Before The Walking Dead, before The Wolf Among Us, there was Sam & Max. Based on a comic by Steve Purcell and one of LucasArts’ point-and-click classics (Sam & Max Hit the Road), Telltale’s episodic games about an anthropomorphic dog detective and an “hyperkinetic rabbity thing” helped to lay the foundations for everything that followed. And though Telltale Games is long gone, its archives live on, with Sam & Max Save the World being the latest game to get a remastered release, courtesy of Skunkape Games.
Originally released episodically between 2006 and 2007, Sam & Max Save the World follows these two oddball antiheroes on a series of increasingly bizarre cases. What starts with a simple case of hypnosis-induced propaganda as a group of former child stars are hypnotised into spreading the “good” word of the washed up Brady Culture and his dubious self-help videos soon builds up to dealings with the “toy mafia”, visits to an amusement park on the moon, and a sham election involving a roboticised Abe Lincoln statue. In other words, a typical few days for Sam and Max.
While there’s a common thread tying the whole story together, Sam & Max Save the World leans heavily into its episodic structure. That’s true in the sense that each episode is its own self-contained thing, but more significantly, in how it draws on the structure of episodic TV—sitcoms in particular—to guide its storytelling and humour. Each episode opens with a quick gag, usually the pair killing time in some comically dangerous way, before they’re interrupted by a call from the mysterious commissioner to give them a new case, beginning the story in earnest. There’s the familiar three-act structure of a sitcom episode, the familiar comedic beats, the familiar not-quite-clean endings.
It’s a framework that lends itself to comedy, and Sam & Max Save the World takes that and runs with it. It takes a buddy cop sitcom to farcical extremes, where apprehending a suspect might mean taking part in a series of daytime TV reality shows or running for President and replacing your opponent’s cue cards for a rigged debate with military recruitment posters. It’s a game where you’ll hand over millions of dubiously-earned dollars in exchange for crackpot inventions from the local convenience store owner, where a 1960 Desoto can just fly to the moon, and where secret service agents break out into a full-blown musical number about the economic benefits of starting a war.
With its irreverent humour, Sam & Max Save the World takes plenty of opportunity to poke fun at itself and the whole adventure game genre. There are plenty of moments where characters knowingly comment on the sort of unlikely coincidences that are necessary to keep the story moving along or to make the puzzles work, or poke fun at the inherent oddity of a genre built largely around having people look at things repeatedly while talking to themselves. “Moon logic”—that is, adventure game puzzles that deliberately go for pull solutions from way out of left field instead of going for the more obvious logical answer—go to new comical extremes with Sam & Max‘s anything-goes sense of humour, but rarely to the point of being frustrating.
Through all the screwball antics and surreal twists is a biting satire of American society, touching on everything from cynical celebrity “self-help” grifts to conspiracy theorists to the USA’s trigger-happy approach to foreign policy (again, a full-blown musical number about the economic benefits of starting a war). At the heart of Sam & Max Save the World‘s satire are Sam and Max themselves, “Freelance Police” with a penchant for violence and complete disregard for the law—a comically hyperbolic but pointed commentary on police brutality that’s more pertinent than ever.
This is a game where you’ll shoot an innocent driver’s tail light, pull them over for driving with a broken tail light, then fine them a million dollars (so that you can buy a “hypnotisation protection device” made from a salad strainer and a coat hanger). It’s a game where punching people with an oversized boxing glove that wouldn’t look out of place in an old Looney Tunes or carelessly shooting your gun are common solutions to problems. Sam & Max Save the World takes things to ridiculous, bizarre extremes for laughs, but also to take aim at police use of force.
The satire doesn’t always land; sometimes it gets lost in the sheer absurdity of whatever else is going on, sometimes the charisma of Sam and Max seem to give their actions a sense of tacit approval. But Sam and Max are no heroes, and for the most part, there’s an Save the World lets the uncomfortable subtext to the duo’s actions make the impact it needs to make. Between the laughs, the reality of what these “Freelance Police” represent sinks in.
The remastered version of Sam & Max Save the World mostly does what you’d expect a remaster to do: gives the original a game a bit of a polish-up without being a full remake. There’s support now for widescreen and higher resolutions, new lighting effects, more detailed character models, and higher-quality audio. To better support having all six episodes in one package, there’s a new menu that makes it easy to switch between episodes and tweaks to the opening credits to help each episode follow more naturally from the one before it.
There’s also support for controllers—a crucial part of bringing a formerly PC-only, mouse-driven game to Switch (though the PC version benefits from this, too). It works surprisingly well, without falling back on the clumsy solution of controller-operated mouse pointer; instead, you just move your character around with the left stick like you would in any other game, and use the right stick to highlight different points of interest to interact with.
Sam & Max Save the World is a hilarious game that moves effortlessly between surreal screwball comedy, buddy cop sitcom, and sharp satire of American society. That’s reason enough for the new lease on life that comes with a remaster and a Switch release, but as one of Telltale’s formative works, it’s also an important part of videogame history that was at risk of being lost forever.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.