The Manhole

Posted by Jess Beebe.
First posted on 01 October 2011. Last updated on 01 October 2011.
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The Manhole
An adventure awaits you beneath the manhole.
The Manhole
You arrive at the top of the beanstalk.
The Manhole
You explore a sunken ship.
The Manhole
Mr. Dragon offers you a biscuit.
The Manhole
Mr. Elephant is always ready to take you for a ride in his boat.

The Manhole: New and Enhanced

Published by Activision, The Manhole: New and Enhanced is the 1992 remake of the original version of The Manhole. This remake features 256-color graphics and CD music not found in the original.

The Manhole: CD-ROM Masterpiece Edition

Published by Brøderbund Software, The Manhole: CD-ROM Masterpiece Edition is the 1994 remake of the original version of The Manhole.

When I was a kid, the original 1988 version of Cyan's The Manhole was the first computer game I received as a gift. It soon became a favorite of mine. Not surprisingly, when I was given an opportunity to play the 1994 remake, The Manhole: CD-ROM Masterpiece Edition, I was eager to do so—wanting again to experience the game's unique charm that first drew me to it years ago.

It is difficult to adequately describe The Manhole. This is because it is not a game as much as it is an experience. There are no plots to discover, no goals to be achieved, and no puzzles to solve. There is no way to complete the game, either. At the start of the game, you find yourself standing in a nondescript setting with a manhole set in the ground in front of you and a fire hydrant just beyond it. If you click on the manhole, the cover slides aside, and a gigantic beanstalk grows out of it. From there, you can choose to climb up the beanstalk, climb down the manhole, or investigate the fire hydrant more closely. No matter which option you choose, your journey through a fantastical world has now begun, and there is no telling what other strange discoveries you will make in your travels.

Created by the Brothers Miller (Rand and Robyn Miller), The Manhole is a surreal experience. Elements from Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and other fairy tales and fables are scattered throughout the game. They are also intermingled with objects, characters, and settings that can be both familiar and foreign at the same time.

The worlds of The Manhole are numerous and varied. In each world, there are many unusual characters that you can encounter. At the bottom of the beanstalk (which is on a tiny island surrounded by a calm ocean), you will meet a sea turtle who speaks to you in French and a small fish who will translate his words for you. Inside the fire hydrant (which will make you shrink down to a tiny size if you touch it), you will find a cozy little dwelling occupied by a white rabbit who asks you if you like to have a cup of tea or a glass of milk.

Visually, the characters in the remake are quite different than they are in the original. Most of the characters in the original have a simple, somewhat realistic look to them, but in the remake they are drawn in a soft, sketchy style that makes it look as if they have just stepped out of a kid's picture book. The characters from the original—a sleepy old walrus, a dragon that talks and dresses as if he is from the 1970s, an elephant on a boat clad in Indian attire, and several others—are all still present in the remake. The only exception is a character that has been changed to a sassy female rhino wearing overalls, who speaks of a past life as a flamingo if you talk to her—a subtle reference to the original character which she has replaced.

The backgrounds in the remake, unlike the characters, are simple, pre-rendered images that are sometimes reminiscent of Myst (also developed by Cyan). The hand drawn, stylized look of the 2D characters sometimes clashes with the 3D backgrounds, though not enough to detract from the game's overall art style.

Travel throughout the game can be strange and unpredictable—when you discover a huge stone tower standing in a dark forest clearing, you will suddenly find yourself on a rook standing amidst various chess pieces on a giant chessboard when you climb to the top, and clicking on an inkwell will cause black ink to spill all over the screen and transport you to a scene where it is currently night. Many of the scenes are interconnected in various ways, and you may often find yourself unexpectedly relocated to an entirely different scene than the scene you have just visited.

As the title implies, the remake contains many improvements to the original. These include 256-color graphics as well as digital music and sound effects. However, some of the 3D rendering looks grainy and blocky, and many of the 2D drawings have a gritty appearance. A lot of the voices also have an unpleasant hissing quality to them.

Yet, the biggest difference between the remake and the original is the overall visual tone of the game. The characters and settings in the original game, despite their surreal qualities, still have a realistic appearance, and the mood of some of the scenes is actually somewhat frightening. For example, in the original game, except for his suit and his humanoid stance, the rabbit looks a lot like a real-life rabbit, and at the edge of a pool near the tower, a huge, bearded stone head with glowing eyes blows flames out of its mouth if you click on it. In the remake, by contrast, the rabbit is much cuter and stylized, and the stone head is a smiling, chubby cheeked statue that only makes a sneezing noise if you click on it. Since the remake is targeted towards a younger audience, it is likely that these changes reflect the developer's decision to make the remake to look more like the kind of game a kid may want to play.

A particular annoyance about the game is that there is often no way to skip the dialog when a character is speaking. Not only that, but some of the characters will repeat the same phrase over and over. This can get a bit irritating. The animation in the game is also a little lacking—animations featuring objects are very grainy and often do not blend into the scenes very well. Also, when a character is animated, only a few frames are used, thus making the character's movement very choppy.

In many ways, The Manhole can be described as "Myst for kids". The 3D graphics are similar, and so is the style of music. The surreal environments and explorative nature of the gameplay are reminiscent of each other, as is the lack of an actual ending. Even the cursor has a similar hand shape! Unlike Myst, however, The Manhole has no puzzles to grapple with, no plot to unravel, and no problems to solve: it is simply a strange, enchanting world for both the young and the young-at-heart to explore.

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