Summer time is long gone, but winter might just be the best season to relive some Caribbean swashbuckling adventure memories with Lucasfilm Games’ The Secret of Monkey Island and its Special Edition.
The Secret of Monkey Island (PC)
(USA 1990, developer/publisher: Lucasfilm Games (now defunct), platforms: PC, Amiga, Atari ST, CDTV, FM Towns, Sega CD)
Young Guybrush Threepwood wants to become a mighty pirate and encounters ghost pirate LeChuck who terrorizes Mêlée Island in pursuit of governor Elaine Marley.
A pirate’s adventure story with lots of laughs
The story couldn’t be simpler with an upstart hero who has to make a name of himself by completing three tasks for his senior pirate mentors and facing an undead villain who has to be defeated in order to win the heart of a beautiful woman. Inspired by the Disneyland ride Pirates of the Caribbean which spawned one of the most lucrative movie series in cinema history, Lucasfilm Games’ take is a much sillier affair, as adventure and pirate clichés are constantly ridiculed. Being self-conscious about the the genre it spoofs, the game’s writing is witty enough to create a Caribbean atmosphere that remains true to its source material and is believable enough to immerse the player.
So pirates might be foul-mouthed drinkers and looters, but it’s what’s expected of them, just as with any other profession. Cannibals might eat people, but they also have their doubts if it’s good for their digestion. Most of the humor comes from mixing modern ways with classic literature tropes. One example is ship salesman Stan who uses the same means as car salesmen to convince customers to invest in something they might not necessarily need. There are obviously more memorable characters like the Voodoo Lady or hermit Herman Toothrot, but what they all have in common is that they feel like real persons that might actually have lived in an alternative pirate world, just as Guybrush is a likeable anti-hero who falls from one mishap into another without losing his sense of humor.
Different strokes of humor
The writing is spot-on funny with lots of puns and self-referential humor. As the dialogues are never too long, it’s always a joy to read through all the different replies or look at objects and the environment, even if this isn’t required to advance in the game. It’s impressive how the pirate world comes to life in short conversations or reading short texts. For example, reading through notes that have been exchanged between LeChuck, the cannibals, and Herman Toothrot on Monkey Island establishes their relationship and character traits, while also providing background information on current events.
While most modern games use all kinds of cutscenes and exposition to build their worlds, The Secret of Monkey Island achieves it with humor aplenty and just the right amount of text. There’s also a lot of visual slapstick and genre conventions are made fun of, too. Despite using the same ridiculous puzzle design (brilliantly presented in one scene when the game takes control away from the player and automatically solves hilariously surreal puzzles or in another scene when the player is given many options to choose from that are completely pointless), these are an integral part of the game.
The puzzles are all based on object combinations and conversations. The solutions are as funny as they’re weird, often providing multiple tasks to complete in any order. The main goals are usually clear, but the way how to achieve them isn’t. Because most locations are unlocked right from the start, one will feel overwhelmed with things to do. Despite all the obscure solutions, it’s still a rewarding feeling when even the strangest idea turns out to be the right one. Using clues from papers or being observant to find a hidden treasure or open a safe adds to variety, too.
Choosing the right dialogue options is another way to solve puzzles, which becomes especially important in the now-famous insult sword fighting scenes when Guybrush has to defeat his opponent with both sword and wit. Using various insults to start and to parry with the appropriately more insulting reply is fun and original, but it’s also a rather tedious exercise in running around, meeting pirates with different skills in the hope to learn something new one can use next time. As these encounters are random, one goes through a lot of unnecessary fights before one is finally able to face the island’s Sword Master.
Lost in running around
In general, the biggest problem of the game is spending too much time walking around from one place to another and back again. As there isn’t any fast-travel option like a map (one actually has to reach the map screen and go from one to the next location), it becomes frustrating if one hasn’t a clue of where to go or what to do next. As some items can easily be overlooked, pixel hunting becomes another issue.
Artful pixels and cheerful sounds
Pixel art is timeless if it’s done right. So even if the characters’ faces are a pixelated mess (except for the beautifully drawn close-ups during some conversations) and some of the backgrounds make it difficult to see items or screen exits, the low-res graphics give both characters and environments plenty of opportunities to be distinctive, which is mainly due to the use of colors and special effects. Background sounds, even if usedy sparsely, add to each location’s atmosphere. The music remains as catchy and iconic today as it was when it was released, although due to technical limitations, both soundtrack and effects stop playing on many screens.
Something special or something different?
In 2009, the Special Edition was released by LucasArts (now defunct and thus only available with courtesy of Disney Interactive) on digital platforms, including console versions and iOS. In addition to updated graphics and new controls, voice acting is the biggest change. Without a doubt, the better sound quality gives the atmosphere a boost, while voice acting is top-notch. The more elaborate soundtrack might not be to anyone’s nostalgic tastes, but it’s still an improvement, especially since now every screen has received enough background noises that don’t simply stop playing. However, there’s certainly something lost with the pixel art replaced by often ugly character models that look more grotesque with their jarring animations and comic looks, which is extremely noticeable with that terrible hairdo of Guybrush. Some of the environments are more detailed and feature nice effects, like clouds moving or water ripples and reflections.
The new controls are unintuitive, though, as one has to hold the mouse button and then cycle through ways of interaction. Fortunately, there’s an option to switch between the new visuals and retro look on the fly, even if it’s not possible to play the old version with voice acting and better sound effects. Listening to a retrospective commentary is the icing on the cake, though, for those interested in the development process.
A classic tale to play again and again, even in a special edition
The Secret of Monkey Island is still a highlight of Lucasfilm Games and of the adventure genre as a whole. Its humor and characters are as recognizable as the music, even if not all the puzzles are as memorable as the insult swordfighting scenes. It might have a rather abrupt ending and a short playtime of just 4 hours, but it’s a nostalgic trip one always wants to make again to remember how fun (and ridiculous) the good old adventuring times looked and felt like, including lots of headscratching and running around looking for clues and items.
The Special Edition is something of a mixed bag, though. While it’s clear that the developers wanted to stay true to the original vision by delivering more detailed backgrounds, the stiff character models and bad controls are changes many purists will have a problem with. However, it’s still worth playing for the excellent voice acting and improved sound design alone.
Score: 9/10 (for the original version)
Score: 8.5/10 (for the Special Edition)
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