seminal classic 1993 game Sam & Max Hit the Road. Perhaps rightfully so, but it’s sequels released over a decade later by Telltale games are excellent in their own right. Telltale made three Sam & Max games, released episodically, between 2006 and 2010 perhaps even helping popularise their now famous (or infamous) episodic model. They’re now known as Sam & Max: Season One, Two and Three, but at the time entitled Sam & Max: Save the World, Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space, and Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse.
The Telltale series of games follow the titular Sam & Max as freelance detectives solving crimes in New York, although the definition of ‘detectives’ is certainly stretched. Sam is an anthropomorphic Irish Wolfhound detective wearing a blue suit and wielding a revolver, while Max is a “short, sexy lagomorph with an enormous head and dead sharklike eyes” (his words not mine). The gumshoe detective aesthetic is perhaps the most prevalent theme throughout, and the one that is most frequently mocked. The exact period the games are set in is kept purposefully obscure, Sam is the classic 1950s detective driving a 50s/60s Desoto Adventurer, but the story veers into fairly modern-looking sci-fi on a whim. The games also feature an equally weird cast of mostly humans, like Bosco, a paranoid shop owner who gradually ends up charging you millions of dollars for his wide array of odd items, and Sybil, who goes out with Lincoln Memorial.
The games are inane in the best possible way and keep the player invested throughout with questionable settings and some very nice musical numbers. There are a good few Jazz numbers, and the soundtrack is genuinely worth listening to outside of the game. The first series rockets from dealing with a teddy bear mafia to setting up the Lincoln Memorial on a date between episodes, each episode is a good few hours provided you avoid relying on walkthroughs and each game has at least five individual episodes. The games also have certain characters reappear beyond their chapter helping to create a wider narrative within a season. This sense of individual stories leading to a greater conclusion is strangely reminiscent of something like X-Files.
Perhaps the only downside is that it is, by and large, a classic point and click adventure game released way beyond its period. The solutions to many of the puzzles are as inane as the story, some solutions make sense, but the wackiness of the story often necessitates these odd conclusions. A walkthrough is a must, provided you don’t use it consistently throughout and allow yourself to work through parts on your own.
The humour is what truly carries the games and elevates them to something greater than just another point and click. Sam and Max are tonally pitch-perfect in every scene. The games are by no means just a random series of events designed to make you laugh because it’s random, there’s satire and even mild political humour thrown in throughout. Child stars run for governor of South and North Dakota and split it creating a West Dakota, and eventually lead their prospective sides to war over Mount Rushmore. It’s not a game for kids either, some of the humour is darker and it’s referential nature makes it meaningless to children. The song by US secret agents discussing why war is good certainly falls into this bracket.
It’s no surprise that a series of point and click games in the 2000s didn’t do spectacularly well, given the popularity of many military shooters and big triple-A games at that time. But, given the remastering of other classic point and click games like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle recently, there’s no better time to lose a few hours to a fantastically funny detective story.
Sam & Max Seasons One, Two and Three, developed by Telltale Games, are available now on Steam