The game takes place in 1997, which was 9 years into the future at the time of release. Travel to Mars is possible in this time period, and news headlines were all abuzz about two college students who traveled there themselves in a modified van. The game's titular character, Zak McKracken, will have to team up with these students in order to travel across Earth and on the face of Mars to try to stop an alien plot that threatens the inhabitants of Earth.
The gameplay is very similar to Maniac Mansion, which was released at around the same time, and used the same engine. When Zak meets the friend of the college students, you will be able to switch between the characters. You can switch between Zak and Annie on Earth, and between Melissa and Leslie on Mars. Each character has a different personality that will make them the right person to solve certain puzzles, which are all quirky and fun, and fit into the game world well. Zak and Annie travel around the Earth using their cash cards, which leads to one of the main drawbacks of the game. It is possible to go broke, which makes it impossible to buy new flight tickets, which means that you're stranded with no way to go further. There are ways to get more money, but it's not implicitly stated by the game how to do so, so many will find themselves stuck without a walkthrough. There are also many mazes in the game, which were common in older adventures. They were used mostly to artificially extend game play, and usually weren't fun to get through. This is certainly true here, as they are completed by mere chance, as there are no maps available in the game to help you through them.The game does have some neat features that are unique, however. At one point, Zak finds an alien crystal that allows him to merge with the spirit of animals and use their unique abilities to get places that he could not. This is an interesting, memorable game mechanic that is used well.
The art style is also very reminiscent of Maniac Mansion. Unlike Maniac Mansion, however, there is a hard to find higher resolution version available for the Japanese FM-Towns computer, which has improved VGA artwork and a soundtrack that streamed from the CD. This version is also supported by the fan interpreter ScummVM, which will let you play this game on modern computers, phones, tablets, and consoles. The other versions only have the title song, which is quite memorable on its own. However, the CD soundtrack of the FM-Towns version is an excellent addition, as the music is well done and really adds to the atmosphere of the game.
Other than the pre-SCUMM adventure Labyrinth, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders is the one game that has not fared as well over the course of time as the other games in the LucasArts adventure game library. There are a lot of dated gameplay mechanics that are not fun to play. It's possible to spend all of your money. Since the game doesn't explain how to get more, it's very possible to hit a dead end. There are also many mazes in the game that are completed solely by chance. There are many good things about the game, however. The multiple character aspect is used well here, as it was earlier in Maniac Mansion. The puzzles are all quirky but fun, and the ability to become animals is a unique game mechanic that still works well today. The FM-Towns version is hard to find, but if you want to give this game a play despite it's flaws, that's the version to play. The updated VGA graphics are well done, and the CD soundtrack adds a lot to the game's atmosphere.
Update 3/21/15: Since I posted this, the FM-Towns version is no longer hard to find. It is now available digitally from GOG.com for only $5.99. I highly recommend playing this version if you want to play this game, as it adds so much to the experience that I have now bumped my review score up half a point since the FM-Towns version is now among the most common and is definitely the definitive version of this game.
3½ out of 5