Even though Sierra and Lucasarts gave up on adventure games around the turn of the century, there are those that held on to the belief that, no, the genre was still very much alive! In a world without Monkey Islands, Space Quest and Simon the Sorcerers, we mostly got legions of dry, humorless entries with depressingly dry CG backgrounds (sup Microids), coupled with the occasional cartoonish adventures that tried oh-so-hard to be funny, and succeeded terribly (like, say, Runaway.) Instead, Tim Schaefer, he of the late great Grim Fandango, worked spent a good long time working with Psychonauts and Brütal Legend, which were both hilarious despite not at all being adventure games, while Telltale, formed with some of the other Lucasarts staff, is about as close as we ever got to the glory days of the genre.
So, more or less out of nowhere, a tiny group of Brits called Zombie Cow Studios brought out two of the funniest games since...well, since ever, perhaps. Ben There, Dan That! and its sequel, Time Gentlemen Please!, are both low budget bits made with Adventure Game Studio and have a graphical style most consistent with elementary school notebook doodles, but succeed tremendously because they're so brilliantly written. One could call it "The British version of South Park!" and that wouldn't entirely be wrong, but it that is a glib summation of it. While both shows have uber low-fi visuals, subversive plotting, and more than just a bit of toilet humor, Zombie Cow's games replaces South Park's libertarian cynicism with their self aware affection for adventure games, Lucasarts in particular. They're loving self-parodies that have their own voice and never copies their style, despite obviously being in love with them. By the virtue of being independent games. that nebulous quality defined as "soul" permeates both experiences, in ways that their prettier, more "professional" comrades sometimes seem to lack.
Ben and Dan are two London flatmates, and quite experienced adventurers. Though both are a bit off, Ben is the leader and the smarter of the two (and the one the player directly controls), while Dan is his partner, dodgy pathfinding routine and all. Dan is acknowledged as being Max to Ben's Sam, and is controlled via a specific icon for specific purposes, usually flipping light switches or other tasks that Ben deems too gross or otherwise beneath him. Both the heroes are quite aware of the nature of adventure gaming, and, being how its essentially a self-insertion fic, fans of the genre itself. There are posters of Maniac Mansion and Full Throttle that adorn their wallss. The font is even lifted straight from Day of the Tentacle.
In the beginning, we join our heroes in the middle of a dire situation - Dan has gone off and gotten himself killed, while Ben has rigged an overcomplicated and particularly adventure-game-y contraption that will somehow bring him back to life. Thankfully, since this puzzle comes pre-solved, all you need to do is push Dan to trigger the device, eventually bringing our heroes back to stodgy old England. Desperately wishing to catch the Magnum P.I. marathon but aggravated at their lack of decent reception, they stick a wire hanger out the window, only to be abducted by mysterious aliens.
Left to their own devices aboard the spaceship, Ben and Dan discover a series of doorways that lead into different parallel dimensions. In one, you'll find a land overwhelmed with a rampant zombie infestation. In another, you'll enter a video game development studio populated by dinosaurs. In yet another, you'll find a land where England has been annexed as the 51st United State of America, where the local population complains about the crappy beer and lack of proper footie, while a group of washed-up, self-important video game journalists complain about crappy games and scheme to destroy the world. And then there's the dimension where everyone has their own, mostly marginal, super power. Somewhere along the line, the developers just got tired and tacked on typical fire and ice worlds. Each of the doors leading to these dimensions is initially closed, and can only be unlocked by finding some arbitrary item in one of the other dimensions. It's a very loose, slipshod way of connecting together the whole thing, but it's suitable given the intentionally low quality graphics.
Ben and Dan have definable faces and bodies, but their appendages are sticks, and they animate with two mere frames. The backgrounds are coarse, scribbly, and not at all in proportion. One gets the feeling it's not entirely unintentional. Yes, this game was done cheaply by two blokes in their spare time, so why not consciously admit it, use it in the game's favor to elicit a completely silly atmosphere, and move on with it?
And so, most of the strengths lie in the writing. Ben and Dan are the typical comedy duo, and their constantly self-aware exchanges is what drives most everything forward. Your tolerance level to their ironic dialogue may depend on how many similar AGS games you've played before, but it usually still manages to be quite funny regardless. In addition to its particularly British verbiage, it's also a bit more ribald than the usual affair, and the humor is much more contemporary. Although Lucasarts games were primarily aimed at adults, there was rarely anything particularly offensive about them, at least as language, sex or violence was concerned. Ben There, Dan That! isn't overwhelmingly dirty, but you can expect occasional exchanges like:
Ben: "Do you want to go on a date with me?"
Supergirl: "That depends, honey. What's your superpower?"
Ben: "HAVING A VERY LARGE PENIS."
Supergirl: "Oh, that's a shame. Another of my powers is having a very small vagina. Sorry."
There's also the recurring joke that whatever method Ben uses to further their adventures, they always somehow end up killing (mostly) innocent folks in the process, an amusing aside to the occasionally sociopathic tendencies of adventure game protagonists. It's also prepared a response for interacting with nearly everything, making the feel quite rich. If there's a sore point, it's that the writing is so damn good that it completely begs to be properly voice acted. Given its status as a freeware game, though, that would be asking a bit too much, and the text-only dialogue does channel the quaint era of 3.5' 1.44MB floppy disks. As it stands, it's easy to imagine the two blokes with their off-kilter British accents, slang and mannerisms. Also, other than a few bits of music, the whole game is almost depressingly silent, which runs opposite of the goofiness throughout.
Compared to their obvious inspirations, the puzzles are actually quite easy and straightforward, at least one of which involves activating a fully functional miniature model Death Star. It's a short game, too, and ones that ends on a twist and a pseudo-cliffhanger, nicely leading into its sequel. But it's so all masterfully executed that stands out proudly amongst its freeware peers.
Time Gentlemen, Please! begins with an intro cinematic that slightly embellishes some of the events of its predecessor, before picking up right where it left off. At the end of Ben There, Done That!, our heroes learn that the aliens that kidnapped them were really versions of themselves from the future, who were carrying out a particularly diabolical plan of world domination. Due to the flimsy nature of time travel, Future Ben and Dan vanish into a puff of paradox, leaving Present Ben and Den, unwilling to rule the world, to pick up their pieces. With the powers of the Time Stick, the two devise a brilliant plan to travel to the past and stop the invention of the coat hanger, thereby eliminating the item that got them in this very predicament in the first place. Through a series of misadventures which aren't entirely explained, the Time Stick somehow winds up in the hands of Adolf Hitler, who uses it to screw up history even further. The entire game is spent climbing out of the hole our boys have dug for themselves, mostly by skipping through the ages via a series of rips in the fabric of space and time.
Time Gentlemen, Please! is certainly much more involving and better structured than its predecessor, which created an (intentionally) flimsy excuse to get Ben and Dan into wacky predicaments. Here, it's a bit more focused, with about a dozen locations in total, easily accessible from a map screen. The ultimate goal is to infiltrate Big Ben, which, in the future, has been converted into a vicious, trap-filled tower. Technologically, it's a bit improved too, with the game running in 800x600 resolution, with nicer icons and bigger fonts. The visuals still maintain the same slapdash look, but the backgrounds are still less sketchy and more refined, and there are a handful of unnecessarily flashy effects at certain moments. There's actual running music in each location too, which does a lot to make everything feel more alive.
There's a laundry list of oddball things, from dinosaurs to robots to Nazis to Nazi dinosaur robots and so forth, and a lazier game would be content that its wacky quotient was suitably through the roof. Time Gentlemen, Please! goes pleasantly over the top, though, such as their portrayal of Herr Hitler. How do you make the most despicable human being in history even worse? By turning him into a pedophiliac vampire, apparently. One of the kookiest gag is the "Racism" slider in the Options menu, which doesn't really seem to do much of anything, although it's impossible to set to absolute zero, a self acknowledgment that, yes, Germans probably shouldn't take this too seriously.
But like its predecessor, it keeps its spirit through both its affectionate parodies and its cleverness. There are still plenty of Lucasarts references - apparently with all of the time travelling, Star Wars is now a 1940s cult film directed by Ed Wood, and it even makes reference to Labyrinth, a film which Lucas and company have been happy to ignore. At one point, Dan suggests different ways to proceed through the adventure, based on WITS, FISTS and STEALTH, a reference to the three paths in Indiana Jones and the Fat of Atlantis. (Fans will note that the trio should be WITS, FISTS and TEAM, which Dan will note despondently.) Your choice doesn't actually affect the flow of the game, although it does change the running jokes at a few key points.
The most clever parodies aren't the ones where Ben and Dan acknowledge their wacky situations aloud, but rather when the wacky situations acknowledge themselves. Upon talking with a guard dinosaur who needs to be disposed of, he mentions that he can't go back to his house because it's infested with a rat. No problem - give him a mouse trap and he marches right off, only to be replaced immediately by another dinosaur bloke who proudly announces "Man, I love spanners!", making for a quick and easy puzzle. Ben even refuses to get into a conversation, claiming "I don't want to get roped into a conversation about spanners."
There's a bit more to distinguish the leading characters this time around, who sort of blended together in their first adventure. The highlight is when Ben finds himself disabled and Dan is put in the limelight, who immediately panics and fumbles his way through the next set of solutions, until he decides that it's probably best he stay as a sidekick. Some of the sillier secondary characters include Eckles, a sad old war prisoner who seems predestined to be shot in the cock, and the Sex-Ed Clown, who teaches about the harms and horrors of unprotected sex via balloon models. (For fun, ask him for one in the shape of AIDS.)
This being a story revolving around time travel, there are a few instances where you need to change the past to fix something in the future, with the usual strange effects. There's also a strange machine which can age or de-age any item, either returning it to its original state (presuming it's worn or broken) or inflicting upon it the ravages of time. So, flip it to "age" and stick in a pig to turn it to leather, or flip it to "de-age" to turn a severed skeleton arm to a severed fleshy arm. Its results are intentionally unpredictable, which is why it's such a weird device, but its overusage causes it to become a bit tedious throughout.
The cleverest bit is when the duo discovers an unfinished text adventure, "The Space Adventures of W. T. Pal, A Human". Their shenanigans puncture an even deeper hole in the time-space fabric, eventually plunging them right into a visual representation of this game-within-a-game. Playing the text adventure in the "real world" controls the hero in the "game world", an intrepid Victorian-era explorer named William, who is ultimately helpless without Ben and Dan's intervention. It's all very pleasantly meta. There's also another retro point n' click adventure game where you control Hitler, one of the many puzzles to conquer the innards of Big Ben. Of particular note is the "Invade" verb, distressingly amusing when used on the toilet. (Something about having already invaded "poo-land". Awful, yes.)
There's no doubt - this is one of the funniest, most clever adventure games ever made. With Time Gentlemen, Please!, Zombie Cow Studios elected to go "professional" and charge £3 (or $5-ish) for it, which includes Ben There, Dan That! as a bonus. It's more than a fair trade. The guys behind these games should be excessively proud of themselves for creating what is not only a loving homage, but two excellent entries into the halls of adventure gaming. Although there are just these two entries as of current, Zombie Cow Studios (now called Size Five Games) is working on new episodic adventure, with the first one being "Revenge of the Balloon-Headed Mexican". Let's look forward to these!