Remembering the Classics: Grim Fandango

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When it comes to the ever expanding realm of entertainment, history has consistently proven the power of a devout fanbase. It goes without saying that no publisher or creator will put something on the market without the likelihood of making a profit. That’s a waste of time on all counts. The same can be said about when something comes out and is considered a commercial failure. Any thoughts of franchise potential is dashed the moment money doesn’t come in. Fairly often a lack of profit and poor quality goes together. But this isn’t always the case, as I discussed recently with Suikoden II‘s release on the PlayStation Network. That game suffered from poor sales, but critical reception kept it alive and now it’s a top seller online. The industry is filled with examples like this.

Earlier this week, we got another welcomed addition to the list of rebirths. The critically acclaimed and award winning Grim Fandango received a full remastering on Sony’s current systems, the PC, and Mac. When this game first came to the PC in 1998, critics fell in love with it. It won and was nominated for several game of the year awards. Yet circumstances outside of LucasArts’ hands caused Grim Fandango to become a commercial failure. It was quickly brushed away and was only remembered with fondness by a select number. However, as time went on, those numbers expanded and the voices grew louder. The people wanted Grim Fandango back. On January 27th, they got their wish in a remastered version produced by Double Fine Studios.Grim_Fandango_artwork

When Grim Fandango first came out a little over sixteen years ago, it was a remnant of the graphic adventure, a dying genre The story followed Manuel “Manny” Calavera, an underworld travel agent who helps departed souls reach their final destinations. His main focus is a woman named Mercedes “Meche” Colomar, and throughout the game you play as Manny to guide them both to the Ninth Underworld. Along the way you solve a wide array of puzzles, and meet a variety of characters and visit colorful locations, all with heavy Mexican, Spanish, and Aztec influence. The story plays out as a visual novel as well, with your actions progressing this in-depth story forward to its emotional conclusion.

There are a lot of reasons why critics fell in love with this game, but universal praise was always focused on its artistic design. The graphics alone were very impressive for the time. What absolutely hooked people though were the influences I mentioned prior. Since the game is directly focused on death itself, each undead character is represented as a calaca figure. Calacas are best known as the skeletal figures people see on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, so right off the bat you can tell where the designers went with Grim Fandango. Then to give the game some extra panache, it adopted a film noir style on top of the Latin American influences. You had your heavy shadows, subdued lighting, dangerous criminals, and so forth. Several legendary films, including The Maltese Falcon, were recognized as inspirations for the game.

Clearly, Grim Fandango had enough going for it to be a success. It absolutely would have done much better on the market had it come out a few years earlier. A creatively beautiful game from an already very successful LucasArts, who had previously released other popular adventure games? You can’t fault people for believing this was a surefire commercial hit. But when Grim Fandango actually came out in ‘98, the public had moved on from these dialogue and point-and-click focused games to first-person shooters and RPGs. They flocked to where action took precedence over story, though the best games strike gold by featuring both in equal measure. The Final Fantasy series is one such example and their first mainstream hit, Final Fantasy VII, had already come out one year prior. Audiences were ready to explore these new domains and leave behind the well-worn adventure genre. So Grim Fandango ultimately missed the mark, a potential star that simply couldn’t shine bright enough for everyone to take notice.GrimFandangoRemastered001

I’m one such person who completely disregarded Grim Fandango at the offset. The game was in plenty of publications so I was definitely aware of it, but the already expansive world of video gaming had enraptured me. I craved action and excitement. There was no way I was going to sit down and play through a game that simply looked like reading with puzzles. Clearly the concept of a well-written and engrossing story wasn’t enough of a standalone quality for me. Without a doubt this changed as I grew older and got more into  reading for pleasure and not being forced to in school. I now consider The Walking Dead one of my favorites and that is unquestionably a character driven graphic adventure. I definitely believe that if I were to give Grim Fandango a legitimate shot now, I’d love it.

Fans are easily the biggest influences when it comes to entertainment. Whether or not a company does something, regardless of their size, is entirely determinant on if people out there are willing to consume. Ensuring that you have enough of an audience is a surefire way to mitigate sales risk, though obviously the product still has to deliver. Far too often a game under-performs critically and the sales numbers become abysmal for that reason alone. Yet it’s not entirely uncommon for an acclaimed game to go unnoticed commercially. Sometimes societal circumstances don’t work in a company’s favor. That’s why Grim Fandango failed to make a monetary impact many years ago. However, now that adventure games are back on the rise, Grim Fandango has an excellent chance to finally reach a wider audience with a more improved version.

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Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.
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