Revisiting a Beloved Aesthetic Gateway Drug with Grim Fandango Remastered

Grim Fandango was something of a gateway drug for me, back in the hair gel-saturated Dark Ages of 1998. I’d just played The Neverhood, and been blown away by its fearless weirdness and its earthy religious allegories. Then I’d played The Curse of Monkey Island, and gotten lost in its lush cell animation, windblown piratey orchestrations, and groan-inducing puns.

I was on an adventure game kick, and that kick didn’t let up for quite a while. By and by, I played them all. But the thing is, I’m not sure I would in fact have gone ahead and played them all if not for Grim Fandango.

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Grim Fandango, like The Neverhood, dared to look absolutely nothing like videogames were then supposed to look. But here it wasn’t just commitment to looking physically sculpted (or hand-drawn, as Nintendo, well outside of the adventure game space, had just attempted and then attempted again).

No, for me at the time, Grim Fandango wasn’t just notable for how little it looked like other games, but also for how many other things it did look like. It’s a film noir Art Deco Land of the Dead, a highbrow aesthetic bricolage the likes of which I’d never seen. (This was almost ten years before Objectivist Atlantis was a canonical setting or a first person shooter, remember).

It opened my eyes to the Dia de Los Muertos imagery (and Deco/Mayan Revival architecture) that, growing up in Los Angeles, had been around me all along. It got me interested in art history. It got me interested in film noir.

And yes, it was the first adventure game that sent me hurtling backwards, not just forward to the next big release, toward older adventure games. LucasArts’ previous work— the older Monkey Islands and the Indiana Jonses, Sam & Max, Day of the Tentacle—back to even earlier, even more wonderfully weird creations.

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So the release of Grim Fandango Remastered gives me the opportunity to reminisce and evangelize, and also the opportunity to report that the game has aged really well. Part of that is due to the aesthetics being not just singular but smart from a design perspective. The pre-rendered environments scale up fairly nicely, and the characters’ sugar skull faces can wring a maximum of expressiveness and stylistic panache from a minimum of actual animation.

Yes, and I’m as fond of Tony Plana’s leading man turn as Manny now as I was then, and the story still packs more a few emotional punches, and the Land of the Dead still feels believable and (ironically) uncommonly lived-in.

And in the remaster there’s better lighting and a freshly orchestrated soundtrack, and you can now play with point-and-click, and with camera-relative movement—though you can also switch back to the old “tank” controls, and there’s an utterly perverse achievement for playing the whole game that way. I’d prefer a plain old black bar letterbox to the deco borders framing the game’s 4:3 images, but so far, that’s honestly the biggest complaint that I have about this rerelease.

Look, there’s no way I can be remotely clear-eyed about this game. Like I said, it was my gateway drug. Hopefully now it can be somebody else’s gateway drug, too.

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