The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for the Nintendo Entertainment System: The Untold Story
by Douglas CrockfordI was the on-the-edge new-media/technology guy at the LucasArts Entertainment Company, a spin-off of George Lucas's Lucasfilm Ltd. in Marin County, California. Most of my work was (if I may say so myself) "out there", but sometimes I would take on more mundane projects to help out.
One such project was the Nintendo version of Maniac Mansion. This was going to be LucasArt's first Nintendo cartridge. It was an important project, but the management at Games was overloaded and the project was slipping between the cracks. I volunteered to manage its completion.
The original version of Maniac Mansion was designed by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick. It is a graphic story game, in which you manipulate three teenagers in order to save Sandy the Cheerleader from Dr. Fred, whose mind is being controlled by an evil purple meteor from Outer Space. I didn't contribute much to the original version beyond the package slogan: His ambition was to rule the world...one teenager at a time!
It is usually necessary to make a game run on several different systems in order to have access to a large enough audience to make it profitable. The process of moving a game to another system is called conversion. It is sort of like shooting a movie twice to get a Beta version and a VHS version.
In the course of converting to Nintendo, we had to redesign all of the art in order to conform to Nintendo's screen geometry. We also made some changes to adapt the game to a younger audience.
The bad words we removed, meaning that "The meteor is going to be pissed" was changed to "The meteor is going to be mad." Howie Rubin of Jaleco (the company that was going to publish the game under license) advised us the that the baddest bad word is Kill. The central activity in most Nintendo games is killing things. The image and the act are good, but the word is bad, even if the word does not suggest the image or the act.
The mansion contains a number of arcade video games. One was called KILL THRILL. The name had to be changed. Doug Glen, our Director of Marketing, suggested that we change it to MUFF DIVER, which I thought was a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, I later became aware of the NES Game Standards Policy, which stated in part:
Nintendo will not approve NES cartridges...with sexually suggestive or explicit content
Yikes, MUFF DIVER had to be changed again. In order to minimize the impact on the artwork, I needed to substitute MUFF with another four letter word that was less suggestive that could make sense with DIVER. We settled on the word TUNA.
The standards go on to prohibit
depictions of excessive and gratuitous violence,
Which would seem to ban any game in which your character met people, killed them, took their money, and then bought more weapons. But in fact most Nintendo games are still faithful to that theme, so we were unclear as to how to interpret Nintendo's policy. In the Super Mario Bros games, which are considered clean and wholesome, kids routinely kill creatures, and the only motivation is that they are there.
Clearly, interpreting the standard requires skills beyond mine. There was stuff still in the mansion that I thought was suspect, but I couldn't tell if it was out of bounds. I put it all in a Things in Maniac Mansion list. I gave the list to our friends at Jaleco, and they told me not to worry about it.
The way cartridges got made at that time was you submitted a finished game to Nintendo with a letter of credit. If they accepted the game, they would tell you how many units they would manufacture for you, when, and at what price. We submitted Maniac, hopeful that our labors were completed.
A month later we got a report from Nintendo of America's censors:
NOA has discovered the following problems with this program version:
1) There are several places in the screen text that could be felt to be offensive to NES players. Please ammend [sic] the following:
"For a good time EDNA 3444"
This message is written on the wall in the shower in Dead Cousin Ted's bathroom. Obviously, you can't have a good time in a Nintendo cartridge. We couldn't erase the message completely because phoning Nurse Edna is an important event in the game. We changed it to simply "Call Edna 3444".
"getting your brains [sic] sucked out."
This is from Dr. Fred's first scene with Sandy. Dr. Fred actually says "getting your pretty brains sucked out." They didn't state what their objection was. Were they afraid that NES players would be offended by threats against an innocent woman, or by the mention of a vital body part (brain, in this case) or by the horror of brain damage? No, it turned out that the problem was that the language was too graphic. I was told that changing sucked out to removed made it ok. In the same spirit, we voluntarily removed the Disco Sucks poster from the Green Tentacle's bedroom. We also modified a medical poster in Dr. Fred's office. The caption on a detail of the head had read "Chewy Caramel Center." It now reads "Pretty Brains."
"Well, Mommy, I'm worried about him. Well, Mommy, I'm worried! He hasn't eaten in 5 years. YEAH, SO!!! and he's been bringing those bodies, and he carries those bodies to the basement at night." [sic]
This was from Weird Ed's dialogue with his mother, Nurse Edna, in which Ed tries to get his mother to recognize the terrible things that have happened to his father over the past 20 years. What was Nintendo's problem with the dialogue? Was it the brutal exposition of parental neglect in the disintegration of an American family? More likely, we thought they had a problem with the dead bodies in the basement, which was essential to establishing the Frankenstein movie parody flavor of the program.
In fact, Nintendo's interpretation of the speech was that Dr. Fred was a cannibal, that he was eating the bodies. That was never our intention, so we changed Ed's speech to "He hasn't slept in 5 years," which helps to explain why Dr. Fred is never seen in his bedroom.
But even if we had intended that Dr. Fred was a cannibal, what's the harm? He would have been one under the influence of the evil purple meteor. The game recognizes that it is bad, and your mission is to rescue him from this unhappy state. Who would be offended?
We expected to get nailed on Nurse Edna's character. Most of her speeches were sexually suggestive. When she locks kids in her dungeon, she will now say one of the following:
"You'll be safe here until the police come."
"Just wait until I talk to your mother."
"I have half a good mind to talk to my husband."
I wanted her to comment on the Nintendo scene, by saying
"You deserve to die, but I believe it is wrong to take any life."
but that might be viewed as a religious belief, and so be held to be an anathema to racial, religious or ethnic groups. It is ok to seek out creatures and destroy them with fireballs, but it is not necessarily permissible to say that it is wrong.
Nurse Edna's obscene phone call definitely had to go. I considered replacing it with "No, I don't have Prince Albert in a can, why do you ask?" but that still gives kids an example of abusive and illegal telephone behavior.
So instead, we have Edna confuse the caller with Dead Cousin Ted. Edna never knew of or never accepted Ted's death. When the phone rings, Edna assumes that it is Ted and starts talking. Her number is unlisted. Only Ted had it. A natural mistake. This also partially explains why Edna's number is written on the wall in Ted's bathroom.
2) Also, there are several places where nudity needs to be removed: the posters in the gym, and the statue in the hall.
There were two posters in Dead Cousin Ted's room: A swimsuit calendar, and a mummy poster. The mummy is in a playmate pose, completely wrapped in bandages, no skin visible. We ended up removing both.
The statue was a classical reclining nude. I told one of the Nintendo minions that it was a Michelangelo (the sculptor, not the turtle). There was a glimmer of hope that we could keep it if it was really art, so I sent Gary to find a book of Michelangelo's work, in the hope that he had made a statue that was similar. In fact he had, a work called Dawn, for the Medici Chapel.
Nintendo's minions said we could keep the statue if we did something about the crotch. But if they could see pubic hair where there is none, what would they see if we tried to hide it?
We removed the statue.
3) There is also a reference at the end of the game to an "NES Scumm System" that we're not sure we understand. Please advise as to the meaning of this reference.
In the credits, which are shown after the conclusion of the game, there are two occurrences of the word Scumm, which stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion. Scumm is the story game development system which was used to produce Maniac. They understood, and asked "What is NES SCUMM?" That is the version of Scumm that we did for the Nintendo. "Yeah, but it says NES SCUMM. What will people think?"
I don't know what people will think. And we will never know what people will think. I took it out.
They didn't object to the nasty stuff that happens to the hamster. Ron suggested that it was just violence.
People from Nintendo say with pride that even though they are growing, the number of letters they receive from special interest groups is declining. They insist that their standards are not intended to make their products bland, but that is the inevitable result.
Part of the formal product submission includes a complete listing of all of the game text. They scan that for occurrences of the bad words, but they are also looking for religious artifacts.
Nintendo is a jealous god.
Sid or Razor can be ordered (by you) to put the hamster in the microwave oven and blow it up.
If a kid then gives the hamster remains to Weird Ed, then he slowly realizes what it is. In the next scene, the kid is replaced by a tombstone in the front yard.
Dr. Fred comes to Weird Ed, saying that the evil meteor needs a hamster and an electric cattle prod.
When she locks a boy in the dungeon, she says "I should have tied you to my bed, cutie."
When she locks a girl in the dungeon, she's says "You're lucky you aren't a boy."
When someone calls her from the phone in the library, she says "Is this a prank phone call? There's no heavy breathing. Let me show you how to do it."
When he locks a kid in the dungeon, he says "I hope you rot."
He calls the Purple Tentacle Sucker Face.
He calls the meteor Crater Head.
If the reactor blows up, everyone within a five mile radius dies. (This is a cautionary story about home nuclear power.)