A Look Back at Monkey Island

With the new announcements from LucasArts and Telltale Games regarding (A) a special edition remake of the original “Secret of Monkey Island” and (B) a new season of adventures entitled “Tales of Monkey Island”, fans of classic adventure gaming are going nuts, with not-so-surprisingly diverse reactions.

See, fanboys of any franchise fall into a number of categories. There are the fanboys who think that everything in the franchise is of an equal standard, there are the fanboys who think that only the first (or maybe second) installment is worth anything, and there are those who fall into some sort of middle ground. In the case of “Monkey Island”, there are a number of fanboys who believe that the series ended after original creator Ron Gilbert left, and anything not written SOLELY by him is not canon. (A slightly odd stance to take, as Gilbert himself has stated that his co-writers Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer were just as responsible for the tone and humor of the original game, but I digress.) These people seem to want nothing to do with the new releases, despite the fact that both of them got Gilbert’s blessing, and “Tales” had his involvement in the brainstorming process and is being overseen by Grossman.

Personally, I could not be more excited about the new Monkey Island releases. It does my heart good to see LucasArts at least showing a little respect for its roots (more than Sierra has shown, even when they released a few Quest collections…but that’s another rant), and Telltale has an excellent track record as far as doing justice to beloved franchises goes. Does being happy about these releases instead of immediately cynical mean I lose all my geek cred?

This got me to wondering where I fit in the fanboy spectrum. I decided to look back over the classic Monkey Island collection and see how I feel about each one.

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE MONKEY ISLAND GAMES. IF YOU HAVE NOT PLAYED THE MONKEY ISLAND GAMES AND DO NOT WISH TO BE SPOILED, DO NOT READ THIS POST. UNLESS THE ONLY GAME YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED IS “ESCAPE FROM MONKEY ISLAND”, BECAUSE NOBODY CARES ABOUT BEING SPOILED FOR THAT ONE.

1. The Secret of Monkey Island.
Ah, the original. One of the most quotable games ever made. The insult swordfighting sequence alone (credited to Orson Scott Card) provides me with a great deal of my daily conversation.

Okay, I may be pathetic, but…how appropriate! You fight like a cow!

The story starts off simply enough–Guybrush Threepwood wants to be a pirate, and must undergo three trials in order to be accepted–but the rich characters, witty dialogue, and clever puzzles all add up to something that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

Some of the puzzles are easy, others delightfully complex. Some may be a bit TOO complex, or require you to pick up on too obscure a clue, but there aren’t too many situations like this. This game is virtually flawless, and is probably the most fantastic introduction to the adventure game genre anybody could ask for. This is why I am so excited for the special edition rerelease–it will turn a whole new generation onto this legendary game, and by association, this constantly underrated genre.

The game’s one shortcoming? The storyline is far too linear, which doesn’t allow for a whole lot of replay value. (There’s one point where you can affect how you get off Monkey Island and change a joke at the end, but it’s relatively minor.) Compared to, say, the two Indiana Jones adventure games, which both had numerous different paths to completion, replaying this game doesn’t give you a whole lot of freedom to try new things. But, hey, I rewatch movies I’ve seen before and don’t complain that the Death Star still destroys Alderaan, so I can always replay the game just to rediscover the dialogue, the art, etc.

2. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge.
This, too, starts off with a simple story–Guybrush, now a mighty pirate, is looking for the legendary treasure of Big Whoop–but it quickly becomes much more complex than the first game. More characters, more locations, and more puzzles. While this does provide for an even richer gameplay experience than the first one, it also meant that there were far too many puzzles that took far too long for me to figure out, and more running for hints than I am proud of. (Of course, I could have always selected the “Lite” gameplay with fewer puzzles, but I’m not a COMPLETE wuss.)

Due to the complexity, I don’t find myself replaying this game nearly as often as I do the original (which is odd considering my complaint about the first one and the fact that there’s a bit more free range here). The start is a little slow, although once you get past that, there’s plenty of freedom in terms of which puzzles you want to do when. Still not a lot of variety in outcomes, however. Virtually all the puzzles only have one solution, you can just change which order you choose to do them. That’s pretty much the case for ALL the Monkey Island games, though, and many other adventure games, so it’s not worth complaining about. If, however, you want an adventure game with virtually limitless options and replay value, track down “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. But that’s another review.

In short, the game is fun, but its complexity and deeper story makes it a different playing experience from the first, even if they both start off similarly. But the game’s most polarizing feature is undoubtedly the ending.

First off, let me just say that NONE of the sequels had an ending that completely satisfied me. But in this case, that wasn’t unexpected, as the ending was, you know, a cliffhanger. It was “revealed” that LeChuck is Guybrush’s “weird brother Chuckie”, and that they are in fact children playing a pirate game while at a theme park with their parents…until Chuckie’s eyes glow evilly, and Elaine, standing outside, hopes that LeChuck doesn’t have a spell on Guybrush.

And, roll credits!

Now, some purists who only see the Gilbert-guided games as canon tend to believe that the theme park ending is indeed reality, and the evil glow and Elaine stinger are just still part of Guybrush’s imagination. Elaborate theories have been constructed indicating that the entire franchise is a theme park fantasy, citing Stan’s Grog machine and other anachronisms as evidence. Gilbert has stated that this is not necessarily the case, and he had plans for a Monkey Island trilogy that would finally reveal what the elusive Secret of Monkey Island is (aside from, you know, the LOCATION of Monkey Island), but Gilbert left LucasArts, and it wasn’t until 1997 that we received…

3. The Curse of Monkey Island
The time between MI2 and CMI saw a lot of changes at LucasArts, and in gaming in general. Over at Sierra, the King’s Quest series had already switched from attempts at realism with pixels to a more traditional hand-drawn cel animated look with “King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride”, and it wasn’t long before Monkey Island followed suit. Now, the cartoonish gags had a cartoonish look to go with them, which sat better with some fans than with others. For me, it took some getting used to, but I grew to really enjoy CMI’s look over time.

The other major change to the style of the game was the addition of voice actors. Dominic Armato was now Guybrush, replacing whatever imagined voice gamers had given him in the past. (I’m actually pretty lucky that my imagined voice for Guybrush was similar enough to Armato’s that his voice was not that distracting.) The supporting cast included some surprisingly well-known names, including the fantastic Earl Boen (of “Terminator” fame) as LeChuck, Alan Young (using his famous Scrooge McDuck voice) as Haggis McMutton, a new pirate colleague, and Gary Coleman (yes, THAT Gary Coleman) as young nuisance Kenny Falmouth.

So the game now looked and sounded different, and it had no Gilbert, Grossman, or Schafer working on it. Right from the get-go, fans were divided. But what about the gameplay? The story? The humor?

I’ll be honest, there are a lot of weaker or more obvious jokes than in the first two games. But not EVERY joke in the first two games was a winner, either, and there are plenty of funny jokes, plus one of my most quoted lines from the series. (“You FOOL! You gave cheese to a lactose-intolerant volcano god!”) Once again, the ending is unsatisfying, and it was reportedly rushed due to running out of money. Parts of the explanations for the ending of MI2 feel like they’re a bit of a stretch, and the Guybrush/Elaine dynamic has been inexplicably changed. But there’s a lot of interesting plot twists and fun puzzles, with plenty of those pop-culture references MI fans love. It may not be quite the classic that the first two games are, but I still love it. It’s different, but I enjoy the cartoony style, I think the voice actors perform admirably, and the overall cheery mood of the game makes it always a good time. Plus, this is the one with Murray!

4. Escape From Monkey Island
Although fewer years had passed between CMI and EMI than between MI2 and CMI, even more changes had occurred, the most obvious being a move from the SCUMM engine to the new GrimE engine, and with it, a shift from 2D to 3D graphics. With the graphics came a new “console friendly” interface replacing the point-and-click days of old. And THAT is this game’s first mistake!

Unlike most 3D console games (like LucasArts own “Phantom Menace” game that came out around the same time and had a very similar interface), the camera does not follow the player character around, but rather shows the perspective of predetermined camera angles, depending on where Guybrush walks. I suppose this is to emulate the feel of the rooms from 2D point-and-click games, but it leads to a huge problem: The controls can be toggled between camera-based (ie, pressing the up arrow key makes Guybrush walk away from the camera, left makes him walk camera left, etc) and character-based (up makes him walk whichever direction he’s facing, left makes him turn to his left, etc.). With the locked down camera angles, neither of these control settings are satisfactory–using camera-based wreaks havoc when the camera angle abruptly changes and you find yourself running in circles, and using character-based is tricky when Guybrush is so far away you can barely tell which way he’s facing. The tedious controls were the source of a lot of frustration for me, but even if it had retained the classic point-and-click interface, this would still be the weakest of the series.

The jokes mostly fall flat, with only a few exceptions. There are no memorable new characters–Ozzie Mandrill is a MUCH less interesting villain than LeChuck–and old characters are shoehorned in without real purpose–yes, it’s nice to finally see Otis, Carla, and Meathook again, but they don’t do anything interesting! Likewise, Murray and Stan show up for no real reason. Now, I’ll confess that I actually enjoyed the manic portrayal of Stan here a little more than his portrayal in CMI–I never liked how he actually recognized Guybrush in CMI, and in EMI he sounded a bit like Phil Hartman, which was fun–but the circumstances of his CMI appearance were much funnier and more purposeful. All in all, EMI has all these great, classic characters show up, but it doesn’t know what to do with them, like a film adaptation of a Harry Potter book. (That’s right. I went there.)

All of the puzzles and side quests feel more like time-padding distractions than actual tasks to accomplish to further the plot. The only puzzle worth playing for is the “Bill and Ted”-inspired bit in the Time Swamp, which is absolutely brilliant; everything else just feels pointless. And the story is…weird. A completely nonsensical plot twist about Herman Toothrot’s identity that goes to contradict just about everything in the established continuity (I’m a geek; I care about these things!), a boring subplot about something called Monkey Kombat that doesn’t bother to show up until the third act, a giant robot, and the most abrupt, least satisfying ending of ALL.

EMI is worth playing ONCE if you’re a completist, but the story is pointless, the jokes not that funny, and the puzzles not that fun.

All in all, the Monkey Island franchise certainly weakened with the loss of the original creators, but with the exception of EMI, they’re all still fun to play. I would not complain about having to replay any one of the first three games, although which I’d prefer to play would depend on my mood at the moment–For a fun, swashbuckling classic adventure, I would play SMI. For a brain-busting, complex investigation full of suspense and intrigue, I would play MI2. For a goofy, but highly entertaining, cartoon romp, I would play CMI. And if I felt like smashing my keyboard against the wall in a frustrated manner, I would play EMI.

So, after replaying the original franchise, how do I feel about the new games? Well, I’m optimistic. Telltale has done marvelous work with beloved franchises in the past, and Grossman and Gilbert’s involvement with “Tales of Monkey Island” means we should be in good hands. And while I’m not crazy about all the voices or artwork in LucasArt’s new SMI remake, it should still be an interesting experience to replay the game with an added element, and it will hopefully introduce a new generation to not only this franchise, but this whole wonderful genre.

And even if the new games don’t turn out to be the Lost Treasure of Melee Island, at least we still have the classics. And this stupid T-shirt.

Leave a Reply