The plot of “Zak” (Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, MS-DOS, FM Towns) takes place ten years in the future in the distant year 1997, and it follows the exploits of the titular tabloid journalist as he discovers an extraterrestrial threat to Earth: a race of dimwitted Elvis-obsessed aliens who are on the cusp of activating a machine that will make all residents of Earth dumber than they. Zak trots around the globe to various locations of paranormal significance (Stonehenge, Atlantis, even Mars) as he uncovers the plot as well as a second race of ancient aliens who or may not have anticipated the threat to Earth. It’s basically as ridiculous as it sounds, but never stoops to the terrifying potential of over the top camp that exists within such a plot. Rather, “Zak” remains consistent and witty. For example, two college coeds (who are later necessary sidekicks for Zak) convert their van into a spaceship so they can take their Spring Break on Mars, staying in a local hostel between the Cydonian Face and a Great Martian Pyramid. A Monorail expedites the commute between the two.
Along the way, Zak runs into many characters that help define the story: a two-headed squirrel that lives in an ancient cave at the base of Mount Ranier, a Swami from Kathmandu and a Shaman from Zaire who are golf buddies, and a dead alien that resembles (and can certainly function as) a broom. Additionally, Zak and his cohorts also stumble upon items such as concrete-busting stale French bread, larger than life pair of bobby pins (great for picking larger than life locks), and mysterious crystals that allow for uses ranging from teleportation to mind-sharing with nearby animals. Combining people, locations, and items in the proper way is the big puzzle; it requires a good amount of creativity and definitely a sense of humor to figure things out. Uniquely for a game, it is very difficult to actually die within the game. It is possible, and at a certain point the game can still be completed if Zak or one of his cohorts meets their great reward, but it takes a bit of work (or an inkling of stupidity) for death to be achieved. Other people and animals can be killed, too, but that can negatively affect Zak’s karma at a later point in the game.
In addition to “Zak”’s large gameplay world and fun story, the game also featured a novel measure of piracy prevention. The game, when purchased legally, came with a printed sheet of symbols forming codes within a grid. Within gameplay, it is possible to be arrested; the arresting officer will ask for a specific code from the sheet. If the player is unable to give it after a few tries, Zak will be stuck in prison as his jailor proceeds to lecture him about software piracy. (This obstacle can be countered later in gameplay with the use of one of Zak’s companions, a lighter, and a yak. No yaks are harmed.)
There is one glaring problem with ZM&TAM; its reliance on mazes. The African jungle, Mexican pyramids, and the hidden chambers within the Sphynx all consist of similar hallways or paths with multiple doors appearing in each area. There is a correct way to get through each, but prior to the era of easily Googling a walkthrough, they were a major source of frustration. While they certainly expanded the amount of physical locations within a Commodore 64 floppy disk, they were also a boring, chance-based aspect to an otherwise thought-demanding game. Fortunately, mazes consist of probably about a single percent of the actual gameplay, so they are a mild annoyance at best.
Unfortunately, time, or at least the public’s recollection, has not been kind to “Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders”. Its predecessor, “Maniac Mansion”, was ported to Nintendo and also inspired a very, very loosely adapted television show, and one of its followups, “The Secret of Monkey Island” spawned several sequels and a recent iOS remake. Of the LucasArts games, at this juncture it’s likely one of the most obscure. While I’m yet to find an early LucasArts or SCUMM game I did not enjoy, none were quite as enjoyable to me as “Zak”. The plot was the right amount of ridiculousness with the right amount of thought (and perhaps the right amount of humor unsuitable for children) for me at the right age.
With LucasFilm’s game department closed, the only thing that remains for sure is that there will likely never be an official sequel. Fortunately, I’m not alone in my desire for one: multiple groups have gathered to create their own sequels. “Zak McKracken Between Time and Space” has already been released (albeit not in English), and both “Zak McKracken and The Alien Rockstars” and “Zak McKracken and the Lonely Sea Monster” have both been in development for years without a release date at this point. There are certainly still enough fans left to keep the idea alive. And in the meantime, a re-play every year or two is keeping me quite content.
What takes you way back? Let us know in the comments below.