This last week has been quite an exciting one for fans of the classic Monkey Island franchise, with not one but two new MI-related projects suddenly announced. It’s been a nine-year long drought since Escape from Monkey Island was released, but when it rains, it pours. With Telltale’s Tales of Monkey Island set to take the franchise forward, LucasArts is also taking gamers back to where it all started in The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, the high-definition update of the original game for Xbox Live Arcade and PC. At E3, I had a chance to talk with some of the producers from LucasArts and get a demonstration of the title’s coolest features (using the Xbox 360 version, for the record, though the platform versions should be functionally identical), and I’m very pleased to report that this isn’t just a simple remake, this is a love letter to all things Monkey.
It’s a heck of a balancing act trying to update a beloved classic so it’s accessible to new consumers while at the same time trying to please the existing diehard fans, and while the final results aren’t in, LucasArts certainly gets an ‘A’ for effort so far. Every scene in the game was remade using hand-drawn art in 1080i resolution, all the voice actors from Curse of Monkey Island (including Dominic Armato as Guybrush, Alexandra Boyd as Elaine, Earl Boen as LeChuck—they even got Leilani Jones back as the Voodoo Lady!), and all the music has been re-recorded using actual instruments.
Yet what’s even more impressive is what they didn’t change--and remember we’re talking about a company somewhat infamous for “fixing” its old franchises. All of the original text, puzzles, jokes, and gameplay are exactly as they were back in 1990. Behind the shiny HD graphics and smooth sounds, the whole thing is still running on the SCUMM engine, right down to the same number of frames of animation used. Even references that no longer make a whit of sense to a modern audience, like “Ask Me About Loom,” have been retained.
Still not satisfied? Then add in the fact that the original game is included in its entirety, with the old music, the old graphics, the old interface—everything exactly as it was. And if you’re undecided which you prefer, you can seamlessly switch between the original and HD versions of the game at any time. With the press of a button, the screen morphs between the classic and the remake with a very cool-looking transition effect, and you can even do this in mid-animation or mid-sentence with no interruption to the game’s flow. It’s fascinating to watch, and I have a feeling players will be unable to resist playing with it nonstop.
Though the old SCUMM-system of applying verbs to nouns may seem outdated almost 20 years later, all of that functionality still exists in the updated version if you want it. On the Xbox 360 controller, by default the B-button will be mapped to the most obvious verb whenever an object you can interact with is highlighted, but by holding down the left-trigger, the entire map of verbs pops up in a special window for alternate selections. Similarly, the right-trigger will bring up your inventory. Selecting “Use” from the verb menu will also bring the inventory up automatically. These controls will be different for the PC version, of course, but the same interface simplicity will be featured.
To prevent players who are struggling from having to break the play experience to go online and find a walkthrough, an in-game hint system can now be manually accessed at any time. To demonstrate, producer Craig Derrick showed what would happen at the very beginning of the game if you didn’t realize you were supposed to go into the SCUMM Bar. First—and I’m paraphrasing these examples—it will simply say “Enter the SCUMM Bar.” Still confused? Ask for another hint and you get “The SCUMM Bar is the bar right behind you with the sign that says SCUMM Bar.” Obstinately refuse to cooperate? “The SCUMM bar is right here. Go right here.” with a big yellow arrow pointing at the front door. Though there are reasons to avoid getting hints, like your rank on the (Xbox) Leaderboards once you’ve finished the game, it may be more fun to go through again and see how far you can push the hint system before it loses its mind.
Another reason to give the HD version a try is to see some of the subtle Easter Eggs the team added for the superfans. One example is Spiffy the Dog. Whenever Guybrush approaches a pirate in the SCUMM Bar, a portrait of the scurvy-ridden fellow is tossed up on screen, and originally the designers planned to do the same thing when Guybrush talks to the dog (aka Spiffy). However, in order to save space on the floppy disks originally, it was ultimately decided a giant picture of a dog who doesn’t actually speak was a waste, and it was cut. In an absolutely absurd coincidence, the marketing team at LucasArts had already chosen the full-sized portrait of Spiffy as one of only three screenshots to put on the back of the box, leaving eagle-eyed fans completely perplexed. Well, in the HD version of the game, Spiffy finally gets his close-up. I saw a few other neat winks and nods during the demo, but I’ll leave those for you to discover on your own.
A release date hasn’t been confirmed yet, but they’re aiming for this summer, as close as possible to Tales of Monkey Island’s debut on July 7th. Despite my begging and pleading and deft use of “Maniac-Mansion-Special-Edition-Coming-Soon-Says-What?”, LucasArts wouldn’t confirm or deny any future updates of their key adventure franchises. On the other hand, they made it clear they love the old adventures as much as the rest of us, even going so far as to say they went to work for LucasArts because of games like Monkey Island, so if this first new revival proves to be financially and critically successful, they’d be happy to bring back even more. We don’t know yet how the uninitiated will react to the Special Edition, but for those of us who grew up with Monkey Island, not only can you go home again, it might even be nicer than you remember it.