Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Sam & Max Episode 103 -- The Mole, The Mob and the Meatball (2007)

This week, we return to a series that's just beyond the five-year release threshold I try to maintain, with Telltale Games' Sam & Max Episode 103 -- The Mole, The Mob and the Meatball.  This 2007 animated point-and-click adventure game was the third episode in Telltale's first series based on the comic books of Steve Purcell, popularized within the genre by the classic 1993 Lucasarts graphic adventure Sam & Max Hit the Road.  The sardonic canine detective Sam and his hyperactive, joyfully violent rabbit buddy Max have starred in three successful series at Telltale at this writing.

This episode picks up where Episode 102 left off, as our heroes set out to investigate the bizarre hypnotic teddy bear sent to control a talk show host at WARP-TV.  We can see that the writing and design were still finding their stride in these early efforts, and some of the resource reuse that made episodic gaming a good economic fit for adventure games is still a bit obvious.  But it's a solid adventure game design, with some very funny moments and puzzles.

As always, I encourage interested gamers to tackle Sam & Max Episode 103 independently before proceeding here, especially because the game is still commercially available (and frequently on sale at very attractive prices.)  While Telltale's own published walkthroughs make me less concerned about spoiling the puzzles than is usually the case, good fun is to be had experiencing the game's plotting and dialogue firsthand.  With that said, be forewarned that there are likely to be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The story opens, per usual in the first two seasons, with a call from the commissioner -- amid the morbidly witty dialogue, we learn  that a mole sent in to investigate the Toy Mafia has not been heard from in quite a while.  Sam and Max are asked to go in after him, starting their investigation at Ted E. Bear's Mafia-Free Playland and Casino, a name which doth protest too much.  The opening credits feature a purple background this time; the episodes cycle through a rainbow of colors as the season progresses.

To find the mole, our heroes are equipped with the secret code phrase: "Does the carpet match the drapes?"  Sam informs Max that if we have located the mole, "He'll say, 'Well, I never!' and smack me across the face."  This does eventually come into play plotwise, but serves mostly as an excuse for us to ask this question of everyone we meet, earning innocent and wholesome responses despite the setup.

Sam & Max's office is much as it was in previous episodes.  The TV is showing Midtown Cowboys reruns from the last episode, and there's still quite a bit of dialogue reuse here; economic constraints are still showing a bit.  Our resident rat "friend" Jimmy Two-Teeth is operating a fencing joint out of his usual rathole in the wall below the bulletin board, and the closet now contains the charred Hypno-Bear from Episode 102, which may indeed be a clue about the Toy Mafia's doings in this episode.  There's nothing useful plotwise in the office at the moment, so we're off to explore the street and see what's changed since the last episode.

Convenience store proprietor Bosco is in a Frenchman disguise this time, donning a beret for the sake of entertaining yet another paranoid fantasy.  This time he's afraid of the Toy Mafia, and believes they saw through his Englishman disguise last time, though his accent and mangling of the language are even less convincing en Francais.  He fears unauthorized deliveries to his store, and has created an improved security system to prevent such nefarious product placement -- it consists of an image recognition camera and a vacuum system that places unrecognized merchandise out on the street.  He has a listening device for sale -- for ten million dollars, following his usual pattern of outrageous pricing for something that will likely turn out to be mundane.  There's a Secret of Monkey Island reference here -- we can ask Bosco if he has random items in stock, including a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle.  There's also a funny series of "Do you..." -- "NON!" gags based entirely on comedic timing, something not possible in the pre-talkie adventure era.  At the snack counter, there's a promotion going on the Not'Cho's -- a free toilet brush with every purchase, but Bosco hastens to inform our heroes that it's a USED toilet brush.  It's been fun, but we haven't acquired any inventory items here either.

So next we're off to see what line of work Sybil is in these days.  Someone has installed a webcam on top of one of the cactuses in her office.  Hmmmm.  Now she's a professional trial witness, though she doesn't have her first case yet; she swears this, her latest career, is the one that she's sticking with.  We hear some more recycled gags here, as Sybil's decor hasn't been updated much since Episode 102.

Lefty's hardware store and Stinky's restaurant are still closed, and the posters at the back of the alley have been updated, though they're not as funny as some of the offerings in earlier episodes.  There's a suspicious car parked behind the DeSoto, with a license plate reading "DRGDLR", but it doesn't factor into the plot.

We've established that not a lot has changed in the neighborhood, so it's off to Ted E. Bear's Mafia-Free Playland and Casino for some plot progress.  The greeter, Lovey Bear, is a human in a costume bear head and a tailored Italian suit.  He sounds suspiciously Mafioso as he hands out free tokens and accidentally refers to "Don Ted E. Bear" who is doing some "business" in the back -- inquiring informs us only that it is "the kind of 'business' with quote marks around it, so's you know not to ask."

The establishment is brightly lit and colorful but still somehow seedy.  We can use tokens to play Whack Da Ratz! -- we have to shoot 20 of the singing rats to win, without touching the ones that are keepin' their mouths shut.  This wasn't super easy to do without a real mouse on my laptop -- I got 19 on my first try, 17 on the second, and 21 on the third, winning a Ted E. Bear refrigerator magnet.

We can hear (with repeated clicks) the entire Ted E. Bear theme song, as performed by the DISTURBING BEAR HEADS mounted on the wall.  Jared Emerson-Thomas did a great job scoring this series, and this bouncy protest song -- by which I mean protested innocence -- is a lot of fun.  It's a shame we don't hear the whole thing in one go until we get to the credits.

Dealer Cuddly Bear hosts a card game.  We can play a game of Indian Poker against one Leonard Steakcharmer, a mustachioed bald-headed circus strongman type (conveniently reused from Telltale's "pilot"/test effort, Texas Hold 'Em.)  The game involves each player drawing a card and putting it on his forehead; we can see Leonard's card but not our own, and the highest card wins.  It appears, of course, that Mr. Steakcharmer has some way of discerning his own card -- he looks over Sam's shoulder before deciding how much to bet.  We'd like to win his ten million tokens, and he's generous with the terms, as he assumes he can't lose; this seems to be true for the moment.

The guard at the back room door indicates that only Toy Mafia members are allowed in, with a required password; Max asks about joining the Toy Mafia, but the membership contact is also behind the door.  We can guess at the password with unsuccessful but entertaining results, and we see other Toy Mafia bears come and go, whispering the password -- Bosco's listening device would probably be handy, and maybe Leonard's ten million tokens would be suitable to close the deal.

A one-armed bandit resembles an actual bandit, with mask and striped shirt; it's not hard to win, but we don't actually win anything.  Ted E. Bear's original meatball sandwich -- circa 1957 -- is on display in a glass case.

Aha!  Here we are -- a very shiny clown nose over the entrance reflects Leonard's face, and he can likely see it from across the room.  Can we find some way to obscure the reflection?  This is where we might want to remember that Sam and Max were playing a game at the beginning of the episode that involved throwing playing cards into a wastebasket.  Yep -- the Ace of Spades is still lying on the floor by Jimmy Two-Teeth's place.  Returning to the casino and putting it on the clown nose causes Leonard to think he's always got an Ace, and we can easily win his 10 million tokens by exploiting his overconfidence.

Bosco accepts the tokens and gives us his listening device -- it's a bug, literally.  That is, it's a cockroach with a military background who will repeat precisely what he hears.  Back at the casino, we can listen in and determine the passphrase, which is "Leave the gun. Take the cannolis."
Now we can enter the back room and meet Chuckles, the pit boss, who's had his eye on our heroes via the establishment's security cameras.  To get into the Toy Mafia, we have to complete two -- wait, three assignments, as Ted E. Bear's original meatball sandwich has just been stolen during our conversation.  We need to lean on an uncooperative businessperson, whack a witness in an upcoming criminal case, and "recover a small item that belongs to us."  Further consideration verifies that we have to lean on Bosco by putting toy bears on his sale table; whack Sybil, who the mob has under surveillance; and recover the meatball sandwich, of course.

So how do we sneak product into Bosco's Inconvenience Store?  Can we use the Ted E. Bear refrigerator magnet to fool the security system into thinking the bears are expected items?  Doesn't seem like it.  We can't sneak a Bear onto the table directly, but we can distract Bosco by telling him the Toy Mafia is outside.  He spends quite a bit of time looking through his binoculars, speculating about whether the subject of his interest is CIA or else CIA, or Illuminati or The Knights of Malta or Skull and Bones, based on what the person he's observing is reading in the newspaper. This is funny dialogue, and also buys us some time.

Bosco's B-TADS 2 security system works as promised if we just try to put a bear on the sale table.  But we can put the Ted E. Bear magnet on the camera, making it contraband and sending it out the door (this didn't work quite the way I expected, but was effective enough!)  Now we can put the purple "I Love You No Matter What" bear on sale, and a Toy Mafia rep stops by to give us the thumbs-up.  Bosco is quite distressed, though the animation isn't quite up to communicating the excellent angst of the voice acting; Telltale's engine and technique would improve over time.

So that's one down, but as Sam says, "Our journey to the dark side has just begun."  So let's see if we can track down the meatball sandwich by way of Jimmy Two-Teeth.  Whoops -- that idea panned out a little to well!  We walk in on Leonard, who is waving a gun around and trying to fence the hot sandwich.  Sam tries to be reasonable, but once in a while it's good to let the anarchic Max take the lead.  "Hey, is that a cap gun?" he asks, catching Leonard in another cheap cheatin' move, and then a little rough-and-ready Max action ends with Leonard tied up.  He swears he won't reveal the sandwich's location, but we know from previous interaction that his late mother means the world to him.  Sam and Max (and the player) team up to deliver some "Yo' Mama" jokes - Sam's options offer various setups, while Max's include appropriate punchlines -- making for a fun little dialogue-matching puzzle to break Leonard's resolve.  Not all of the lines are jokes per se, some are rather complimentary or at least sentimental, and soon we learn that the sandwich was stashed in the one-armed bandit, and Leonard stole the arm, which we now reclaim.  In short order the arm is restored, a token inserted, and the stolen sandwich is back in the Toy Mafia's hands.  We've left Leonard tied up in the office, of course.

Now we're left with the unpleasant task of rubbing out Sybil.  We don't really want to kill her, so we'll probably have to fake it somehow.  We have Leonard's cap gun now, and we noticed the surveillance webcam in Sybil's office earlier -- this may be handy, but we can't openly enlist Sybil's cooperation in staging her demise.  We can, however, steal her empty coffee cup right off the desk, and return it to her confused gratitude.  She seems distracted and nervous... apparently she's already been told that the Toy Mafia is going to try to kill her before she testifies in a big trial, and of course she would never suspect her dog and bunny friends.  Sam asks, "Have you considered faking your own death?", but she's too honest for that, so we will have to arrange it ourselves.  Maybe we can drug her coffee -- after we get her some coffee -- and use the cap gun, arranging it to look like we're shooting her as she passes out?  Sam refuses to obtain any coffee from Bosco's -- "We don't ACTUALLY want to kill Sybil." -- but we can fill the cup with ketchup from the condiment dispenser, which may work better for our purposes.  We can't mix in any anti-depressants from the gumball machine outside, either, so let's abandon the drug angle and see what we can do with the cup of ketchup.  We put the cup on her desk, use the cap gun on her, and -- it looks like we missed her, she doesn't fall for it.  But we can use Sam's real gun on the ketchup-filled cup, splashing her with red goo and stunning her "dead", just before Max eats the camera and cuts off the feed to the Toy Mafia before she wakes up and gives the ruse away.

Now our boys are in -- but after Ted E. Bear doffs his bear head and reveals himself as the mole, our heroes don't quite realize he's switched sides before he figures out they are freelance police.  A chase ensues (I was beginning to think we were never going to tear carelessly through the streets in the DeSoto in this episode) and the mobsters are driving a vehicle with bulletproof tires. 

We can shoot down a hanging sign to knock them out of commission, and then return to the casino to take down the Don.  He's out of the office, apparently, but Sam notes that there's always something interesting behind a door marked, "Do Not Enter Under Pain of Death."  Before entering, we can do a little detective work -- there's a map marked with national truck routes, chalkboards with Smuggling, Racketeering and Extortion accounting, and a mini-bar in the office.

Behind the door, we discover an assembly line making Hypno-Bears, and Harry Moleman is (in his debut appearance, looking much larger than we know him to be later on) running the show.  He tries but fails to hypnotize Sam and Max -- Sam is still protected by the hypno-shield in his hat and Max's brain is -- well -- but they opt to play along.  The mole orders Sam to shoot Max, but fortunately we have the cap gun.  Max goes through a lengthy death soliloquy that manages to reference the Dukes of Hazzard, Sting, and Charlie's Angels among other pop-culture references, and then puts himself through the machine's vacuum system before popping out at the other end.  He gets stuck momentarily, pointing out that the system has a pressure gauge, so maybe we can jam it and blow the whole thing up somehow.

We can see teddy bear voice gizmos in a bin, being assembled, but we can't take one.  We can grab a finished bear from the line, however -- "Give all your money to Ted E. Bear", it intones.  This isn't a very useful command to give to the Mole, but this seems like a good idea to play with.  We can use the bug to listen to and record Harry, but would have to get him to say something more useful -- he's just reading the newspaper comic strips, and his opinions about Mary Worth and Garfield aren't going to help us.  But the One-Armed Bandit is also in the room for maintenance -- someone noticed that it actually coughed up a prize when we reclaimed the meatball sandwich -- and his "You're on fire!" gizmo might be of use.  We drop it in the bin, a semi-rejected bear drops off the line, and we convince Don Ted E. Bear that's he's aflame.  This sends him running for the (fake, OSHA-violating) fire extinguisher on the wall, we pull the vacuum lever, and Harry Moleman is sucked into the machinery a few minutes before he clogs the pressure system and the factory blows up.

Sam and Max run for their lives, dodge the debris and head off for a well-deserved celebratory dinner, as Chuckles the bear removes his head to reveal himself as a secret government agent.  With the factory destroyed, it's apparently time for Plan B... which we will learn more about in episode 104.

I really like this series -- Telltale Games' success with this game did much to revive the adventure genre on a commercial basis, and the Sam & Max series consistently balances sharp humor and entertaining puzzle design.  These aren't difficult games in the brain-busting manner of the old days, but there are still plenty of fun red herrings and rewarding "Aha!" moments.  Good stuff, and we'll get to Episode 104 at some point.

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