Episodic gaming," in which chapters of a videogame are distributed one-by-one via the 'Net, has long promised to smash the traditional model, in which publishers put a complete game on store shelves and hope for the best. Telltale Games' newest incarnation of the "Sam and Max" franchise is the first major attempt to make the episodic model a reality and it's a great start.

Episodic gaming,” in which chapters of a videogame are distributed one-by-one via the ‘Net, has long promised to smash the traditional model, in which publishers put a complete game on store shelves and hope for the best. Telltale Games’ newest incarnation of the “Sam and Max” franchise is the first major attempt to make the episodic model a reality and it’s a great start. The six-episode first season is rip-roaringly funny.

Anthropomorphic dog detective Sam and his rabbit-esque sidekick Max, who together make up the Freelance Police, have taken many incarnations since Steve Purcell created them in a 1987 comic book. The comical critters have appeared in a Saturday morning cartoon series and a popular 1993 computer game that was supposed to spawn a sequel by LucasArts, but was cancelled in 2004. Members of the creative team behind the stunted LucasArts game started their own company, Telltale Games, to use TV-style storytelling with their beloved characters.

Unlike most games, “Sam and Max” relies more on smart detective work than fast and accurate clicking. With the exception of a car-racing sequence, the game is a methodical experience in which players have to figure out the right item to use or thing to say in order to progress. Almost every object can be explored, and many elicit a humorous response — from a road kill calendar in the main characters’ office to a gift shop on the moon.

Lack of action could make the game boring if the story weren’t so smart and funny. Each episode works on its own merits or as part of the season-long arc, just like a network sitcom.

Sam & Max always start out with a call from the mysterious Commissioner, who has a bizarre case for them to solve. Overall theme of Season One is hypnosis, as Sam & Max must work to stop Prismatology guru Hugh Bliss from his mind-control scheme of turning the world into perpetual bliss. Former child stars, talkshow hosts, the mob, the president of the United States and the Internet are all sardonically skewered. Recurring cast members and references to previous episodes reward those who pay attention.

Top-notch voice acting and a bright and vivid color palette make for an experience as good as most animated series. Those with slower PCs, however, will notice lags.

In a modern videogame biz that too rarely produces true innovation, “Sam and Max” is a breath of fresh air. It proves that episodic gaming can not only work, but actually be more engaging than a real television series.

Sam & Max: Season One

Rated T; Price: $8.95 per episode/$34.95 for season

Production

A GameTap/Telltale Games presentation of a game developed by Telltale Games for PC. Available at TellTaleGames.com or via subscription at GameTap.com.
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