This review was last edited on May 8th, 2019, though most of its content stayed the same.
“My name is Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate!” And that’s really as simple and as straight forward an introduction to The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasArts 1990, Special Edition from 2009) as you can get. You’re playing as Guybrush, a light-hearted, clumsy fellow on his way to becoming a real, grog drinking pirate. While trying to gain the respect of the real pirates, Elaine Marley, governor of Mêlée Island™ gets kidnapped by ghost pirate LeChuck and it is up to Guybrush to save the day.
There isn’t a whole lot of story to the game, since it’s made by a rather small developing team from the early days of LucasArts adventure games, and because it’s a point & click adventure, there also aren’t any gameplay mechanics except for “use item with another item”. So why talk about it in the first place? See, the Monkey Island series isn’t just an assortment of games, the franchise is by no doubt the best known point & click adventure series out there and anyone interested either in the genre itself or the evolution of video games as a whole should pick this game up.
Previously, the adventure game genre was dominated by Sierra On-Line
Previously, the adventure game genre was dominated by Sierra On-Line, and players had to type in commands to make the character do what they want them to do. Old computers had limited computing capabilities, so it sometimes took quite a while to find the verb the original programmers had used. These games also had dead ends as well as death traps, so one had to save often and use different save slots to make it through to the end credits. Naturally, many of these old adventure games were just terribly designed and outright boring and tedious to play. LucasArts decided to take a different route. Their SCUMM engine, first seen in Maniac Mansion, gave players a set of verbs that they could click on to interact with the environment, instead of having them make wild guesses on what might work.
Monkey Island was then one of the first to take this formula to the next level and get rid of death traps and dead ends. Suddenly every hurdle could be overcome, you just needed to think hard enough. Players could enjoy the ride a lot more, knowing that they didn’t have to fear unknowingly ruining their save game. More than that, Monkey Island’s family friendly humor became a staple of not only future LucasArts point & click games, but of the genre as a whole.
It sounds odd to say […] but this game is unresponsive at times.
LucasArts did a good job at preserving this old gem of a game and has given players the option to experience it with the option to toggle between new and old graphics, a hint system, new controls, new music, and of course a voiceover. (These things would later go on to be part of the standard remastering formula that Tim Schafer used over at Double Fine. Cf. my reviews on Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck’s Revenge [1991, Special Edition 2010], Day of the Tentacle Remastered [1993, remastered 2015], Grim Fandango Remastered [1998, remastered 2015], Full Throttle Remastered [1995, remastered 2017]) But there are some issues with this release.
It sounds odd to say this about a point & click adventure, but this game is unresponsive at times. When moving the mouse to the edge of the screen and telling Guybrush to go there, he often times doesn’t register my commands, something that later LucasArts adventure games remasters don’t suffer from. Another issue is that, when playing with the modern graphics turned on, I can only select dialog options when I move the mouse icon near the left-hand side of the of the screen. Even more so, whenever I have the new graphics turned on, I can only navigate through the item menu using the keyboard instead of the mouse. This ultimately led me to prefer the old graphics over the new. And finally, something that is a minor complaint and a non-issue, really: The PC port does not contain any achievements, which the Xbox 360 version has.
At the end the question aficionados will ask themselves is: “Does it hold up?” To which the answer is a resounding “Eh.” It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the game’s humor is on point and still holds up after all these years. It’s also a genre defining game. On the other hand there are several portions in the game that have not aged well. Most notably the one segment where Guybrush has to pour grog from one mug to another while trying to get to Otis, and the other part where players venture through Monkey Island™ itself. There is also a portion that has some pixel hunting going on, meaning players have to click on a specific pixel to tell Guybrush to go there. This works fine with the old graphics, but with the new one, where everything is hand drawn, it’s just bothersome.
“Does it hold up?” […] “Eh.”
At times The Secret of Monkey Island also rely on “moon logic,” puzzles whose solution only makes sense if you “hold your head like that, spin around three times and squint with your eyes like so.” The storytelling too isn’t as evolved as in later Monkey Island sequels. It’s obvious that LucasArts adventure games were still in their infancy here, but it certainly foreshadows what amazing games were to come. This game is definitely worth picking up, if you’re looking for a little history lesson on video games as a medium. Players who are not used to these old adventure games, might be better off playing Day of the Tentacle. With all that said, I’ll leave you with the wisest words that have ever been uttered in a video game:
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is available by itself or as part of the Monkey Island Special Edition Collection and can be found both in retail as well as a digital download on Good Old Games, iTunes, or Steam for $9.99 USD or your local counterpart.
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