The Secret of Monkey Island™. If you don’t know what it is, then run along now and set your Xbox 360 to download it from the Marketplace while you read this review. If you are a Monkey Island survivor, then I’m wondering what you are doing reading this review as I’m going to assume you’ve already purchased the Special Edition now available on XBLA (also available on PC via Steam).
The Secret of Monkey Island (original release 1990) takes me back into my childhood during a golden era of gaming. I had minimal exposure to text based adventure games, as I did not have the patience to endure the illogical, punishing difficulty of many of these games. Crashing a Police car because I didn’t walk around the vehicle to complete a mandatory safety check in Police Quest is one of the enduring reminders of why I hated such games. Call me soft if you will but I when I sit down with a game, it is not an open invitation to be tortured.
Lucasfilm Games was responsible for a surge in interest in adventure games from the late 1980s, at least amongst my peers. The design philosophy of the games was outlined in the game’s manuals – these games weren’t going to kill you off for neglecting to do something you should have, touching something you shouldn’t have, or kill you off at all in fact. Instead of focusing half of your energy on saving/loading/retrying/head-banging, you were encouraged to “play with everything” with no fear of death by curiosity.
The Secret of Monkey Island followed a series of notable games by Lucasfilm Games, including Bobbin Threadbare’s search for his mother in Loom, and a personal favourite, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure. It follows the fortunes of wanna-be-pirate Guybrush Threepwood from his humble beginnings of Melee Island™. What ensues is a swash-buckling adventure ladened with humour sharper than Threepwood’s sword. This is one genuinely laugh-out-loud funny game.
The early Lucasfilm point-and-click adventure games, including The Secret of Monkey Island, used an on-screen panel of verbs which players would select from to perform actions rather than the traditional text based typing interface. Players worked through a series of puzzles in the game by clicking on action verbs followed by objects either in the game environment or in the inventory. For example you might click the word “Pick up”, and then click on a “hunk of meat” to pick it up. The lower portion of the screen real estate is occupied by the verb panel and your inventory, while the game plays out above this.
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition allows you play the game in it’s untouched original form, complete with the pixellated sprites we were in awe of in the 1990s, should you choose to. Or you can choose to enjoy the exact same game in a brand new HD package, with a revamped interface sporting full screen graphics and an inventory hidden from view (as debuted in Sam and Max Hit the Road). The new graphics have an artistic style which has polarised fans – along with the over the top comedy, you now also get over the top hairstyles. Taste in hairdos aside, the hand-painted widescreen environments breath refreshing new life into familiar surroundings. While it is nice to press the “Back” button on the Xbox controller to seamlessly switch to the old school graphics for nostalgia’s sake, the new HD graphics are so easy on the eye that only the most scorned fans will snub the new visuals.
The game’s upbeat Calypso music has been re-recorded and re-mastered, and are obviously a huge step up from the original MIDI score which is available to hear when playing in the classic mode. Voice acting is a welcomed addition to the game, with the principal voice actors from The Curse of Monkey Island (the third instalment in the series and the first to feature voice acting) reprising their roles. The script is so well written that it could so easily have gone wrong without the right voice talent, but these actors do an excellent job and display an understanding and respect for the source material.
Aside from the updated graphics and audio, The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is exactly the same game under the surface as released in 1990. Not that they should have done anything to the game – this is a true classic with humour that is timeless. The ability to switch seamlessly between the classic and special edition graphics works brilliantly, although the inability to hear the excellent voice acting when playing with the classic graphics is an annoying omission. It would have been nice to have other interface options available to, such as removing the verb and inventory panels from the classic game and enlarging the classic graphics to fill the screen, or displaying these panels while playing with the Special Edition graphics. These are only minor issues but would have capped off an otherwise excellent effort.
I found myself stuck in a few places during the game, and this is probably one of those situations in which your previous experience may prove a hindrance rather than a help. I played the game over a decade ago using the old interface, and having the inventory hidden from view in the new full screen graphical view made me forget one of the most successful strategies I had used in the past: trial and error by “using” every object in every way imaginable until something worked. Not that you should have to resort to that tactic any longer though – a new inbuilt hint system allows you to bring up a series of helpful hints starting off with a clue, and building up to a direct instruction on how to proceed. It works well and means that you won’t have to go back and forth to a computer to look for help, or accidentally spoil a subsequent puzzle by reading about it prematurely in a guide.
Monkey Island offers at least 8 hours of solid gameplay, and there is never a dull moment from start to finish. Many puzzles can be solved in any order, leading to a somewhat open-ended feel to game. You’ll never find yourself at a dead end because you failed to pick up an item at the beginning of the game, or because you failed to do something earlier. Everything you need to advance will always be available to you, so puzzles are always solvable with some lateral thinking.. Once you have completed the game, there is little incentive to replay it immediately, but it is a game that you will probably want to revisit again some time in the future if only to grab some grog from the Scumm Bar™.
The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is as enjoyable in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, and is a game everyone should play. A lot of work has gone into updating this classic game, and the 800 Microsoft Point price tag offers great value (never pay more than 20 bucks for a computer game). LucasArts have stated that the possibility of re-releases of their other classic titles depends on the success of Monkey Island, so a purchase is also a vote for future special editions. You owe it to yourself to set sail to Monkey Island immediately.