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Throwback Review Series: MHM {a fresh new play-through and in-depth review}

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  • Throwback Review Series: MHM {a fresh new play-through and in-depth review}

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    Release Date: November 24, 2000
    Difficulty: Senior Detective

    FINAL SCORE: (6.5/10)

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    Rating Scale:
    1. Dreadful | 2. Poor | 3. Mediocre | 4. Not Bad | 5. Acceptable
    6. Good | 7. Exceeds Expectations | 8. Strong | 9. Superior | 10. Outstanding

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    Hi there! I am a veteran Nancy Drew player, and have been playing these games since I was very young. Message in a Haunted Mansion was the first game I played at eight years old. I am now 25 and have completed every game in the series at least once. However, it's been several years since I've played my last ND game (Sea of Darkness in 2015), and many, MANY years since I have played many of the games. I've had a bout of Nostalgia and have decided to replay the entire series, starting from the beginning. I've decided to write a review for each game as I go. I will be playing on Senior Detective and using as few hints/online help as possible.

    Please keep in mind that everything written below is only my personal OPINION. If you don’t agree with something I have to say about a game, please don’t feel upset or offended. We all enjoy different aspects of these games and it’s wonderful that we can all have differing opinions about what makes a game great. I hope you enjoy!!

    Disclaimer: This right here was the first Nancy Drew game that I ever played, and it has a special place in my heart for that reason. That being said, I’ll do my best to be objective while reviewing it. I’d also really love to hear others thoughts about it who may have an opinion different than mine.

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    PLOT: (7/10)

    Nancy travels to San Fransisco to assist Rose Green, a friend of Hannah’s, with the renovation of her recently acquired victorian mansion. Rose hopes to turn the beautiful mansion into a successful bed and breakfast, and has put a lot of effort and finances into the project. When Nancy arrives, she finds that the renovation has been plagued by a series of unfortunate accidents that continue to set the project back, and Rose worries that they won’t be able to open in time. Or worse, that she’ll have to give up on her dream project. Rose’s partner Abby seems convinced that a certain ghost is what is plaguing the mansion. Are these accidents mere coincidences? Are they the wrath of some restless spirit? Or is something more sinister at work? Nancy, as always, makes a point to find out.

    This plot, in my opinion, is pretty strong. Compared to the first two titles, the story here is unique and refreshing. This is the first entry in which Nancy isn’t asked to solve a mystery from the get-go, but uncovers a mystery during her otherwise normal travels. I personally tend to enjoy games that start out this way the best, because it really feels like you’re discovering the mystery with Nancy, rather than being told the mystery and THEN thrown into the gameplay. The story flows quite nicely and I don’t believe there was ever a point where I struggled immensely to find the path forward.

    This is also the first spooky game that HER created, and the intertwining of a ghostly theme with this plot is really what gives it that extra something needed to take it from average to great. This game does a really great job of presenting the player with a variety of interesting and spooky phenomenon, and successfully wraps it all up by the end while rewarding the player intermittently throughout the game as it all gets pieced together. One of the best parts about this aspect of the game is that nobody necessarily tells Nancy about any hauntings, and depending on the order in which you explore/play the game she’s very likely to discover it on her own. I felt as though that was an interesting choice with a big pay-off, because even though I’ve played this game many times, I’m still startled by some of the scary moments that crop up throughout this game.

    Finally, I feel as though this game does a particularly good job of rewarding the player throughout the gameplay in a multitude of ways, allowing a sense of accomplishment and discovery as the game proceeds while also verifying that Nancy is on the right track.

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    SETTING: (7/10)
    MHM is set in a stunning victorian-style mansion in San Fransisco. HER does a great job of representing the beauty and history of this particular mansion, and this choice of setting really pays off. Although this is the first installment where Nancy is confined to one location, it never feels small or confining in comparison to its predecessors, and provides the layer with a far richer sense of history and style.

    LOCATION: (7/10)
    The victorian mansion in which this game takes place is easily one of the most visually appealing locations that HER created amongst their early games. The sort of reverent attention to detail in MHM is breathtaking. While it was the sort of thing that I looked right past when I played this game as a child, it’s quite refreshing to play this game as an adult and truly appreciate its beauty. The mansion is masterfully done and consists of several locations, each which does a lovely job of portraying its own unique artistry and style without ever seeming dislocated or out of place.

    Nancy’s room is dressed with lovely chinese-inspired decor, and the player learns that it was one of the rooms that is original to the house. It even sports original furniture that came with the mansion when it was purchased. We learn that Abby’s room was near-empty at first, but by the time Nancy enters it’s decked out in mysterious purples and mystical decorations. Quite suitable considering its owner. The parlor and library are incredibly comfortable and homey, and feel like two parts to a whole. And then there’s the saloon, which is by far my personal favorite of the locations this mansion has to offer. It’s distinctly unique with some beautiful details and feels incredibly authentic due to the wooden features. It’s also paired with one of my favorite musical pieces of all of the games (something I typically won’t mention unless a piece REALLY stands out to me).

    Additionally, HER does a great job of turning the mansion into a brilliant mixture of comfortable and spooky. By this, I mean that you can really see where Rose is going with the renovation. The whole mansion is beautiful, and there are plenty of areas that really feel warm and inviting. The library, the parlour, the dining room, the saloon. If there was no spooky feel to this game, it would make sense. It doesn’t feel like the sort of place that has to be haunted like some other installments (CRY, HAU, GTH). Yet at the same time, once the haunting begins, it absolutely makes sense and feels as though it belongs. After all, it’s an old house. There’s some rich history here, and I know that if I lived there I’d be afraid to walk around by myself at night. Yet even once the spookiness starts, there are still some places that Nancy can get away from the chilling things going on. Her warm-toned room feels particularly safe, and I distinctly remember taking refuge in there after a few of the scary moments when playing this as a kid. The dining room and parlour/library take on a similar vibe. Though on occasion, HER (brilliantly) takes advantage of this sense of security by throwing a chilling sound effect into an otherwise “safe” feeling place.

    Overall, I think that the developers did a really great job with the feel and style of this location. They display a mastery and artistry here that the previous games severely lacked by comparison, and that (in my opinion) isn’t outdone for several games to come.

    EXPLORATION: (7/10)
    This entry is slightly different from the previous two, in that this is the first time that Nancy is confined to one specific location - that is, the Mansion. In both SCK and STFD, Nancy had the ability to travel around between three locations by use of a minimap. While one might assume that this tactic would make the world feel bigger, it doesn’t actually do much to boost the sense of exploration felt while playing the games. Yes, I could travel to a few different places. But Mattie Jensen’s house was pretty useless after the first couple minutes, and the diner never really felt like it was all that it could be. In both instances, there was one location that felt greatly larger than the other two, and the smaller locations felt rather dull and boring in comparison.

    MHM, on the other hand, takes an entirely different approach in that it doesn’t allow Nancy the option of travel at all. We’re stuck inside the Mansion for the entirety of the game. So surely at the get-go some players might be concerned about the idea of being cooped up in one place the whole time. But in reality, the game never feels this way. Though Nancy can’t leave the mansion, it’s easily the most interesting location to explore that we’ve been presented so far. It’s not massive, but it’s large enough. This location boasts roughly eight rooms that Nancy can explore, along with several secret locations, something that I feel the previous installments sorely lacked. When compared to SCK’s five explorable areas (Aunt Eloise’s, The Diner, The Library, The Boiler Room, and the School Hallways) and STFD’s seven areas (Mattie’s Home, Dwayne’s Office, Mattie’s Dressing Room, Ricks’ Dressing Room, Lillian’s Office, the Prop Room and the Main Studio), the single location of the mansion really doesn’t take anything away from the player, and it definitely improves upon its predecessors when it comes to gratifying exploration. HER goes from giving you several mediocre locations to one extraordinary location, and it really seems to pay off.

    As mentioned above, the artistry here is beautiful and simply getting to look at the rooms and designs is reason enough to explore. However, the mansion is filled with plenty of things more interesting to delve into than the wallpaper. Books, letters, bills - there’s a decent amount of history on both the mansion and its inhabitants, new and old, laying around for the player to find. MHM aslo rewards players for their exploration throughout the game by providing pieces intermittently to a long-term puzzle. So overall, there’s a lot to look at and nearly all of it has a purpose in directing Nancy toward the end of the game.

    That being said, I think I’ve made it rather obvious by now in my reviews that exploration is my favorite part of pretty much every Nancy Drew game. Ideally I’d LOVE a game that doesn’t show me a door that I can’t open. So, I feel it’s necessary to add that while I think that HER did a really great job here in comparison to its previous games (and some of its future games), it isn’t the absolute best they’ve done. The location is big. But it’s not huge, and there isn’t a TON of area to discover beyond what is presented to you at the beginning of the game. So, in being completely honest, it isn’t the best that HER has to offer. But it IS very good, and those who enjoy rewarding exploration will enjoy this title.

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    CHARACTERS: (3/10)
    Right up there with exploration, I also play these games for the characters involved. After all, what does a good story matter if you don’t care about the people involved? And this right here is where MHM goes slightly downhill. HER presents the player with an intriguing plot, a beautiful setting… and then throws in a bunch of lackluster characters. Some have interesting stories full of unfulfilled potential, and some are just uninteresting and poorly done. Some of the phone contacts are actually this game’s saving grace where conversation is concerned, and as a player I never really felt a strong connection with most of the suspects. I also think this game suffers from some extremely limiting dialogue. Nancy finds out a lot about the characters throughout her stay at the mansion, but there’s very little dialogue pertaining to any of it! A huge disappointment.

    ROSE GREEN: (3/10)
    Rose Green is an old friend of our beloved Hannah, and is the owner of the victorian mansion in which the plot takes place. Rose is trying to renovate the mansion and transform it into a bed and breakfast, but is very concerned about all of the accidents that have been happening. This is all revealed to the player through Nancy’s opening letter - and honestly, I never felt any closer to Rose than at that point. She’s a rather boring character to interact with, and I never feel as though her sense of desperation and urgency concerning the mansion comes through in the dialogue. I felt as though I was able to draw more personality from her insurance policy than the character itself. It seems as though HER wants you to feel badly for Rose, but I just never really do. Yes, she seems like she’s in way over her head. But playing this game as an adult (and a new homeowner)... things happen. Especially during renovations. Yes, it sucks that she’s got so much going wrong, bt she probably should have thought of that before buying a super expensive mansion and hiring a contractor that has no experience. Just saying.

    ABBY SIDERIS: (5/10)
    Oh Abby. Abby is a friend of Rose’s, and is a financial partner in the purchase of the mansion. Though I don’t feel as though any of the characters in this game are particularly great, I think I’ll venture to say that Abby one of the better ones. She’s unique, quirky, and in my opinion the most well rounded. She also plays a crucial role in furthering the plot. We learn some interesting stuff about her early on, and while we unfortunately never get to confront her about any of it, the game makes it quite easy to understand what she’s doing and why exactly she’s doing it. And by the end of the game I THINK she means well? Although the game doesn’t ever explicitly explains, I feel that of the two actually interesting characters here we can draw the most conclusions about her story and what happens to her at the end of the game.

    LOUIS CHANDLER: (1/10)
    Louis is an Antique dealer who specializes in the Victorian era. I think? To be honest, I’ve played this game at least ten times and I’ve never cared enough about him to concern myself with what he does. I’d sadly venture to say that Louis is one of the most boring, uninteresting and two dimensional characters that HER has created. He’s the worst of a generally disappointing cast of characters and a disservice to the beautiful library which he inhabits. Honestly though, I don’t have much to say about Louis aside from my general disappointment in him as a character. I’m a writer myself, and I’m a sucker for a really good, well rounded, three dimensional character. He’s the opposite of those things, and while everyone is equipped with a motive (because it’s a Nancy Drew game and that’s the way it is), his motive is as two dimensional and predictable as he is.

    CHARLIE MURPHY: (5/10)
    Alright HER, this one right here is where you really upset me. Yes, Louis is a disservice to the game because he’s a terrible character. There was no hope for him. Charlie, on the other hand, is a disservice to the game because he SHOULD have been a GREAT character. An inexperienced young person trying to get through school, hold a job and just make it in life without worrying anybody (especially his family) in the process? Yeah, who hasn’t been there. Like everyone in any Nancy Drew game, he has a secret to hide, and it’s by far the most interesting this game has to offer. I’m left feeling deeply for Charlie, and I’d really love for Nancy to be able to just give him a hug because he’s a beautiful human being who probably just needs some encouragement (as well as being one of the first guys to not hit on Nancy the moment he sets eyes on her.) I mean, don’t get me wrong, HER did a great job making me care about this character. They just did a HORRIBLE job of wrapping up his storyline. And by horrible, I mean that it was never properly wrapped up at all. What on earth even happened to him after all this? Where is he now? We get a three sentence explanation from him, and then it’s never spoken of again. The after-game letter also doesn’t give us any additional information. HER, please plop this guy back into a new game for me and finish what you started. I hope he has his PhD by now and is a millionaire living a life of luxury and happiness.

    I also want to add that depending on the order in which you play this game, you may not be able to access some of the latter dialogue with Charlie. In this particular playthrough, I wasn’t able to. He was missing from the time I discovered his secret to the very end of the game. Not sure what I did to trigger that in particular. Luckily, I’ve played this game before and could review him according to his full dialogue set.

    For those reasons, Charlie was difficult to review. I love him as a character, and I love his story. I always appreciate when I’m made to feel for a character. It means a lot that I care about what happens to him. However, the lack of conclusion here is unacceptable. Had HER given us access to more dialogue, or perhaps dialogue between Charlie and Rose, or even a nice description of what happened to him after the game ended, then I’d probably give Charlie a seven for those who are curious. I feel that even considering all of this, he’s easily the best character in this game. But because his story is wrapped up so poorly, I feel I’d be dishonest to give him a high score.

    PHONE CONTACTS: (4/10)
    Like I said above, the phone contacts in this game are actually quite solid and are much better than most of the main suspects. There's some great voice acting here, and the phone conversations are both interesting and help to further the story.

    HANNAH: (7.5/10)

    Oh, bless my heart, I love Hannah! And if I’m correct, this is the only game that she makes an actual voice appearance in. A horrible tragedy, if you ask me, because she was really wonderful here. Her voice acting is really well done, and she has exactly the sort of personality I’d expected her to have. She also has more personality than Rose and Louis combined, and has a sort of motherly relationship with Nancy (without being SO motherly that she discourages her from mystery solving.) I really enjoyed her dialogue and felt that she had enough to say when Nancy called her. While generally I find that some of the best phone contacts are unique and fun, Hannah pulls off her dialogue without needing to be quirky. While she may seem a bit duller than some more entertaining contacts, I do feel as though it’s an accomplishment in its own right to hold the interest of the player without sacrificing Hannah’s character. Great job!

    BESS AND GEORGE: (3.5/10)
    Bess and George are… alright. Going back and playing these games over is always a struggle for me when it comes to these two, because in the earlier games they haven’t settled on long-term voice actresses yet and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it ruins my immersion a bit to hear different voices behind these characters that I’ve come to know and love 32 games into the series. While their voices do change intermittently throughout the series, even later on, the early games are incredibly bad about changing voice actresses far too often. Katie Denny and Lindsey Newman return from STFD to voice Bess and George in MHM, both of whom won’t return for the remainder of the series.

    Their dialogue is good and helps Nancy move the plot forward. But it isn’t great, and certainly not anything to get excited over. This is the first time that Bess and George are presented as a pair, and they’re much more interesting together than they are apart as their personalities can play off of each other. This formula works time and time again in future games. Still, it really doesn’t feel like they’ve found their groove yet in this game, and they aren’t quite the Bess and George that we’ve come to know and love. An improvement from STFD, but not nearly as good as they are in future games.

    EMILY: (6.5/10)
    Now here’s the quirky phone contact I was talking about! Emily is journalist who Nancy calls after reading an article she wrote about “The Dragons of San Fransisco.” The voice acting for Emily is really great. This is the first time we’re introduced to an interesting long-term phone contact who isn’t one of Nancy’s close friends or family (such as Hannah, Bess, George and Ned). These sorts of outside sources prove to be beneficial and entertaining in future games, and I feel Emily was a great start to that! She’s very interesting to talk to, and she provides Nancy with crucial information in order for her to proceed with the story. I particularly enjoy when we’re given a glimpse into our phone contacts’ outside lives during our conversations with them, and I think this is the first time that HER does a good job of that.
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    ENDGAME: (2/10)

    After all of that history and mystery and intrigue, the ending of this game is just a little disappointing. While I actually really appreciated the way that the history of the mansion leads Nancy to discover the game’s final secret (another of this game’s firsts that works time and time again), the actual solution just felt a little unrealistic. I mean, what exactly happened and how on earth do the mechanics of that work?! I mean, I’m willing to believe that Tony Stark can fly around and save the world because he built a very scientific and realistic machine-suit and he’s a genius. Hermione can charm her purse to hold ten times the content it normally would because it at least follows the rules of magic. Now if she tried to conjure a hamburger, that would be ridiculous as that violates Gamp’s law of elemental transfiguration. What I’m getting at is that things don’t have to make COMPLETE sense. But they at least have to make some sense within the world we’re given. This one just didn’t do it for me.

    When it comes to the culprit and the actual end-game puzzle, I was rather disappointed. The culprit was who I expected, and their motive was what I expected, and there really wasn’t any depth here. There was nothing about the ending that bettered the story, and even the explanation for the accidents was rather lame. The end puzzle wasn’t particularly difficult, and incredibly similarly to the previous STFD, I knew exactly what to do because there was something that I’d discovered early on that had yet to be of any use. The best that I can say about it is that while it wasn’t difficult, it also wasn’t annoyingly frustrating.
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    This category may not affect the game’s overall score in any particular way, as low scores in the categories presented here shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as a bad thing. These are highly subjective to personal taste and are included primarily for informative purposes.

    DIFFICULTY: (3/10)
    Not very difficult as a whole. MHM isn’t very puzzle heavy, and the puzzles that are presented aren’t very hard. Some of them may be tricky for younger players. The natural progression of the game guides you along nicely, and unlike STFD I don’t feel as though there is much opportunity for confusion as to how to proceed.

    MHM introduces a decent long-term puzzle that varies in difficulty depending on which level you chose to play on. If playing as a Junior detective (which I did my first time through back when I was ten), Nancy has a bit of extra dialogue when looking at certain things which pretty much spell out exactly what you need to look for. In my opinion, that dialogue makes this game-long puzzle incredibly obvious and easy. As a senior detective, Nancy doesn’t offer any vocal help and you’re forced to make the connection yourself. While it isn’t immensely harder, it does require a far greater attention to detail as a player and would probably provide a longer gameplay experience.

    In my opinion, this game is rather short and only took me a few hours to get through. However, I’d take my gameplay length with a grain of salt as I’ve probably played this game more than any of the others and already know the solution to all of the puzzles. I’d imagine it took me MUCH longer when I was ten, but I don’t think I can say how long it would take me now if I’d never played it before.

    SCARE FACTOR: (6/10)
    Let’s keep in mind that I am a huge whimp when it comes to these games. I would be more than happy to get through an entire game and not be frightened once! That being said, this game is moderately scary. I’ve played it plenty of times, and some of the spooky moments still make me jump. I run past that mirror in the hallway like my life depends on it. Still, it isn’t the MOST scary, and there really aren’t any jump scares per se. Most of the scary moments are achieved by spooky sound effects, save for one or two. Additionally, in my opinion the spookiness loses its effect about halfway through the game as you start learning more about the mansion.

    MHM is the first game to really incorporate any sort of education or rich history into their locations. The mansion is full of books and journals and architecture that give us some insight into it’s original inhabitants. Not only do we get to learn about Diego and Lizzie who once lived there, but their story really drives the plot forward. Additionally, we get a brief intro to victorian mansions, chinese symbols and even a bit about how to read music. This is only the beginning of HER bringing history into their locations and education into their gameplay, so MHM doesn’t provide a ton to the player; however, the backstory here is beautifully done and the educational value of this game was the beginning of a great thing.

    IMMERSION: (3/10)

    By immersion, I mean: Does it really feel like Nancy is there doing the thing she says she’s doing for the reason she says she is? Is her reason for being there realistic? Does the game feel realistic? Is the plot realistic? Are the conversations realistic? Immersion is an extremely important part of gameplay for me, and I felt it needed its own category.

    In this case, the question is: Does it really feel like Nancy is there helping out with a renovation and discovering a mystery in the process? My verdict? No, not really. While I think that HER came up with a great reason for sending Nancy to San Fransisco (to help Rose renovate), it never actually feels like Nancy is helping her renovate. We help her out with two incredibly simple tasks and then she literally never asks us to do anything ever again. Nancy has all the time in the world to run around the mansion at her leisure as if she’s on vacation, pestering people and snooping through stuff. All over the course of several days. And all Rose wants her to do is fix one measly floorboard and scrape a bit of paint off the ceiling? Oh yeah, and the dumbwaiter, which why on earth would Nancy have any idea how to fix that Rose? Shouldn’t you be giving her a paintbrush and a can of paint or something? That’s what I would expect if I were going somewhere to help my housekeeper’s friend fix up a mansion. As stated before, the ending was also quite immersion breaking in my opinion. It isn’t awful, but overall, other games have done much better in this particular aspect.

    One thing about this game that I feel ADDED immersion, however, was the implementation of time. STFD allowed us to choose between day and night, yes. But I really loved that in MHM, all of the characters operated on their own schedules. Nancy has a watch and an alarm clock, and she has to work with (or around) the other characters to accomplish tasks.

    GRAPHICS (2/10):

    I don’t put too much emphasis on graphics, because I’m a strong believer that great graphics don’t necessarily make a great game. However, bad graphics can sometimes throw off immersion, while good graphics can be the icing on the top of a really good cake. Graphics in the Nancy Drew games can generally pertain to two very different things. Characters and location. When discussing graphics, I’m generally talking about how realistic the people and worldspace looks because I’ve already talked about the artstyle of the location under the Setting category.

    The characters in this game are expectedly not that well animated. In comparison to the truly horrendous character animation in STFD, they’re much better. Much, MUCH better. They look like actual people. But they’re still very awkwardly animated, and not very realistic. The cutscenes and spooky animations are likewise pretty rough. But hey, at least HER seems to be on the right track here. It will be MANY games before the characters really start to wow anybody with their lifelike appearance. But that’s to be expected, as graphics will naturally improve with time.

    We’re still in the pre-extra stuff to do phase. I think that goes on for a while, so until that kicks in I believe I’ll use this section to include anything that doesn’t fit into the other categories. In this case, I don’t feel there’s anything to add. I just wanted to explain what I’ll be using this space for going forward.

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    FINAL SCORE: (6.5/10)

    Message in a Haunted Mansion is definitely, without a doubt a classic. With an interesting, unique plot with a beautiful setting and a lovely artstyle, it’s easy to see why this game is widely considered a fan favorite. The story is compelling and the game rewards attention to detail and exploration, and the spookiness of this installment really helps take what could have been an average experience and make it great. The generally mediocre characters are this game’s downfall, and while some had great potential none of them came off as great by the time the game concluded. The end game was also a bit lackluster and the culprit felt predictable. However, the mansion is beautifully designed and interesting to explore, and the player has the opportunity to learn about the history of the location in which the story takes place. While not a perfect game, I feel as though this game implemented a lot of gameplay mechanics that went on to be highly successful in future games, making MHM a strong backbone for the rest of the series.

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    SCK | STFD | MHM | TRT | FIN | SSH | DOG | CAR | DDI | SHA | CUR | CLK | TRN | DAN | CRE | ICE

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    Last edited by Jett; April 15, 2022, 11:02 AM.

  • #2
    Another stellar review! Message in a Haunted Mansion was my first Nancy Drew game as well, so I share your nostalgic bias for it and your love for that magnificent "Saloon" theme. I don't know how I missed your reviews back when you were publishing them regularly, but I am glad I have seen them now. If you ever decide to come back, you'll have one loyal fan waiting for you!