I have a confession to make: I love the Weekly World News. If you don’t remember the Weekly World News, it was a tabloid magazine that you could pick up in grocery stores. It told stories about characters like Bat Boy, merfolk, cryptids, and more. It’s no longer in print, though there is an online version still around. The stories are ridiculous, and hilarious, and I can’t get enough.
It’s an obsession that goes back years. As a kid, I was fascinated by things like the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, and other paranormal mysteries. I’m not a believer today, but darn if I didn’t want to believe as a kid. Lucky for me, I grew up in an age when folks like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were creating films about extraterrestrials, and cursed, arcane treasures. In the world of video games, Lucasfilm Games gave us Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders.
Zak McKracken was an adventure game designed by David Fox, Matthew Alan Kane, David Spangler, and Ron Gilbert and originally released on the Commodore 64. The game featured you as the titular Zak McKracken, a tabloid journalist (though at certain points you would control other characters). You were working to stop a group of aliens known as the Caponians (who had infiltrated The Phone Company) from completing their nefarious plan to reduce the human IQ to single digits. To defeat the Caponians, you had to rebuild a machine left behind by another race of aliens: the Sklorians. The pieces of the machine were scattered, forcing you to travel to locations ranging from the ancient pyramids to the supposed face on Mars.
Like Maniac Mansion before it, and Secret of Monkey Island after, the game allowed you a large amount of freedom when it came to exploring. However, the process cost money. You had to come up with the cash to buy your plane tickets to the various locations around the globe. This lead to a unique anti-piracy feature of the game. When McKracken flew to certain locations, he had to enter “exit visa codes.” The codes were included on a sheet of paper with the game. Enter the wrong codes and you end up in jail, where the prison guard lectured you about the evils of pirating software.
Like other Lucas games from the era, you interacted the world around you by pointing and clicking command options on the bottom of the screen. You also had to pick up random items which would inevitably be the solution to future puzzles. The way you solved the puzzles also mattered. If you behaved in a less than ethical way, it could change future interactions. For instance, a guru that you interacted with might tell you that you had built up bad karma and needed to burn it off before he would help you.
As an added twist, when you controlled characters on Mars, you had to worry about their oxygen level. Let it get too low, and the character would suffocate. Without all the characters, you were up a creek. At another point in the game, you found yourself imprisoned near the stupidity machine. The longer you were exposed to the machine, the less intelligent you got, slowly losing your command buttons at the bottom of the screen.
The game was full of goofy humor, adventure, and a healthy dose of weirdness, the perfect combination for weird kids (and the weird adults they would become) the world over.