A while ago, I wrote a short flashfiction entitled “And they call him Pajama Sam.” As I stated then, this character is not my invention — the blue-skinned hero is the brainchild of Humongous Entertainment and is just one of a series of incredibly engaging point-and-click adventure heroes that shaped my childhood. Humongous Entertainment was formed in 1992, the year after I was born, and I like to think that we grew up together.
The company itself changed hands a few times over its lifetime, being purchased successively by GT Interactive in 1996 and Infogrames Entertainment SA (which later became Atari) in 1999, before falling into decline around 2001 and being revived (albeit in a much-reduced capacity) in 2005 by another incarnation of Infogrames Entertainment. After a few years of relative inactivity, the now-bankrupt HE was bought out by Tommo Inc. in 2013, which released a bunch of the old HE titles into the wider marketplace on Steam in 2015. So here we are!
While all the cool kids were hooked on Phonics, I was hooked on HE games from their first PC release I played at the age of five, Pajama Sam In: No Need to Hide When It’s Dark Outside in 1996, which I played on my (shared) family computer. It’s a testament to the game’s enduring impact on my childhood when you consider it survived competition with fighting endless hordes of Rattata and Zubat in Pokemon Blue, which came out in the same year.
I suspect it’s because the HE games appealed to me in a whole different way — while Pokemon had the satisfaction of promoting random animals in gladiatorial combat and being a goddamn Pokemon master, the HE games had the challenge of puzzle-solving, an appealingly cartoonish art-style and strong storylines and voice-acting that Pokemon emphatically lacked, for all its numerous other qualities. They also contained more-than-slightly absurd elements that still appeal to me greatly today. What I want is to share with you a couple of the wonderful memories I have from some of HE’s premier titles.
Wishing Well: “Your lunch goes in you, does it not? I might as well call you ‘lunchbox!’”
Pajama Sam: “I’m not a box!”
As mentioned, the first HE character to capture my interest was Pajama Sam. No Need to Hide was the story of a kid in his bedroom at night sick and tired of being at the mercy of Darkness, and so he decides to prove his courage by taking the fight to Darkness rather than waiting around. Once you’ve helped him find his lunchbox, mask and cape so he’s all suited up like his favorite hero Pajama Man, you’re ready to go into the closet and through the Narnia-esque portal to Darkness’ realm.
What transpires is an epic adventure through snobbish trees, partying furniture, missing socks and games of Cheese and Crackers (actually connect-four) with a toaster. It’s not just the toaster that talks — nearly everything in Darkness’ world from carrots to minecarts to plain ol’ rocks is animate, a pattern that’s repeated across the other two Pajama Sam games, Thunder and Lightning Aren’t So Frightening and You Are What You Eat from Your Head to Your Feet (and aren’t the rhyming titles just the cutest?).
What really struck me about Pajama Sam at the time was that the whole episode clearly takes place in a small boy’s imagination and the world is entirely his own — his mother is nothing more than a disembodied hand that flicks off the light in the opening cutscene.
Apart from the wonderful absurdity of it all, the game drew serious parallels to the imaginative realms and adventures of the six-year-old Calvin from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip that I was heavily addicted to in the 1990’s about a cynical kid with an expansive vocabulary and his stuffed tiger friend. To give you an idea of the incredible imagination and creativity of that series, one of the anthologies of Calvin and Hobbes is called Scientific Progress Goes “Boink”. Pajama Sam’s struggle with lord Darkness reminded me then as now of his contemporary Calvin’s regular nightly struggles with the drooling monsters under his bed that only he knew existed.
Spy Fox: “A spy without a gadget is like a shopping cart without a broken wheel.”
Pajama Sam was not the only HE title to possess wildly imaginative and coherently crazy narratives. Another series which really stands out in my mind is the Spy Fox collection. Spy Fox is exactly what his name implies: a smooth-talking, smart-suited fox with an attitude and style heavily reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s Bond. The similarity is more than just incidental: Spy Fox’s missions come from none other than Monkey Penny, a play on 007’s secretary Eve Moneypenny.
The plot of Spy Fox: Dry Cereal is nothing short of ingenious — the CEO of the Nectar of the Goats (N.O.G.) Corporation, William the Kid, plots to force the world to buy goat milk and goat by-products by abolishing cow’s milk. To achieve this, the Kid plans to collect all the world’s cow milk in a giant carton called the Milky Weapon of Destruction, flood the capital with milk, frame dairy cows for the crime and get the cows all thrown into cow jail (yes, cow jail). All of this delicious insanity is explained to you by the Kid in a cardboard slideshow charmingly decorated with scribbled-on crayon illustrations, and the opening cutscene features a slack-jawed kid pouring milk on his cereal, having only a single drop come out, and bursting into tears. It is visual storytelling at its finest.
The appeal of Spy Fox is not at all hard to see. What kid doesn’t dream of being a slick secret agent with gadgets like trap-coins that shoot out nets or cheese-and-cracker explosives? Spy Fox is the definition of a smooth operator as he slinks and slides his way across the fictional Greek island of Acidophilus, where the action takes place. Over the course of the game, you con your way onto a private boat party with a forged invitation, swindle a washed-up sea captain’s lucky charm away from him in a high-stakes game of Go Fish, and suction-cup your way past alligators in William the Kid’s hidden island fortress guarded by security hieroglyphs.
The goofy trademark humor of HE shines through in Spy Fox’s Bond-style quips and puns, something which I’m positive contributed to my incurable addiction to groan-worthy puns in the present day. The second game in the series, Spy Fox 2: Some Assembly Required, is a similarly excellent romp at the World Fair with some top-grade international espionage. The Spy Fox collection also included a strange addition in the form of Spy Fox: Cheese Chase, a top-down mouse-pointer maneuver game where you chase down the cat-criminal Russian Blue to recover the priceless Limburger Cheese she stole from the Museum de Fromage. While undeniably strange, my sisters and I played it half to death.
Pablo Sanchez: “¡Adiós, béisbol!”
Though not in the same vein as the point-and-click adventures, the Backyard Sports series — in particular Backyard Baseball — deserves a special mention, not least for being one of the only series really being produced after HE’s stagnation in the early 2000’s. Imagine a neighborhood pick-up baseball game with the local kids — you know, what kids sometimes did before iPads — and you’ve pretty much got Backyard Baseball.
Now, I’m not at all into sports (my sporting interest extends to watching the Tour de France once a year), but Backyard Baseball held my interest in a way FIFA never could. Though from a different tradition than Spy Fox or Pajama Sam, the game contained all the essential elements that characterize HE games: the humor, the bright and friendly art style, and the engaging gameplay. There was just something about watching your opponent’s outfielders hopelessly fumble the ball while speed-demon lanky ginger Pete Wheeler tore up the bases that was singularly mesmerizing.
A big draw of the game for me was the sheer diversity of the players in an era before quotas. Not only were there the huge variations in skill levels of players you’d expect, from the pathetically weak Luanne Lui who couldn’t hit properly because she was too busy hanging on to her teddy bear to the godly little Mexican slugger-hero known as Pablo Sanchez, but there was a huge range of ethnicities and abilities. These were not your typical white-bread middle-class suburbanites — among the ranks was the black overweight home-run hitter Keisha Phillips and the wheelchair-bound Kenny Kawaguchi, who could lay a serious trail down when provoked. And then there was Pablo. Ah, Pablo — Donald Trump can’t conceive a wall that would keep your home runs out of America.
A later incarnation of the series added to the familiar neighborhood personalities the likes of Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez, famous baseball players in kid form, but you’d always be drawn back to Ernie Steele for his hard-luck can-do attitude and Pablo, of course, who could keep pace with the best of them, all the while spouting enthusiastic streams of Mexican. A lot of the kids made it over into another game in the series, Backyard Soccer, but sadly I never really played the other Backyard Sports, of which there were many.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the HE games, which included other major franchises like the Freddi Fish or Putt-Putt collections, but the few above give a taste of what I loved the best. There were so many other beautiful little touches shared by all the HE titles, like the slew of wonderful minigames — I’m looking at you, Bear Stormin’ — and the multitude of silly animations that would play when you clicked on random bits of the environment. Overall the games were strikingly vibrant and fluid, lacking the sterility and frustrating pixel-perfect exactness required by too many other point-and-click adventures. Plus, the adventures were kid-friendly because they’d always nudge you helpfully in the right direction without being too obvious or enigmatically rage-inducing, unlike some games *ahem* Sam and Max Hit the Road *ahem*.
If you haven’t ever come across a HE game before, I encourage you to go and check them out on Steam, where they are inexpensively available thanks to Tommo Inc.’s embrace of the modern age and desire to share the magic I and others experienced with a modern audience.