Sam and Max Episode 101: Culture Shock - Brutal Backlog

September 10, 2018

Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.

I have many fond memories of Sam and Max Hit The Road. There were bizarre locations, Max’s hyper-violent tendencies which he never followed through on, Sam’s laissez-faire private detective, and a bloke singing about his childhood in Brighton. I don’t really recall any of the puzzles or even the general story, but that’s to be expected from a game released a quarter of a century ago. What I do remember is enjoying it, which is why I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to dig up 2006’s episodic follow-up: Sam and Max Save The World. Split over six chapters, it lends itself perfectly to the busy schedule of gamers fast approaching silly season, so I thought I’d dive into the first chapter entitled Culture Shock and see if a similar set of giggles could still be found under the comparatively “new” coat of paint.

Fair question.

Five Minutes In

Despite this being a Telltale game and not from LucasArts, it feels like the studio remained faithful to the source. The canine-lagomorph duo exchange banter around their office like they’ve never been away, while the rat they share a wall with has somehow managed to hide their telephone and held it to ransom in exchange for Swiss cheese. The familiar interface has me scanning the room for clickable objects, almost all of which evoke a description from Sam and an off-the-wall follow-up from the manic Max. There’s a cupboard full of normal cheese, so the most obvious solution to creating Swiss is to pump it full of holes from Sam’s formidable gun. It’s a gentle introduction to the lateral thinking I suspect will be required going forward, in comparison to more grounded point-and-clicks of recent times.

The Soda Poppers even have their own song.

Thirty Minutes In

So far the puzzles haven’t been as tough as the ones in the original game, but then my younger mind probably wouldn’t have grasped time-based tasks quite as quickly — such as getting Max to flush a toilet to make a bloke with a weak bladder immediately leave his belongings for me to tamper with. Dialogue is there to be enjoyed rather than pored over for clues, although the game does leave specific dialogue options behind to revisit if you find yourself going around in circles. I’m enjoying the 3D aesthetic, even if it doesn’t have quite the same charm as something from the LucasArts stable.

One Hour In

The story concerns a failed 70s TV star called Brady Culture who is hypnotising former rival child stars The Soda Poppers into delivering copies of his video to various outlets. As crimes go, it’s as out there as I would have expected from a Sam and Max game. Culture’s motivation is loose to say the least, and The Soda Poppers are annoying man-children who I have no sympathy for whatsoever, but then neither do our heroes so I’m totally on board. They each have their own distinctive personality and “skill” — one is super fast, one has massive eyes, and one loves to graffiti stuff — and their story meshes nicely with the puzzles and Max’s enthusiasm for knocking them out.

Psychoanalysis is free.

Though there are only a few locations to visit, the back-and-forth between them feels pertinent to the story. There’s a store owner who can knock up inventions and a psychoanalyst whose dubious certifications are helpful in getting the duo into otherwise off-limits areas, and the voice acting for the entire cast is excellent with superb supporting audio from Jared Emerson-Johnson’s score.

The interface also feels clean and easy to use; simply clicking an item and then its target has the desired effect. If I get stuck, Max is always on hand to prompt me with our next move.

Two Hours In

This first chapter is over and it has been a nostalgic delight. Some of the puzzles initially felt a little confusing in their design — especially those in the dream sequence — but looking back at them they do make sense in the context of the story. The biggest issue I had was having to painstakingly scour every room for clickable items, since I missed an important one in Sam and Max’s office early on. More recent entries in this genre have a hotspot button which highlights the important things to investigate at any location and I have clearly been spoiled by this. As such, it’s probably a nice change to have to do a bit of work in hunting clues… even if I didn’t really think so at the time. Story-wise it petered out a little, not least because Brady Culture wasn’t really much of a villain and his endgame exposition felt forced. Other than this misstep, it was a low-stakes, amusing romp.

There are even a couple of driving sections with puzzles.

Final Verdict

The look of the game may be a far cry from the 2D flatness of its LucasArts debut, but Telltale’s first stab at a Sam and Max game delivered pretty much everything I was hoping for. The jokes were not stomach-bustingly funny, but Sam’s exclamations remain as chuckletastic as ever and if future cases in this season are as bizarre and fun as this one, then I’ll be more than happy to jump into the Desoto again.

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Worth playing? YES - it's still enjoyable today.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.