Rebirth of the Dead
Some called the late ‘90s the Golden Age of computer games, but I’ve found that the most important factor for determining a Golden Age is just your year of birth. All the same, I took it upon myself to revisit many of these cult-followed paragons of the age of hair gel. What I’ve found is this: they’re classics for a reason, but they’re almost unbearable to play at first. Not unlike Shakespeare and Melville, they’re entirely impenetrable to those accustomed to something a little more fast paced and a little less esoteric. But search around, give it a chance, and you’ll find there’s pure gold waiting to be translated.
Grim Fandango is no exception, but I could never get my hands on a playable build—until now. I went in with some trepidation; many called Grim Fandango the very best of bizarrely imaginative developer Tim Schafer, and one of his last and most successful games to come from his cooperation with the now deceased videogame branch of LucasArts.
Grim Fandango is set in a bizarre and incredible Land of the Dead, which blends Art Deco with Aztec, Dia de Los Muertos with film noir, and starts out in the metropolis of El Marrow, the city where skyscrapers mix the Chrysler Building with Chichen Itza. Skeletal inhabitants with noticeably Spanish names run through thick bureaucracies shuttling souls from one world to the next, and protagonist Manny Calavera is a travel agent/reaper (selling packages to the afterlife) down on his luck.
Trying to get ahead in the corporate world sends Manny headfirst into a four year journey through the Land of the Dead, where he will battle demons, gangsters, the police, the common man, really just about everyone. Armed only with his wits, his scythe, and a speed-crazed Elemental, Manny meets a variety of strange and humorous characters.
It’s this bizarre bricolage of aesthetics, expansive world, interesting characters, and sharp dialogue that make Grim Fandango memorable, and it is without a doubt the highlight of the whole game. To date, it is the only game in which I have threatened children with a bonesaw, accidentally started a communist revolution, fixed a roulette game, and blackmailed a man for legal services. It’s unique setting and strong voice acting complement the writing nicely, and give an overall excellent experience.
Of course, there is the matter of the gameplay. Grim Fandango is an adventure game, of the age where ridiculous “adventure-logic” puzzles were anything but intuitive, and hints simply did not exist. I lasted about 55% of the way through before I caved, and pulled up a walkthrough. I was glad I did. Between open fields, loads of objects to fiddle with, and near-unbearably slow pacing, Grim Fandango is as good a proof as any that attention spans seem to be shrinking over time.
You may want to open up a walkthrough in another window, or at least bring over a friend who’s already beaten it themselves, and your patience will be sorely tested. Despite all that, Grim Fandango is a relic to be appreciated and tried again. Best enjoyed without thinking too much about its hype and legacy, Grim Fandango still holds the extraordinary visual design and sharp writing that made it great in the first place. Just remember to save: even remastered, it’s buggy.