LucasArts’ comic point-and-click adventure game The Curse of Monkey Island shows that even the third part of a series can deliver quality.
The Curse of Monkey Island (PC)
(USA 1997, developer: LucasArts (now defunct), publishers: LucasArts (now defunct)/Disney, platform: PC)
Guybrush Threepwood accidentally puts a cursed ring on the finger of his love Elaine Marley, turning her into a gold statue, and soon embarks on another adventure, while ghost pirate LeChuck tries to take revenge on him.
A familiar pirate’s life for me
What do you do if you have a rather nonsensical ending as in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge which makes any sequel difficult to make? You simply ignore it and continue with Guybrush and Elaine fighting against LeChuck. So even if it’s all a return to basics and there are more than a few nods to past games, like finding a crew and visiting various islands, the familiar territory is what has made The Secret of Monkey Island great in the first place. Despite telling a rather simple story about lifting a curse, finding a ship and crew members, the plot is still engaging enough with lots of unexpected twists and mishaps following the unlucky young pirate. Based on a Disneyland theme park ride, it only makes sense that this becomes part of the gameplay and storyline of the final chapter, too.
The swashbuckling fun never stops
The pirate adventure genre is again ridiculed by including modern or classic ideas, e.g. motivational speeches for upcoming swashbucklers or making them perform a Shakespeare play, while popular culture, the adventure genre or computer games in general are targeted in humorous form, e.g. having the credits roll in one scene when Guybrush apparently died. Most of the fun comes from well-known characters making a return, like salesman Stan who has started a life insurance business after having spent a long time in a coffin Guybrush nailed shut in the second game or the cannibals who have become vegetarians and organize an outreach program for tourists.
The new additions aren’t throwaway characters, either, as Murray proves: a skull who always has an evil scheme to take over the world and crops up in all sorts of places. The funny writing is spot-on with its timing, combining wordplay, rhymes and sarcasm in a way very few modern games have delivered since its inception. Pirates are known for singing rather bawdy songs, and the shanties in The Curse of Monkey Island are as funny as many of the pirate stories that aren’t essential for completing the game (except for a very catchy one that requires a specific dialogue option), but which add to the pirate lore and laughter. Learning about the backgrounds of the pirates who opened a barbershop makes them even more likable with this.
Trying out different conversation paths or looking at objects in the environment resulting in funny lines and comments is very rewarding in itself. This doesn’t mean that one won’t encounter very talkative characters, especially towards the end when LeChuck explains his evil scheme and tries to tie up loose ends from past games, which ends up in an exposition that is too long.
It’s not all laugh-out-funny slapstick, though, as there’s a surprisingly touching story about the Goodsoup family which revolves around a tragedy between two lovers who Guybrush has to help reuniting again. Taking place on Blood Island, the chapter presents the most memorable and interesting characters, proving once again that LucasArts knew how to build a believable setting one can easily get lost in, despite involving ghosts and wacky characters. As each island has a unique background story, e.g. a giant chicken called El Pollo Diablo terrorizing a restaurant, exploring the locations is half of the fun, and it’s telling that even if one gets stuck on a puzzle, one still has a great time going from one screen to the next.
Puzzles for the ages
LucasArts is not only known for its quirky sense of humor, but also for its bonkers puzzles. These might require some unusual thinking, but are ultimately satisfying to solve. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that one can achieve many goals in any order and that quite a few puzzles are interconnected, i.e. picking up an item on one island might be useful on another one. This inevitably results in a crowded inventory with too many objects to combine and some very obscure solutions. Still, as these are often unique and inventive, frustration soon turns into laughter.
With two difficulty levels to choose from at the beginning of the game, one can also easily skip some of the more outlandish puzzles. But then one will also miss some very funny ones, e.g. how Guybrush is swallowed up by a snake and has to use all sorts of objects inside of it to escape. Backtracking is essential and while the slow walking animations of Guybrush can break even the most patient player, at least one can travel rather fast by double-clicking on screen exits.
More pirate things to do
One has to complete a few mini-games in order to progress, and while these fit the pirate theme (except for a banjo music contest that plays out like a Simon Says game), they’re not without their problems. The iconic insult swordfighting sequences make a return, but this time one has to defeat the opponent with appropriately condescending replies that have to rhyme after having come out victorious from sea battles.
Despite being able to choose between two difficulty levels allowing the player to have more or less control over the ship movements, these arcade-like sequences are frustrating due to rather clunky controls. Trying to steer one's ship and at the same time firing at the constantly moving and firing enemy is only fun the first time around. But then one has to repeat this until one has collected the right insults for the final fight against a French captain. The idea of the sea battles is sound, and there's something engaging about winning them and then plundering their treasures in order to upgrade one's weapon system.
Fast reflexes aren’t usually required in point-and-clickers, but a couple of puzzles can only be solved by quickly interacting with the environment. So one doesn’t only have to be observant of one’s surroundings, especially with some characters putting objects down, but one also has to be quick with handling one’s inventory, which becomes especially annoying in the finale, something that all games in the series have unfortunately fallen back on.
A painter’s dream of pixel art and a music lover’s epiphany
Despite being over 20 years old, the backgrounds and characters artwork is still impressive today, delivering so many great scenes one wants to put into a frame and put on the wall. Even if the cutscenes are presented in low resolution and some pixel remains can be seen on the characters’ outlines, one feels as if playing a cartoon. It’s telling that the special editions of The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge tried to imitate an animated movie look, but failed with their HD representations, as many character models looked rather ugly. This isn’t the case here, as everyone and everything one sees is visualized in a way that simply can’t be made any better. Maybe if one approached it as Tim Schafer did with Day of the Tentacle: Remastered which stayed true to its source material, one would have the ultimate modern edition. As it is, the graphics are timeless.
The same goes for the stellar music and voice acting. Being the first Monkey Island game with voice acting back in the days, choosing Dominic Armato proved the best decision, as he simply IS Guybrush Threepwood, which also explains why he was used again for the remasters of the first and second game. The rest of the cast is just as good, while the soundtrack only features catchy and memorable tunes one still hums all those years later. Sound effects add atmosphere to each screen so that one really feels part of the Caribbean pirate adventure, so much so that one wants to return to it again and again.
Third time’s the unforgettable charm
Many Lucasfilm or LucasArts games are fondly remembered today, but very few are as entertaining and immersive as The Curse of Monkey Island. It’s a title one wants to play on a regular basis, because its writing is funny, characters are memorable, puzzles are imaginative, even its presentation hasn’t aged much due to the quality of the artwork. It might not be a revolution for the genre in terms of gameplay, but as a posterchild for must-play point-and-clickers, it comes heartily recommended and is quite simply the best game in the series. Playing it feels as if being on a vacation one doesn’t want to end, even if it means getting stuck on some tougher challenges.
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