There’s a moment early on in Grim Fandango in which Manny Calavera, a down-on-his-luck travel salesman for the El Marrow branch of the Department of Death (DOD), finds himself negotiating with a braggart clown. “I can do anything,” he insists, bitter that his balloon-animal stall has been overlooked in the greater hubbub of the DOD parade. “Bet you can’t do Robert Frost,” quips Manny. Five seconds later, Manny’s walking around with a twisted, helium-filled poet. The balloon is useless, as it’s not needed to solve any of this adventure game’s puzzles. But the whimsical irreverence, the comic wastefulness, speaks to an age of sillier and more off-the-cuff games.
If you listen, then, to the nearly two hours of developer commentary included with Grim Fandango Remastered, it will be readily apparent why Tim Schafer leapt at the chance to relicense and republish his antic 1998 classic. If the original Grim Fandango serves as an epic noir, in which Manny becomes embroiled in a mobster’s plot to cheat dead souls out of their rightful afterlife, then Remastered is a love story, in which character models are gently imbued with new textures and given dynamic lighting (all the better to show off the Mexican-inspired artwork) and the catchy soundtrack is re-recorded by a live orchestra. As opposed to rebuilding the game for a new audience, like Michael Haneke recreating Funny Games for us Americans, this is the work of a preservationist, who wishes only for a broader swath of modern gamers (i.e., those not fluent in emulation) to experience a work of art.
But nostalgia is a tricky thing, as things are almost always better in our idealized memories. The inventive narrative unsurprisingly stands the test of time; look no further than fiction to see the lasting power of a good tale told well. (It helps, too, that many of the crime tropes Grim Fandango played off of have only become more popular since, even if audiences don’t remember original sources like On the Waterfront and The Big Sleep. The art direction also remains impressive, especially when you consider that Grim Fandango was one of the first 3D adventure games. Wide shots—of a zeppelin suspended above a moonlit bridge, or of a far-off greenhouse in the midst of a deadly meadow—provided a cinematic constant to the game, and showed just how small Manny was in the grand scheme of things. Here, the camera might be set behind a spider web for extra menace or tilted upward so as to distort one’s perception of a giant crane; by comparison, the Telltale Games library seems almost workman-like and monotonous.
That said, especially in the new widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio (the old 4:3 can still be accessed, with borders, just as the graphics can be swapped between Original and Remastered on the fly), some of Grim Fandango’s bones are more apparently broken by today’s standards. Some of the puzzles are quite clever, especially since they had to be scripted for a new non-verbal adventure-game interface, in which a single contextual button would interact with the closest item. But almost everything involving 1998’s rudimentary grasp of 3D physics or the vagaries of timing remains more irritating than enjoyable (The Fork Lift! The Crane!); not fixing these glaring issues feels like a missed opportunity. To be fair, missing assets, budgetary concerns, and licensing considerations also limited how much Double Fine could actually do, but it’s frustrating that the makers of Broken Age couldn’t just port over some of the more valuable lessons learned over the years.
Then again, it’s all right if Grim Fandango Remastered ends up appreciated only as a somewhat fragile relic. (Glitches—particularly with regard to cutscenes—are still being fixed in the PC build.) Zombies and White Walkers are commonplace these days, whereas a giant octopus driving a submarine is a pretty novel concept. Performing slam poetry to win over revolutionaries in order to help the local Sea Bees (exactly what the pun sounds like) rise up against their oppressive casino and cat-race tycoon boss? A large elemental spirit created with a literal need for speed and a drinking problem? These are just a few of the kooky components that make Grim Fandango one of a kind and well worth revisiting.