It will take you 9 minutes to read this review.
Ahoy there, fancy pants! If it’s adventure ye be looking for, ye came to the right place. There’s a reason that, nearly 20 years after its introduction, Monkey Island is arguably still the best known franchise in the adventure genre. For me, the original Secret of Monkey Island was already the yardstick against which all other adventure games are measured, and with a brand new Special Edition recently released, it now has the chance to convert a whole new generation of gamers, this time with high-definition graphics, full voice acting, gamepad support, a multi-tiered hint system, and even a re-mastered orchestral music score. Don’t like the idea of tinkering with a classic? The original VGA version of the game, with its still-charming graphics and MIDI soundtrack, is fully included as part of the Special Edition as well, so players can have their grog and drink it too.
In case you’re just joining us, this is the story of a young man named Guybrush Threepwood, and his dream to become a mighty pirate. Upon arriving on Mêlée Island, he finds his way to the most popular pirate hangout, the Scumm Bar (newbie fact: SCUMM is the name of the programming engine Monkey Island and several other LucasArts adventures of the time were built on), and asks the Pirate Leaders how he can become a full-fledged scallywag. They assign him three trials: defeat the Sword Master in battle, steal the Idol of Many Hands from the Governor’s mansion, and locate the Legendary Lost Treasure of Mêlée Island. Guybrush also learns the reason the Scumm Bar is so crowded: the pirates are reluctant to set sail for fear of encountering the dreaded Ghost Pirate LeChuck.
It seems that when LeChuck was alive, he fell in love with Governor Elaine Marley, but she rejected his advances. To impress her, he decided to discover the secret of Monkey Island, but before he could do so his ship sank and all hands died. A twist of fate brought them back as ghosts, and LeChuck remains determined to win (or take) Elaine’s hand in marriage. Though the pirate trials are a significant challenge in their own right, they actually represent only the first of four chapters in the game. Guybrush’s adventure begins in earnest when LeChuck kidnaps the Governor, whom Guybrush has since fallen for as well, and whisks her away to Monkey Island. Before the surprisingly epic tale is through, Guybrush must confront a terrible hand-eating beast, perform a jailbreak, cook up a voodoo spell, meet a fourth-wall breaking hermit, get captured by vegetarian cannibals, and explore the depths of what may or may not be Hell itself.
Luckily Guybrush is the kind of guy you don’t mind going to Hell and back with. He’s so naïve and earnest it’s impossible not to root for him. Despite his desire to be a pirate, it’s hard to believe he’d even plunder a fly. He can be quick-witted at times, but just as often the joke’s on him. Still, when Elaine’s kidnapped by LeChuck, he’s the only one brave enough (or maybe dumb enough) to round up a crew and go after her. No wonder Elaine fell in love with him at first sight. Elaine is known for being one of the stronger female characters in gaming, but really she doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the first Monkey Island, though many people reference how tough she is in her absence. In fact, it’s amazing LeChuck was even able to kidnap her. Not that he isn’t a frightening and capable villain; he’s the kind of guy who loves feeling the winds of Hell on his face, and talks longingly about seeing his enemies’ bloated corpses being picked apart by fish. Everyone in town is so afraid of LeChuck, you’ll probably wonder how a young dude like Guybrush could possibly take him on. Yet while Guybrush may be physically weak, he sure is resourceful… with a little help.
I haven’t even mentioned the Voodoo Lady and her shop of creepy wonders yet, nor Meathook and his even creepier talking tattoo. There are so many great characters and moments in The Secret of Monkey Island, it would take all day to talk about all of them. I will say that some of my favorite characters are the islands themselves. Though Monkey Island has its name on the marquee, and yeah, it’s a tropical paradise, for me there’s nothing finer than Mêlée Island at night (and it’s always night on Mêlée Island). Something about the way the artists portray the architecture, the jungle, even the fireflies—it makes me want to pick up and move to some little place in the middle of nowhere, or at least go to Disneyland and ride the Pirates of the Caribbean a few times.
Is Mêlée Island more enchanting in shiny new HD or retro VGA? One of the best features of the Special Edition is the ability to switch back and forth between the original game and the enhanced version at any moment, even during a cutscene, so you can compare and contrast the two at every location if you wish. The new artists were very faithful to the original game, with the content being virtually identical, except in a few instances where they added details (i.e. you can now see several ships docked outside the Scumm Bar). The biggest difference you might notice is that the new art is more exaggerated and angular, which is subtly present in some of the architecture, but most prevalent in the character close-ups, where the realistic glamour shots have been replaced by caricatures. How you feel about these little changes is a matter of taste—personally I like everything except for Guybrush’s haircut, a bizarre combination of pompadour and buzzcut—but unless you’re an ultra-purist who can only be satisfied by the old-school graphics, you’ll probably enjoy the upgrade. Some of the new special effects, like LeChuck’s ghostly aura, are undeniably cool, although one consequence of the ability to switch back and forth is that both versions are running on the same engine, and therefore have the same number of frames of animation, which makes the HD version seem oddly stilted and jerky.
The updated soundtrack, on the other hand, is smooth as smooth can be. The original Monkey Island score from Michael Land is one of the best ever (the main theme was my cell phone ringtone for a while), and the Special Edition features all the same compositions re-recorded with live instruments. Players booting the new version up should let it linger on the title screen for a while, listening to that opening theme and feeling instantly transported from your computer desk to somewhere in the Caribbean, a feeling likely to recur at various times throughout the game. But perhaps the greatest aesthetic upgrade the new version offers is the full voice cast, including all the main actors from Curse of Monkey Island (Dominic Armato as Guybrush, Alexandra Boyd as Elaine, Earl Boen as LeChuck) and some secondary actors from Escape from Monkey Island (Meathook, Herman Toothrot, and more). Considering that dialogue written to be read can be quite different from dialogue written to be spoken, it’s remarkable how well the jokes still work—and sometimes work even better—when said aloud. Unfortunately the Special Edition upgrades can’t be selected piecemeal, so there’s no option to have, say, the new soundtrack with the old graphics.
Some changes have also been made to the way the Special Edition version is controlled. The original interface—with a grid of verbs (Open, Close, Push, Pull, Look At, etc.) you can apply to anything on the screen or in your inventory—is still kind of present. By default, left-clicking somewhere walks Guybrush to that spot, and right-clicking does what the game considers to be the obvious option (like Open on a closed door). However, each action is assigned its own keyboard shortcut, or the full nine-verb grid can be accessed through a pop-up menu, which is also how you open your inventory. This works quite smoothly, though interacting with inventory items can get a little cumbersome, and one hand is constantly required for keyboard commands. The Xbox 360 version uses the gamepad face buttons in place of mouse-clicks, and the triggers to open the verb menu or the inventory. The D-pad can be used as a shortcut to select verbs, but this doesn’t work very well since “Look At” can’t be chosen that way, and honestly the D-pad is barely functional anyway—pushing any diagonal almost always registers as a different verb than you intended.
There are no substantive differences between the puzzles in the original game and the Special Edition, which is a very good thing as the puzzles are consistently excellent from beginning to end. Virtually all the puzzles involve locating and then correctly applying inventory items, but there are several notable exceptions. Even if you’ve never played Monkey Island, you’ve probably heard about insult swordfighting. Battling other pirates requires no reflexes other than a quick wit, as you have to learn over a dozen special call-and-response insults and apply them correctly. If your knowledge of the Art of Insults is superior to your opponent’s, you win the duel. Things really get interesting when you take on the Sword Master, because then you have to—oh, but that’s best discovered for yourself.
Since it’s (almost, and only as a joke) impossible to die, you never have to worry about experimenting, and better yet, often your experiments will pay off. This includes conversations, as you can always feel free to choose the funny dialogue option without worrying about missing out on something vital. In fact, keeping a sense of humor is not just optional but advisable: several puzzles are solved by way of puns or plays on words. At no point does the game ever take itself too seriously, and the comedy in The Secret of Monkey Island has held up remarkably well. Of course, many of the game’s jokes or references have long since passed into legendary status: “You fight like a cow”, “Look, a three-headed monkey”, the rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle, among others. Even having played the game several times in the past, I still found myself laughing on numerous occasions, which is due in no small part to the ultra-talented voice cast shining a new light on things. Seriously, if Dominic Armato’s take on insult swordfighting doesn’t make you smile, then I’m not sure we can be friends anymore.
Despite its ever-lighthearted tone, returning to the game after a number of years I’d forgotten how difficult the puzzles are, especially in comparison to many modern releases. Some of the clues can be rather esoteric, while others demand cartoon-inspired leaps in logic or the ability to think about situations on a deeper level than a game like this would normally require. Even so, all the puzzles make total sense in hindsight, and figuring them out yourself is deeply satisfying. My favorite, without a doubt, is the enormous puzzle that takes up the entirety of chapter two, where Guybrush, now that he has a ship, needs to actually find Monkey Island (though in terms of good punchlines, nothing beats what you need to do to convince the cannibals to help you track down LeChuck). But if you get really stuck, the Special Edition has added a hint system. With the push of a button, some context-sensitive text pops up to give you a nudge in the right direction, with the nudge becoming more explicit every time you ask, until eventually a large yellow arrow shows you exactly where to go or what to do. It’s a great way to keep you in your seat enjoying the game instead of running to the internet for answers, and the hints themselves can be funny in their own right.
How much time you spend with the Special Edition is going to depend a lot on your previous experience with Monkey Island. If it’s your first time through, and you don’t use any hints, you could easily spend up to ten hours or more. Even if you’ve played it a dozen times before, you might do like I did and click “Look At” on every object just to hear the lines read aloud. I do have some nitpicks on a few elements of the new version, but even if you hate every aesthetic choice the developers have made, the original game is a mere button press away and plays as well as ever. This isn’t a situation where one forces oneself to slog through Moby Dick because it’s a “classic”; The Secret of Monkey Island is still as fun as any other game you’ll play this year, and probably significantly more so, and everyone who loves adventure games should experience it at least once.