I’m one of those people who has actually been waiting years for this game to come out. Grim Fandango is a legend among gamers; the quintessential, cult-classic adventure title that’s featured in countless top game lists. The very announcement of Grim Fandango Remastered sent shivers down my gamer spine; I’d finally get to take part in the experience that shaped a genre. Tim Schafer and the team at Double Fine did plenty of difficult work to adapt and upscale the files that created this came from so long ago, and in so many ways I feel like I now understand why this game is revered.
But Grim Fandango is also a great example of how a remaster of a great game can still end up slightly disappointing. Is Grim Fandango Remastered the Holy Grail of modern adventure games? No, but it’s still a great title with tons to experience and enjoy.
Today’s games need to respect a player’s time while offering a compelling, challenging gameplay experience, and that’s certainly not an easy task. But Grim Fandango, like Myst, Riven, and other adventure games of the 90s, uses puzzles with inane solutions that aren’t logical even in the gameplay world. Without either a walkthrough or a seriously well-crafted hint system, progress in Grim Fandango is almost assuredly a stop-and-start affair.
The conflict that rises with Grim Fandango Remastered might best be displayed through a special episode of the Popzara Podcast; my colleagues Grayson, Cory, and I all enjoyed the game just fine, but that doesn’t stop us from complaining a bit after playing through it.
This might be why playing on the PS4 was particularly frustrating; the hint system from the original PC version, which made the migration over to the PC Remastered version, isn’t included on PS4. But even the PC’s hint system is confounding, so if you’re going to take this game on, be ready to consult a walkthrough more than once…this isn’t even a case of a game being “old-school hard;” it’s just old-school confounding. And really, that’s OK, because the best parts of Grim Fandango have nothing to do with its gameplay.
In so many ways, Grim Fandango was ahead of its time. The team at LucasArts created a story based in minority culture and marketed it to the mainstream, combining the background and style of the Mexican Day of the Dead with an everyman story. You play as Manny Calavera, a dead-end salesman who sells travel tickets to recently deceased souls so they can reach their final resting place, the 9th Underworld, faster and more comfortably. But when Manny screws up the sale for a saintly woman named Meche, she decides to walk through the world of the dead to reach her goal, and Manny tries to track her down to right his wrong and earn his own passage out of Limbo.
It’s a story of life, even though it’s grounded by/in death, a story about following goals and redemption and all the strange things that happen to us on the way to our destination. Stellar dialogue and voice acting reinforce those aspects, with tons of laugh out loud sarcasm and deep, zany characters that you can’t help but love, hate, or some other strong feeling. Manny’s slick, slimy salesman-like character is one you can’t help but adore and loathe simultaneously, and the voice work by actor Tony Piana is top-notch. There’s an attention to atmosphere that Grim Fandango gets more right than so many other games, a focus that makes you feel completely immersed in the realm of the dead.
Even by modern standards, the world of Grim Fandango is gorgeous. Large, exotic, and mystifying, everything feels at once welcoming and off-putting; it’s a world you could become comfortable in, but know that you really shouldn’t be. The monsters are simultaneously cute and horrific, and cities are built up in styles that call back to the 1920s and 1930s. Remastering the game smoothed many of the polygon edges, improved lighting and textures, but even when looking at the game in its “original” mode there’s plenty to visually admire.
There’s a sense of aimlessness that comes with the size and lack of guidance in Grim Fandango; there are tons of dialog options that, though they’re unnecessary to the plot, make spaces like Rubacava feel like real, breathing cities. Sometimes it’s almost easy to forget the plot goal and just wander around, taking in the air and the design of a classic. And there’s also director’s commentary included in the Remastered version to give backstory and perspective to the development cycle, adding an extra layer to the historical feeling.
Grim Fandango Remastered isn’t perfect, but an older game that has aged with dignity. It’s very much a product of its era, and some of those scars and wrinkles aren’t going to go away, such as the lack of a quality hint system and the absurdity that comes with solving certain puzzles; I wish that Double Fine would have thought more about how to make the game palatable to modern audiences. But Grim Fandango remains a classic, one that still offers tons of humor, wonder, and depth to those willing to take the time to sit with it and listen for a while.