There wasn't anything like Grim Fandango when it first came out in 1998. Nearly two decades later, there's still nothing that comes close.
The adventure game tells the story of Manny, a salesman for the Department of Death who helps lost souls find better travel packages to the land of the dead. It's an epic and hilarious story that spans years, combining elements from Mexican folklore and film noir to create a truly unique and wonderful world that you just want to walk around in and explore. Half the fun in the game comes from just talking to other characters.
Grim was also arguably the last great adventure game to come out of Lucasarts, the studio that brought us classics like Monkey Island and Sam & Max, and it was the first time the studio took advantage of 3D graphics for the genre. But it also came out at a bad time: in the same year it launched, it was overshadowed by some of the defining games of the time, including Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. An amazing game was rendered an oft-forgotten cult classic.
But thanks to a lovingly remastered version of the game, modern players can finally discover what they've been missing all these years.
Grim Fandango Remastered is exactly the same game that you remember from 1998. The story and gameplay remain unchanged, so it's still a game primarily about chatting with other characters and using items in increasingly obscure ways to solve puzzles. As in the original, Manny starts out as a lowly salesman, but over the course of the game he’ll uncover dark secrets, open up a casino, and chase the girl of his dreams. It can seem a bit quaint by modern standards, but the witty writing and wonderful art direction feel timeless, and there are some important changes that make this version more palatable in 2015.
For one thing, the graphics have been updated with new higher resolution textures, so even though Grim Remastered looks old at times, it's still the best-looking version of the game ever released (you can also press a button to swap back and forth between the old and new graphics at any time to see the difference). The wonderful score has also been re-recorded with a live orchestra, and the controls have thankfully been reworked so that they feel much more intuitive. It's no longer frustrating just walking around a busy room.
These are all fairly standard updates when it comes to remastering old games, but far and away the best new feature is the absolutely incredible director's commentary. Any time you come close to an object of interest, you can tap a button to hear director Tim Schafer and many of the artists, programmers, and designers who worked on the game telling stories about exactly how it was made.
Director's commentary doesn’t work for every game — it's hard to listen to behind-the-scenes stories if you're worried about being shot in the face by a bad guy — but the leisurely pace of Grim makes it a perfect fit. It doesn't hurt that Schafer is always hilarious, and that there are so many good stories about the game that you've probably never heard before. There are nerdy bits about the trickery that was involved in getting the lighting to work in early 3D games, but also fascinating tales about how one of the voice actors thought Grim Fandango was actually a codename for Star Wars: Episode 1. While most of the other changes are designed to make the game more accessible for new players, the commentary makes this an absolute must-play for those who fell in love with the game way back in 1998. Finally you'll learn just why those fiery demon beavers in the forest are actually on fire.
Since LucasArts doesn’t actually make games any more, the remaster was handled by Double Fine, the Tim Schafer-led studio behind games like Psychonauts and last year’s Kickstarted adventure Broken Age. The amazing orchestral soundtrack, meanwhile, was performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (the same group behind Broken Age’s wonderful tunes). Just like the original, the game is available on PC (for Windows, Mac, and Linux), but it’s also making its way to consoles, with a version for the PlayStation 4 and PS Vita.
Re-releases of video games tend to come in two types. There are the straight ports, which let you replay classics like Earthbound or Vib-Ribbon exactly as they were, only on new hardware. And then there are the more elaborate remakes, such as last year's Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which aimed to bring the early games in the series up to modern standards. Grim Fandango Remastered feels like a perfect mixture of the two. It's essentially the exact same game that came out 17 years ago, but with just enough changed so that it doesn’t feel like a creaky old relic that's no fun to play today.
Really, the only other addition I wish was included is some sort of optional hint system. Adventure games from the 1990s are notorious for puzzles that are obtuse and often nonsensical, forcing you to resort to trial-and-error to figure out how to proceed. Grim is better than most, but there are still moments where you'll find yourself wondering how to combine a balloon animal and a loaf of bread in order to scare away some skeleton birds. There are plenty of helpful walkthroughs on the internet, but having the feature built into the game would’ve been a welcome change.
Earlier this month saw this re-release of another genre-defining classic, when Capcom launched an updated version of the original Resident Evil for Xbox One and PS4. And the contrast between it and Grim are startling. Stalking my way through the halls of the familiar Resident Evil mansion was incredibly distracting, thanks to the contrast between the high-resolution characters and the grainy, dated looking environments. The controls still felt clunky, and navigating menus was a chore. And even though the game was updated for widescreen displays, most of the menus were still in a 4x3 aspect ratio. It felt hacked together. (And it very likely was — the re-released Resident Evil is actually a remake of a remake, an updated version of a 2002 re-release that first launched on the Gamecube.)
On the other hand, Grim Fandango Remastered felt like it was put together by people who adored the original, people who fussed over the smallest details and really understood what made this game so great. When developer Double Fine's Greg Rice sent me a copy of the game to check out, he said "I hope you enjoy it as much as 15-year-old me did." I love the original Grim Fandango. This new version just makes me love it even more.
Grim Fandango Remastered is available today on Windows, Mac, Linux, PS4, and Vita. You can grab it right here.