Secret of Monkey Island was first released in October of 1990, a time when “adventure games” were still a real thing; the genre monopolised by the two warring monoliths of LucasArts and Sierra. I was a month old.
By the time adventure games had faded into relative obscurity during the latter half of that same decade, I, like most people, was so enamoured with the high-resolution art, CD-quality audio and three-dimensional game worlds of the home console scene that I considered everything which came before entirely obsolete. It took me half a decade to start considering that viewpoint potentially incorrect, and another half again to realize exactly how incorrect it truly was. That was when, twenty years after the game’s initial release, I sat down to play Secret of Monkey Island.
In truth, the version I played was not the original, but rather the high-definition remastering of the game released on Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Store and Steam. Still, all available evidence seems to suggest that the core games are identical. The only special things about this edition are the aforementioned glossy HD makeover, a new user interface, some above-average voice acting, and fresh music. We’ll get to all of that. For now though, let’s take a look at the actual meal rather than the garnish.
Secret of Monkey Island tells the story of Guybrush Threepwood, a curiously soft-spoken and polite young man with the grand ambition of becoming an old-school pirate – the kind of guy with one eye, a parrot and a wooden leg. At the start of the game he lands on Melee Island and sets out to make his fortune. Along the way he’ll meet (and fall for) the island’s feisty governor, learn the art of insult sword-fighting, and earn the ire of an undead, voodoo-cursed rival pirate named LeChuck.
Players control Guybrush by clicking on where they went him to go, who they want him to talk to, or any one of a number of random items which need to be used in increasingly illogical ways. This is the traditional genre template; the one which has been made fun of quite a lot since it stopped being prominent. And for good reason, it seems, as it certainly takes a while to really understand the fact that the game is relying on you using it’s (frankly bizarre) logic rather than your own.
Puzzles in Secret of Monkey Island are typically of the “use item X with item Y on item Z” variety, but many of the solutions are spectacularly esoteric. Upon close inspection a few do make sense, but in most cases it would make considerably more sense to use the four or five other, more appropriate items sitting in your inventory. That’s if you manage to find the necessary bits and bobs at all, as they’re usually sitting in the most nonsensical corner of the world and wrapped up in some silly contrivance. Very few characters share important information or suggest where you may need to be; you’re left to figure that out on your own. These are all genre-specific issues, but the genre is fifteen years out of date. It’s easy to imagine less patient players getting bored and giving up.
You shouldn’t give up though. Yes, it may take you some time to figure out a few puzzles. But everything outside of those occasional periods of head-scratching trial and error is honestly superb. This is a game brimming with charm, personality, intelligence and genuine wit. It’s funny – really funny throughout in ways which few games are at all. And it deserves to be enjoyed on that basis even if you’re not utterly taken with how it all works.
The humour in Secret of Monkey Island is effective because although it’s overtly a comedy game about zombie pirates in a theme-park version of the Caribbean, it also deals with relatable human themes and contains moments of genuine emotional weight. This contrast is an important technical aspect of comedy, and Monkey Island is a great example of it. When everything is silly, it’s incredibly difficult for anything to actually seem it. The serious, more grown-up parts of the game aren’t there just to further the story – they’re vital components in making the comedy parts funnier, and they’re also the audience’s emotional, human connection to that story.
The particular advantage that the Monkey Island games had is that they were developed by a small team – Ron Gilbert, Tim Shafer and Dave Grossman – who all inherently understood how video game comedy ought to work. Writing is an oft-neglected part of modern video game development, sometimes handed off to freelancers with no company affiliation at all; often considered an optional extra rather than a crucial, fundamental part of the design process. It’s incredibly difficult to create effective comedy in an environment like that, when the words in the script are cracking gags and the rest of the game is refusing to pull its weight. The Monkey Island team were writers and designers, giving them the scope not just to tell the jokes, but to set them up properly within gameplay.
The video game industry isn’t like that anymore. Now it’s a multi-billion dollar cultural behemoth – most of the titles it spews out are completely designed by committee and suffer for it. It’s rare to be able to enjoy a game outside of the indie scene with such focused design and thematic unity. Secret of Monkey Island isn’t just a faithful recreation of a classic; it’s a window into a time when this hobby of ours was fundamentally different in every aspect. And it’s important we peer through if we want to understand games on a deeper, more useful level.
Anyway, back to the special edition. The new art is tasteful and adheres to the tone and style of the original. Being able to switch between the old and new visuals with a single button press is fascinating; the transition is seamless, and we’re talking here about a real-time dissolution between a square, pixelated gameworld and a widescreen HD display. I tended to swap between both in any given area, just to see how it worked.
The modern UI is less successful, and in most cases (pretty much anything more complex than simply talking to someone or opening a door) I stuck with the original, on-screen menu of actions and inventory items. It clutters the screen, definitely, but there were certain timed puzzles such as the melting grog mugs which were incredibly cumbersome and irritating without it. The new system is comprised of pop-up radial menus and hotkeys, which makes stringing a sequence of actions together with inventory items incredibly unintuitive.
The orchestration is now full-bodied rather than a collection of MIDI tunes, and the voice acting is superb – by far the biggest reason to play with the new visuals as much as possible, as the old view still has static speech captions. The words are the same, but it’s surprising how much a talented cast breathes life into them.
Really though, special edition or not, the most impressive thing about Secret of Monkey Island is that it doesn’t seem to have aged in any of the significant areas. The game’s genius is that is constantly operates on multiples levels; as an adventure game, as a post-modern comedy, as a surprisingly good story. No one element ever overpowers the other – in a lot of cases the jokes are the puzzles, and vice versa – which results in a near-perfect pace. More important though is that aforementioned peephole into a time when things were different. I think it’s an incredibly positive thing that such a classic game with such an old-fashioned school of thought and design pinning it together is now so easily available to a whole generation of gamers like me who might have missed it. These are the titles which helped to mould this industry, and it would be very different without them. History never loses significance, and neither will Secret of Monkey Island. You’ve got to respect that.