The adventure makers at LucasArts had a banner 1993. One of the two games they released that year, Day of the Tentacle, was the veritable Platonic ideal of a cartoon-comedy graphic adventure; the other, Sam and Max Hit the Road, was merely very, very good.
Following a quiet 1994 on the adventure front, LucasArts came roaring back in the spring of 1995 with Full Throttle, a game that seemed to have everything going for it: it was helmed by Tim Schafer, one of the two lead designers from Day of the Tentacle, and boasted many familiar names on the art and sound front as well. Yet it wasn’t just a retread of what had come before. This interactive biker movie had a personality very much its own. Many soon added it to the ranks of LucasArts’s most hallowed classics.
Sadly, though, I’m not one of these people…
It’s easy — perhaps a bit too easy — to read LucasArts’s first post-DOOM adventure game as a sign of the changes that id Software’s shareware shooter wrought on the industry after its debut in December of 1993. Action and attitude were increasingly in, complexity and cerebration more and more out. One can sense throughout Full Throttle its makers’ restlessness with the traditional adventure form — their impatience with convoluted puzzles, bulging inventories, and all of the other adventure staples. They just want to have some loud, brash fun. What other approach could they possibly bring to a game about outlaw motorcycle gangs?
The new attitude is initially bracing. Consider: after a rollicking credits sequence that plays out behind over-driven, grungy rock and roll, you gain control of your biker avatar outside a locked bar. Your first significant task is to get inside the bar. Experimenting with the controls, you discover that you have just three verb icons at your disposal: a skull (which encompasses eyes for seeing and a mouth for talking), a raised fist, and a leather boot. Nevertheless, the overly adventure-indoctrinated among you may well spend quite some time trying to be clever before you realize that the solution to this first “puzzle” is simply to kick the door in. Full Throttle is a balm for anyone who’s ever seethed with frustration at being told by an adventure game that “violence isn’t the answer to this one.” In this game, violence — flagrant, simple-minded, completely non-proportional violence — very often is the answer.
But let’s review the full premise of the game before we go further. Full Throttle takes place in the deserts of the American Southwest during a vaguely dystopian future — albeit not, Tim Schafer has always been at pains to insist, a post-apocalyptic one. You play Ben, a stoic tough guy of few words in the Clint Eastwood mold, the leader of a biker gang who call themselves the Polecats. “The reason bikers leaped out at me is that they have a whole world associated with them,” said Schafer in a contemporary interview, “but it’s not a commonplace environment. It’s a fantastic, bizarre, wild, larger-than-life environment.” And indeed, everything and everyone in this game are nothing if not larger than life.
The plot hinges on Corley Motors, the last manufacturer of real motorcycles in the country — for the moment, anyway: a scheming vice president named Adrian Ripburger is plotting to seize control of the company from old Malcolm Corley and start making minivans instead. When the Polecats get drawn into Ripburger’s web, Ben has to find a way to stop him in order to save his gang, his favorite model of motorcycle, and the free-wheeling lifestyle he loves. The story plays out as a series of boisterous set-pieces, a (somewhat) interactive Mad Max mixed with liberal lashings of The Wild One. Although I’m the farthest thing from a member of the cult of Harley Davidson — I’m one of those tree huggers who wonders why it’s even legal to noise-pollute like some of those things do — I can recognize and enjoy a well-done pastiche when I see one, and Full Throttle definitely qualifies.
Certainly none of this game’s faults are failures of presentation. As one might expect of the gaming subsidiary of Lucasfilm, LucasArt’s audiovisual people were among the best in the industry. They demonstrated repeatedly that the label “cartoon-comedy graphic adventure” could encompass a broader spectrum of aesthetics than one might first assume. While Day of the Tentacle was inspired by the classic Looney Tunes shorts, and Sam and Max Hit the Road by the underground comic books of the 1980s, Full Throttle‘s inspirations were the post-Watchmen world of graphic novels and trendy television: the game’s hyperactive jump cuts, oblique camera angles, and muddy color palette were all the rage on the MTV of Generation Grunge.
In fact, Schafer tried to convince Soundgarden, one of the biggest rock bands of the time, to let him use their music for the soundtrack — only to be rejected when their record company realized that “we weren’t going to give them any money” for the privilege, as he wryly puts it. Instead he recruited a San Francisco band known as the Gone Jackals, who were capable of a reasonable facsimile of Soundgarden’s style, to write and perform several original songs for the game. Bone to Pick, their 1995 album which included the Full Throttle tracks, would sell several hundred thousand copies in its own right on the back of the game’s success. All of this marked a significant moment in the mainstreaming of games, a demonstration that they were no longer siloed off in their own nerdy pop-culture ghetto but were becoming a part of the broader media landscape. The days when big pop-music acts would lobby ferociously to have their work selected for a big game’s in-world radio station were not that far away.
Full Throttle‘s writing too has all the energy and personality one could ask for. If the humor is a bit broad and obvious, that’s only appropriate; Biker Ben is not exactly the subtle type. The voice acting and audio production in general are superb, as was the norm for LucasArts thanks to their connections to Hollywood and Skywalker Sound. Particular props must go to a little-known character actor named Roy Conrad, who delivers Ben’s lines in a perfect gravelly deadpan, and to Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, who, twelve years removed from his last gig as Luke Skywalker, was enjoying a modest career renaissance in cartoons and an ever-increasing number of videogames. He shows why he was so in-demand as a voice actor here, tearing into the role of the villain Ripburger with a relish that belies his oft-wooden performances as an actor in front of cameras.
But for all its considerable strengths, Full Throttle pales in comparison to the LucasArts games that came immediately before it. It serves as a demonstration that presentation can only get you so far in a game — that a game is meant to be played, not watched. And alas, actually playing Full Throttle is too often not much fun at all.
The heart of Full Throttle‘s problem is a mismatch between the type of game it wants to be and the type of game its technology allows it to be. To be sure, LucasArts tried mightily to adapt said technology to Tim Schafer’s rambunctious rock-and-roll vision. They grafted onto SCUMM (“Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion“), their usual adventure-game engine, a second, action-oriented engine called INSANE (“INteractive Streaming ANimation Engine”), which had been developed for 1993’s Star Wars: Rebel Assault, a 3D vehicular rail shooter. This allowed them to interrupt the staid walking-around-talking-and-solving-puzzles parts of Full Throttle with blasts of pure action. “We didn’t think it would fly if we told players they were a bad-ass biker,” says LucasArts animator Larry Ahern, “and then made them sit back and watch every time Ben did a cool motorcycle stunt, and then gave them back the cursor when it was time for him to run errands. With Full Throttle, I think the combination [of action and traditional adventure elements] made a lot of sense, but I think the implementation just didn’t live up to the idea.”
It most definitely did not: the action mini-games range from tedious to excruciating. Schafer elected to partially reverse LucasArts’s longstanding “no deaths and no dead ends” policy, sacrosanct since 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, by allowing the former if not the latter in Full Throttle. This decision was perhaps defensible in light of the experience he was hoping to create, but boy, can it get exhausting in practice. The second-to-worst mini-game is an interminable sequence inspired by the 1991 console hit Road Rash, in which you’re riding on your motorcycle trying to take out other bikers by using exactly the right weapon on each of them, wielded with perfect timing. Failure on either count results in having to start all over from the beginning. To be fair, the mini-game looks and sounds great, with electric guitars squealing in the background and your chopper’s straight pipes throbbing under you like a 21-gun salute every few seconds. It’s just no fun to play.
The very worst of the action mini-games, on the other hand, is a rare moment where even Full Throttle‘s aesthetics fail it. Near the end of the game, you find yourself in a demolition derby that for my money is the worst single thing ever to appear in any LucasArts adventure. The controls, which are apparently meant to simulate slipping and sliding in the mud of a fairground arena, are indeed impossible to come to grips with. Worse, you have no idea what you’re even trying to accomplish. The whole thing is an elaborate exercise in reading the designers’ mind to set up an ultra-specific, ultra-unlikely chain of happenstance. I shudder to think how long one would have to wrestle with this thing to stumble onto the correct ordering of events. (Personally, I used a walkthrough — and it still took me quite some time even once I knew what I was trying to do.) Most bizarrely of all, the mini-game looks like a game from five or eight years prior to this one, as if someone pulled an old demo down off the shelf and just threw it on the CD. It’s a failure on every level.
All told, the action mini-games manage to accomplish the exact opposite of what they were intended to do: instead of speeding the story along and making it that much more exciting, they kill its momentum dead.
What, then, of the more traditional adventure-game sections threaded between the action mini-games and the many lengthy cut-scenes? Therein lies a somewhat more complicated tale.
Some parts of Full Throttle are competently, even cleverly designed. The afore-described opening sequence, for example, is a textbook lesson in conveying theme and expectation to the player through interactivity. It teaches her that any convoluted solutions she might conceive to the dilemmas she encounters are not likely to be the correct ones, and that this will be an unusually two-fisted style of adventure game, admitting of possibilities that its more cerebral cousins would never even consider. The first extended adventure section in the game sends you into a dead-ender town in search of a welding torch, a set of handlebars, and some gasoline, all of which you need to get your damaged bike back on the road after Ripburger’s goons have sabotaged it. The game literally tells you that you need these things and waits for you to go out and find them; it doesn’t attempt to be any trickier than that. And this is fine, being thoroughly in keeping with its ethos.
But threaded among the straightforward puzzles are a smattering that fail to live up to LucasArts’s hard-won reputation for always giving their players a fair shake. At one point in that first town, you have to trigger an event, then run and hide behind a piece of scenery. But said scenery isn’t implemented as an object that might bring it to your attention, and it’s very difficult to discover that you can walk behind it at all. In some adventure games, the ones that promise to challenge you at every turn and make you poke around to discover every single possibility, this puzzle might fit the design brief. Here, however, it’s so at odds with the rest of the game that it strikes me more as a design oversight than a product of even a mistaken design intent. Such niggles continue to crop up as you play further, and continue to pull you out of the fiction. One particularly infamous “puzzle” demands that Ben kick a wall over and over at random to discover the one tiny spot that makes something happen.
As time goes on, Full Throttle comes to rely more and more on one of my least favorite kinds of adventure puzzles: the pseudo-action sequence, where the designer has a series of death-defying action-movie events, improvisations, and coincidences in mind, and you have to muddle your way through by figuring just how he wants his bravura scene to play out. In other words, you have to fail again and again, using your failures as a way to slowly deduce what the designer has in mind. Fail-until-you-succeed gameplay can feel rewarding in some circumstances, but not when it’s just an exercise in methodically trying absolutely everything until something works, as it tends to be here. The final scene of the game, involving a gigantic cargo plane teetering on the edge of a cliff with a staggering quantity of explosives inside, becomes the worst of all of them by adding tricky timing to the equation.
It’s in places like this one that the mismatch between the available technology and the desired experience really comes to the fore. In a free-roaming 3D engine with the possibility of emergent behavior, the finale could be every bit as rousing as Schafer intended it to be. But in a point-and-click adventure engine whose world simulation goes little deeper than the contents of your inventory… not so much. Executing, say, a death-defying leap out of the teetering plane’s cargo hold on your motorcycle rather loses its thrill when said leap is the only thing the designer has planned for you to do — the only thing you’re allowed to do other than getting yourself killed. The leap in question is the designer’s exciting last-minute gambit, not yours; you’re just the stooge bumbling and stumbling to recreate it. So, you begin to wish that all of the game’s action sequences were proper action sequences — but then you remember how very bad the action-oriented mini-games that do exist actually are, and you have no idea what you want, other than to be playing a different, better game.
What happened? How did a game with such a promising pedigree turn out to be so underwhelming? There is no single answer, but rather a number of probable contributing factors.
One is simply the way that games were sold in 1995. Without its more annoying bits, Full Throttle would offer little more than two hours of entertainment. There’s room for such a game today — a game that could be sold for a small price but in big quantities through digital storefronts. In 1995, however, a game that cost this much to make could reach consumers only as a premium-priced boxed product; other methods of distribution just didn’t exist yet. And consumers who paid $30, $40, or $50 for a game had certain expectations as to how long it should occupy them, as was only reasonable. Thus the need to pad its length to make it suit the realities of the contemporary marketplace probably had more than a little something to do with Full Throttle‘s failings.
Then there’s the Star Wars factor. Many of the people who worked for LucasArts prior to 1993 have commented on what a blessing in disguise it was for George Lucas’s own games studio not to be able to make Star Wars games, a happenstance whose roots can be found in the very first contract Lucas signed to make Star Wars toys just before the release of the very first film in 1977. When another series of accidents finally brought the rights back to Lucasfilm, and by extension to LucasArts, in 1992, the latter jumped on Star Wars with a vengeance, releasing multiple games under the license every year thereafter. This was by no means an unmitigatedly bad thing; at least one of their early Star Wars games, TIE Fighter, is an unimpeachable classic, on par in its own way with any LucasArts adventure game, while many of them evince a free-spirited joie de vivre that’s rather been lost from the franchise’s current over-saturated, overly Disneyfied personification. But it did lead in time to a decline in attention to the non-Star Wars graphic adventures that had previously been the biggest part of LucasArts’s identity. So, it was probably not entirely a coincidence that the LucasArts adventure arm peaked in 1993, just as the Star Wars arm was getting off the ground. In the time between Sam and Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle, adventure games suddenly became a sideline for LucasArts, with perhaps a proportional drop-off in their motivation to make everything in a game like Full Throttle just exactly perfect.
Another factor, one which I alluded to earlier, was the general sense in the industry that the market was now demanding faster paced, more immediate and visceral experiences. And, I rush to add, games with those qualities are fine in themselves. It’s just that that set of design goals may not have been a good pairing with an engine and a genre known for a rather different set of qualities.
These generalized factors were accompanied by more specific collisions of circumstance. When studying the development history of Day of the Tentacle, one comes away with the strong impression that Tim Schafer was the creator most enamored with the jokes and the goofy fiction of the game, while his partner Dave Grossman obsessed mostly over its interactive structure and puzzle design. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Schafer struck out on his own we got a game with a sparkling fictional presentation and lousy interactive elements.
Full Throttle was not made on the cheap. Far from it: it was the first LucasArts adventure to cost over $1 million to produce. But the money that was thrown at it wasn’t accompanied by a corresponding commitment to the process of making good games. Its development was instead chaotic, improvised rather than planned; Tim Schafer personally took on the titles of Writer, Designer, and Project Leader, and seems to have been well out of his depth on at least the last of them. As a result, the game, which had originally been slated for a Christmas 1994 release, fell badly behind schedule and overran its budget, and what Larry Ahern describes as a “huge section” of it had to be cut out before all was said and done. (Another result of Full Throttle‘s protracted creation was its use of vanilla VGA graphics, which made it something of an anachronism in the spring of 1995, what with the rest of the industry’s shift to higher-resolution SVGA; fortunately, LucasArts’s artists were so talented that their work couldn’t be spoiled even by giant pixels.) During the making of Day of the Tentacle, the design team had regularly brought ordinary folks in off the street to play the latest build and give their invaluable feedback. This didn’t happen for Full Throttle. Instead there was just a mad rush to complete and release a game that nobody had ever really tried to play cold. Alas, this is an old story in the history of adventure games, and a more depressingly typical one than that of the carefully built, meticulously tested game. The only difference on this occasion was that it hadn’t used to be a story set in LucasArts’s offices.
Still, LucasArts paid little price at this time for departing from their old ethos that Design Matters. Full Throttle was greeted by glowing reviews from magazine scribes who were dazzled by its slick, hip presentation, so different from anything else on the gaming scene. For example, the usually thoughtful Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World gave it four and a half out of five stars even as he acknowledged that “its weakest point is its gameplay.” For all that this might strike us today as the very definition of judging a book by its cover, such formulations were par for the course during the madcap multimedia frenzy of the mid-1990s. Tim Schafer claims that the game sold an eventual 1 million copies, enough to make MTV seriously consider turning it into a television cartoon.
Many of those buyers remember Full Throttle fondly today, although a considerable number of naysayers with complaints similar to the ones I’ve aired in this article have also joined the discussion since the game was remastered and re-released in 2017. It seems to me that attitudes toward this game in particular tend to neatly delineate two broad categories of adventure players. There are those who aren’t overly chuffed about puzzles and other issues of design, who consider a modicum of obtuseness to be almost an intrinsic part of the genre, and who thus don’t hesitate to reach for a walkthrough at the first sign of trouble. This is fair enough in itself; as I’ve said many times, there is no wrong way to play any game as long as you’re having fun. I, however, don’t tend to have much fun playing this way. I consider a good interactive design to be a prerequisite to a good game of any stripe. And when I reach for a walkthrough, I do so knowing I’m going to be angry afterward at either myself or the game. If it turns out to be a case of the latter… well, I’d rather just watch a movie.
And indeed, that has to be my final verdict on Full Throttle for those of you who share my own adventure-game predilections: just find yourself a video playthrough to watch, thereby to enjoy its buckets of style and personality without having to wrestle with all of the annoyances. If nothing else, Full Throttle makes for a fun cartoon. Pity about the gameplay.
(Sources: the book Full Throttle: Official Player’s Guide by Jo Ashburn; Computer Gaming World of November 1994 and August 1995; LucasArts customer newsletter The Adventurer of Winter 1994/1995 and Summer 1995; Retro Gamer 62; the “director’s commentary” from the 2017 re-release of Full Throttle. Online sources include interview with Tim Schafer by Celia Pearce and Chris Suellentrop.
A “remastered” version of Full Throttle is available for digital purchase.)