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History Lesson: the treasured past of LucasArts point and clicks

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 16th Feb 2014 at 10:00 AM UTC

When it was released in 2009, Wii game Indiana Jones And The Staff Of Kings received a Metacritic score of 55 per cent.

We'd say 95 per cent of that score is accounted for by Fate Of Atlantis, the 1992 point 'n' clicker Indy can excavate as an unlockable. So good is the older game that if you removed the other 5 per cent, you'd have a game worth 90 per cent.

Yeah, we know the numbers don't add up. But then we're talking about the brainchild of the people who gave us insult sword-fighting, the world's biggest ball of twine and time-travelling tentacles. Sense was nonsense in the golden age of the point 'n' clicker.

A long time ago in a galaxy roughly 5,363 miles away (San Francisco, to be precise), LucasArts was a very different company to the Star Wars factory we know now. It had a very different name, too: Lucasfilm Games until 1990, when it merged with Industrial Light And Magic and Skywalker Sound to become LucasArts.

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In the years before its sad demise it struggled to unsnarl itself from its bearded overlord's sci-fi vision, but in the mid '80s it was as innovative as it comes.

Founded in 1982, the early years were marked by fighty, warry Atari and Commodore 64 action titles, defined by their use of funky fractal visuals (mathematics-driven wobble-vision to the layman).

During this time a young chap called Ron Gilbert COMBINED 'previous Commodore 64 experience' WITH 'LucasArts job opening' and began porting the company's Atari titles to the C64. Not the most illustrious of beginnings for the future father of Monkey Island, but enough to get him the project leader gig on Maniac Mansion.

For our point 'n' click purposes this saw a turning point for LucasArts. Gilbert created a scripting language to enable easier cross-format programming, known as the Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion (SCUMM).

In basic terms SCUMM allowed LucasArts to create games without writing actual game code: it was a 'one size fits all' language that put the storytellers ahead of the coders.

Maniac Mansion was not only proof of concept but set the standard design for future point 'n' clickers: large on-screen inventories, a sheet of verbs that determined your actions and, vitally, liberal helpings of kooky humour. Maniac Mansion made you microwave a hamster, and that was a saner LucasArts moment.

From 1987 a new point 'n' clicker arrived each year, sometimes two. Don't think Gilbert was churning out obscure item combination after obscure item combination alone: LucasArts' San Francisco HQ was more like a busy film studio, with writers, directors and designers cooking up oddball adventures.

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A few were from the film industry. Hal Barwood co-wrote Close Encounters Of The Third Kind before working on Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure and Fate Of Atlantis. Even Steven Spielberg got involved: no surprise with his mate George at the helm.

Way before championing the casual cause with Boom Blox he was co-creating the as-hardcore-as-they-come sci-fi epic The Dig, one of the later (and duffer) games from the studio. And, allegedly, he'd personally call game designers when he got stuck on their games.

There's a fondness throughout the catalogue for the catalogue. Monkey Island pokes fun at obscure adventure Loom. Indiana Jones props cameo all over the place. Monkey Island hero Guybrush Threepwood's ability to hold his breath for ten minutes is more talked about outside Monkey Island than in it. As a gamer relishing the gags one by one, you couldn't help but feel part of a LucasArts club.

If adoration could be converted into cash LucasArts would still be making these games today, but 1995 saw commercial interest drying up. Despite the best intentions of Monkey Islands 3 and 4 and Tim Schafer's magnificent Grim Fandango, the point 'n' click was dead 'n' buried. At least for LucasArts.

The brilliant minds behind the games are still working - Schafer and Gilbert still bring the yuks and Telltale is partly comprised of ex-LucasArts talent (hence its continutation of LucasArts' Sam & Max series and its episodic Tales Of Monkey Island games). The spirit lives on.

Sadly, LucasArts ceased game development on April 3, 2013 when new owners Disney decided to pull the plug and let go most of its staff. It still exists, but purely as a licensing division with a skeleton staff of less than ten employees.

Still, there's always Fate Of Atlantis. You know, the one with the bonus Wii game.


Stop, Lucas, Listen

It says a lot about Ron Gilbert's SCUMM engine that not only was almost every game released on it excellent, but each also had their own unique look, feel and (crucially) sense of humour.

Here's just a selection of the more notable LucasArts point and click adventures that used the engine.

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