I Played Every Monkey Island Game and All I Wrote Was This Stupid Retrospective

Having been around for a whopping 31 years, Monkey Island is going to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Maybe you’re an original gangster, having experienced the first game in the series all the way back in 1990 and its sequel the following year in 1991? Or you could be one of those strange few who chose to not play any of the subsequent titles purely because the original creator, Ron Gilbert, decided to leave LucasArts in 1992. Perhaps you’re more like me, receiving your first taste of Guybrush Threepwood’s slapstick antics in 1997’s Curse of Monkey Island. I have no doubt that there are those even younger than myself (I am 27 now, hardly a spring chicken) that, through consoles like the PlayStation 2 and Wii, were introduced to the franchise via Escape from Monkey Island and Tales of Monkey Island, experiencing the series as late as 2009. These games really do span generations, each one taking the same set of characters and reintroducing them in new shapes and forms but, interestingly, always within an interconnected, linear narrative. To explore Monkey Island in an in-depth manner is, in many ways, to explore the very history of point-and-click adventure games as a genre – their rise and fall, their place within the medium and the qualities that separated the good from the bad. It is a journey that takes you through over thirty years of licensing issues, poor sales, phantom reboots and speculation, all of which resulted in a grand total of five separate games. I will claim from the outset that every Monkey Island game is worth experiencing, even the titles that have long since been labelled by hardcore fans as black sheep, or poor in quality. Most games would kill to be as good as the worst Monkey Island game. But I digress – the best place to start, as always, is at the beginning.

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The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

Directed and designed by Ron Gilbert (along with Tim Schafer and David Grossman), the first game in the Monkey Island series, The Secret of Monkey Island, was a ground-breaking adventure game title. Lauded for a game design philosophy that focused primarily on player comfort and enjoyment, Secret stood out from its adventure game contemporaries (as well as its main rival, Sierra On-Line’s Kings Quest franchise) for incorporating a no death (or, at least, making death a rare outcome), no dead-end policy. You cannot lock yourself into a ‘fail state’ when playing the game, no key items can be missed, and the player is not punished for attempting dangerous things or activating sequences out of order. Gilbert, personally frustrated by other PC adventure games that would kill the player at any given opportunity, designed Secret to focus on character, story and atmosphere instead of solely on fiendish puzzle design. The plot involves series protagonist and all-round bumbling idiot, Guybrush Threepwood, a young, pony-tailed man who washes up on the beach of Mêlée Island with one simple goal; to become a pirate. What follows is five to six hours of anarchic, fourth-wall-breaking, hilarious, riddle-filled adventure that takes the player on a virtual tour of a fictional Caribbean and its cast of colourful characters, leading Guybrush all the way to the titular Monkey Island. From the get-go, Secret is an audio-visual treat, boasting wonderfully detailed pixel art and a now-iconic reggae dub-inspired theme composed by Michael Land. Mêlée Island, despite being under cover of night, is awash with the warm atmospheric glow of lamplight, which leaks through the crooked windows of shops and taverns, casting long shadows down the cobbled streets. The game just begs you to explore every nook and cranny of the island and it does so with its rich, welcoming environments. Without fear that they will suddenly have their journey cut short by an untimely death, the player is free to fully immerse themselves within Monkey Island. Certain characters too, once spoken with, cut away to a separate screen revealing large, detailed faces complete with branching dialogue trees. These conversational options are another of Secret’s unique, genre-defining qualities; the amount of text, combined with the degree of player choice was yet unseen in adventure gaming. One of the best jokes in the entire game, if not the entire series, reveals itself in the very first area players are likely to guide Guybrush, the infamous Scumm Bar. The franchise’s longest-running gag is our hero’s name, both its ridiculousness and the fact that no one seems to be able to remember it correctly (Thriftweed, Droopface, Peepwood, etc.). After introducing himself to the first pirate in the bar, Guybrush is mocked, ‘that’s the stupidest name I’ve ever heard!’. Provided with a list of responses, the player can then pick ‘well, what’s your name?’. ‘My name is Mancomb Seepgood’, the pirate responds. Even from the very first joke in the very first game Monkey Island is utilising and combining its strongest aspects. The distinct, evocative, semi-serious art and world-building are combined with a goofy irreverence that somehow both fits the atmosphere and succeeds as comedy in catching the player off guard.

Mêlée Island has an inviting, cosy atmosphere.

Perhaps more so than any other game to bear the moniker Monkey Island, Secret feels most grounded within classic pirate media. Indeed, the full-face character illustrations I mentioned are highly reminiscent of the descriptions found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which basically birthed what we know as generic pirate features in Western pop culture – peg-legs, big unkempt beards, parrots, x marking the spot and so on and so on. There is, however, a certain novel that Gilbert actually name checks as a large inspiration behind The Secret of Monkey Island, that being the 1987 historical fantasy novel On Stranger Tides, written by Tim Powers. In preparation for writing this retrospective, I did read through the entirety of the book and, although it was not something I would have sought out otherwise, I did enjoy its surprisingly violent mix of high romanticism, swashbuckling and the supernatural. Initially, I did struggle to find a thread that connected Stranger Tides and Monkey Island, but it gradually became clear that the influence the novel had over Gilbert’s direction was more content-oriented than tonal. The Monkey Island series’ central antagonist is the undead pirate LeChuck who, in this first game, takes the form of a ghost. Specters, ghouls and Vodun magic make up a large part of the plot of Stranger Tides, the latter of which materialises throughout Monkey Island as Voodoo – specifically practiced by the reoccurring character the Voodoo Lady, who appears in every game in the series. The strong romantic element of the book, which exists between protagonist John Chandagnac and Englishwoman Elizabeth Hurwood, is reinterpreted for comedic effect within the game through Guybrush’s relationship with the governor of Mêlée Island, Elaine Marley. Elaine is courageous, no-nonsense, good with a sword and, bizarrely, attracted to our hero’s complete incompetence (‘you don’t look like a pirate, your face is too… sweet’). The trope of the dashing male adventurer wooing the demure lady is placed upon its head, and Guybrush turns into a gibbering mess when first meeting Elaine, lamenting that he ‘really wished [he] knew how to talk to women’. It is clear that a lot of elements within Monkey Island were initially part of a more serious, atmosphere-driven whole, leftovers recontextualised into something with more of a wry, comic edge. It is said that George Lucas himself helped steer the series in its humorous direction, after visiting the team during the early development stages, he noted that Guybrush was a little bland and suggested that the character should have something funny to say.

Mancomb Seepgood is the physical manifestation of several pirate tropes.

All of this is not to say that The Secret of Monkey Island is overly concerned with staying true to pop-culture piratedom, with anachronism helping to play a large part in both the comedy itself and the puzzle design. One of the areas that Guybrush can explore on Mêlée Island is a fully functioning circus – he can even test the cannon (i.e., be fired out of it) in order to earn a substantial amount of money to spend in the town center. There is a modern-style grog (the pirate drink of choice, of course) vending machine at the island docks, which dispenses cans of the caustic liquid. These docks are eventually populated by fan-favourite Stan, who runs a used pirate ship emporium. The game feels like Pirates of the Caribbean run through the lens of American consumerism, tropes from each mashing together to form something completely new.  Indeed, the famed Disney ride is Monkey Island’s other named influence and Ron Gilbert has been quoted in his desire to get up out of the boat and explore the animatronic world of the experience.

‘I’d wanted to do a pirate game for a long time. You see, one of my favorite rides in Disneyland is Pirates of the Caribbean. You get on a little boat and it takes you through a pirate adventure, climaxing in a cannon fight between two big pirate ships. Your boat keeps you moving through the adventure, but I’ve always wished I could get off and wander around, learn more about the characters, and find a way onto those pirate ships.

So with The Secret of Monkey Island(TM) I wanted to create a game that had the same flavor, but where you could step off the boat and enter that whole storybook world. The pirates on Monkey Island aren’t like real pirates, who were slimy and vicious, the terrorists of the 17th century. These are swashbuckling fun-loving pirates, like the ones in the adventure stories everyone grows up with.’

– Ron Gilbert, LucasFilm Adventurer vol. 1, number 1, Fall 1990.

Upon replay, I was consistently impressed by the deftness with which Gilbert weaved his cynical parody in with a story I genuinely started to care about. The wacky fourth wall breaks, such as Guybrush seemingly falling to his death, only to be bounced back to safety by a ‘rubber tree’ and the in-game pop-up that assures you the poodles you just drugged are ‘sleeping’ and ‘definitely not dead’, never distracted from the realised locations and likeable characters. It is a testament to the quality of the writing that the bizarre and the expected can co-exist with such ready believability. Of course, this is chiefly achieved with Guybrush himself, who is just too damn loveable – the absolute perfect blend of idiot and innocence, with a tinge of cheeky self-awareness. In adventure games it is widely accepted that the protagonist will have to do some questionable things in order to progress, a trope that is often played for laughs and rarely treated seriously. Guybrush approaches every situation with the wide-eyed wonderment and confidence of a child, belied only by his complete lack of practical skill (apart from his infamous ability to hold his breath underwater for ten minutes) and, usually, the questionable event is happening directly to him. He is strait-laced and earnest, but occasionally shows flashes of devious ingenuity, usually set in motion by the player’s guidance. He is just impossible to dislike, the perfect pirate non-pirate – coiffed with a soft disposition and little hint of the mischievous.

One of the game’s few closeups of the loveable dimwit.

The Secret of Monkey Island’s rich writing is complemented by interesting, memorable puzzles. The player can expect the usual slew of inventory items that can be combined and employed to solve a variety of conundrums. Just like the cast, all the bits and bobs Guybrush stumbles across during his adventure have a distinct character of their own. The banana picker, the carrot cake and, of course, a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. I celebrated Day of the Tentacle for the same reasons I’m about to celebrate Secret, the game has bizarre logic that somehow makes perfect sense. This is achieved, like Day of the Tentacle (except three years before that game even came out), by gradually introducing players to the train of thought that they should be following. It all starts with using a cooking pot as a makeshift helmet and, before you know it, you’re training monkeys to hang on switches so you can steal sacred idols from in front of the (second) largest stone monkey head you’ve ever seen. My favourite early puzzle within Secret revolves around getting passed a troll on a bridge or, more accurately, a man in a troll suit. Money won’t do the trick, in order to progress, the troll asks you to bring him something that will ‘attract attention but be of no real importance’. The solution, clearly, is to bring him a red fish. A red herring. It’s the exact kind of riddle that works beautifully on so many levels. First, you have the comedy of giving someone the completely literal representation of a logical fallacy and them accepting it as what they wanted. Secondly, you get the satisfaction of working out a puzzle that requires a decidedly abstract way of thinking, which helps prepare you for the riddles to come – you have, in essence, unlocked a new part of your brain with which to tackle Monkey Island. Finally, the red herring works on a clever metatextual level. Adventure games, specifically, were known to employ red herring items and paths, leading confused players around in circles. Secret again eschews convention by ensuring that every item, no matter how ridiculous it seems to be, does have some sort of use within the game world. The physical red herring in this case is both a jab at lesser games and a celebration of the dry wit of Monkey Island. This impressive, almost cerebral puzzle design also makes itself readily apparent during one of the game’s most famous sequences, the Insult Sword Fighting. You see, in the fictional Caribbean of Monkey Island, pirates don’t just fight with their swords, but with their tongues. In order for Guybrush to clear one of the pirate trials (three different challenges that will see him made an official pirate upon completion) he must best the Swordmaster of Mêlée Island, and this involves learning all the insults, and responses to said insults, that he can. Players achieve this by traversing the map screen and bumping into random pirates, throwing ridiculous quips back and forth, besting them in a duel and adding them to Guybrush’s collection of barbs. The most famous of these being ‘you fight like a dairy farmer’, which can only be beaten with the response ‘how appropriate. You fight like a cow’. This lengthy puzzle was apparently inspired by black and white swashbuckler movies like 1941’s The Sea Hawk starring Errol Flynn; specifically, the fact that instead of fighting, the pirates in these movies preferred to taunt each other from a distance. Again, Secret succeeds in blending the classic with the ridiculous and elevating it to video game design art. How do you have combat in your point-and-click adventure game? Make the dialogue part of the action. The pen is mightier than the sword, and the tongue is just as sharp.

Guybrush engages in Insult Sword Fighting.

If I had any criticism to direct towards the first game, it would be the penultimate act, which takes place once Guybrush has found his way to Monkey Island. After a tight second chapter that treated the player to an ingenious cooking puzzle, which had Guybrush explore a ship in order to find substitute ingredients for a voodoo concoction, playing through Monkey Island feels bloated in comparison. The map is large and, while the dialogue and characters are as good as ever, the puzzle design suffers from all the clumsy back and forth you must do. Especially annoying is the fact that you can only reach the north part of the island by boat, which means skirting around the entire perimeter of the landmass more than a couple of times. Still, there is plenty to enjoy and Herman Toothrot, the island’s crazed pirate castaway, is consistently amusing. The visuals of Secret continue to impress even this late into the game and there is a wonderfully black comic scene featuring a severed head gifted to you by some struggling vegan cannibals. Said head is grotesquely shrivelled, but still sentient, large eyes darting back and forth as it lays in your hands. Suddenly, it comes to a stop, and a huge grin breaks out across its face – ‘I think he likes you’, one of the cannibals responds. The smiling cranium helps guide Guybrush through the hellish underside of Monkey Island, all the way to LeChuck’s ghost ship where he believes Elaine is being held captive. After some mild invisibility-based puzzle-solving, our hero finds his way back to Mêlée Island. Interestingly, depending on your earlier actions during a certain boulder-themed puzzle, you escape with your rag-tag crew on the ship you arrived in, or you sink it – the alternative is leaving the island on Herman Toothrot’s vessel. Using a special voodoo root beer gifted to Guybrush by the cannibals of Monkey Island, the final act of The Secret of Monkey Island is a real spectacle. LeChuck tries to force Elaine to marry him and, when Guybrush interrupts in order to do away with the specter, he discovers that not only has he accidentally foiled the female governor’s own plan, but his root beer bottle contraption has jammed. Our hero is then punched cartoonishly into the air and all around the island, eventually landing in the grog vending machine that allows him to reconstruct the magical root beer and explode the bearded ghost of LeChuck. Elaine and Guybrush watch the exploding remnants of the ghoulish pirate ricochet through the air in a mock firework display. Guybrush utters the words that every woman longs to hear – ‘never pay more than 20 bucks for a computer game’. This may be the best ending any game in the series gets, a full-on explosive finale that integrates drama, comedy and some last-minute puzzle-solving goodness. Fortunately, fans would only have to wait another year or so until they got their hands on the next chapter in the blond, pony-tailed pirate’s story.

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Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991)

LeChuck’s Revenge, as far as I can tell, is still the firm fan favourite of the series, and it’s not hard to tell why. The game is simultaneously wider in scope and leaner as an experience, with several full, diverse islands to explore and little in the way of extended backtracking. The visuals have been bumped up another notch with some of the richest, most evocative backdrops you’ll see in an adventure game. Stylistically, there is also a wider variety of settings and times of day. Much like Mêlée Island, the game’s starting location, Scabb Island, is only explored at night, but you also get to experience the colourful and vibrant day-time party port of Booty Island, as well as the city-based locale of the fascist dictatorship ruled Phatt Island (plus even more areas that, while smaller, are equally eye-catching). The ambition of the plot is also expanded upon, with a central story that is a little darker and incorporates even more named NPCs than Secret – with several returning side characters as well. The game begins in media res, Guybrush dangling over a hole and holding on to a large treasure chest. Elaine then rappels down to try and help our hapless hero and asks how he got into the situation to begin with; cue a long story from Mr. Threepwood. Flashback to a cosy campfire and several months after the end of the first game – Guybrush Threepwood is regaling a couple of uninterested pirates about how he did away with the evil LeChuck. Our hero is slightly older now and sports a light beard, which is a clever little character design touch, implying that Guybrush is trying to present himself as mature and manly when, in essence, he hasn’t done much growing up. That said, the player does find themselves flush with riches, their inventory filled to the brim with gold coins and other miscellaneous goods. However, this isn’t enough for Guybrush, who is currently searching for the biggest treasure of them all, Big Whoop.

She’s not wrong.

The first act of the game follows a similar formula to that of Secret, tasking the player with finding several items locked behind different puzzles in order to accomplish a singular goal. In this case, said goal is to construct a voodoo doll of Largo LaGrande, LeChuck’s previous first mate and the nasty fellow who has put an embargo on the entire island (the ‘Largo embargo’, as the game christens it). The first thing Largo does to Guybrush upon meeting him is strip him of all his wealth, setting the player back to square one and an empty inventory (it’s a nice bit of worldbuilding to let players know that Guybrush did do some successful pirating, but is still totally susceptible to even mild physical force). The brain teasers revolving around the items needed to construct the voodoo doll are very well designed, providing the player with a clear idea of what the end goal should be and leaving the actual string of puzzle-solving events as the main challenge. For example, you know that you need something ‘of the thread’, which could only mean the clothes straight off Largo’s back. Scabb is quite a small township, so you’ve probably already stumbled across the dry-cleaning service at this point. The trick now is figuring out how to go about staining the outfit that the vicious little pirate is currently wearing. The solution is to fill a bucket full of mud and, after breaking into Largo’s room, set it above the closed door so it falls on him when he barges in. After doing so, the next step is to obtain his dry-cleaning ticket to retrieve his clothes, which can be found behind the same door you placed your booby trap. LeChuck’s Revenge excels when it comes to this multi-layered puzzle design, even more so than the first game. These mental challenges can be strung out as far as they can, and have this many steps to them because it all makes natural sense within the game world. The writing and visuals are so good that you want to explore, through exploring you discover locations and items, your mental map of the entire situation forming and, finally, you are posed a challenge that tasks you with using what you have learned to construct a solution to a distinct problem. The contained Scabb Island acts as a wonderful kind of natural tutorial area, being small enough that first-time players will be able to hang on to the connective thread of logic that runs through the riddles. It is opposite, in some ways, to that of Secret’s Mêlée Island, which was large scale and often open-ended, sometimes requiring players to make a gamble, or a guess, on what to do next. This makes the middle portion of the game, which is set over three islands, more manageable as a challenge; the player has been eased into the game’s logic.

LeChuck’s Revenge is somehow even more visually detailed than the first game.

The first act ends with Guybrush successfully (with the help of the Voodoo Lady) constructing the doll and scaring Largo off the island, but not before boasting (once again) of his victory over LeChuck and showing off his still living beard. Largo grabs the beard as he exits, claiming that he’d been searching for a part of the ghostly pirate in order to bring him back to life. The title of the game finally coming into play, we are then treated to a cutaway in which LeChuck is resurrected – well, not quite resurrected in the usual sense, as he now takes the form of a grotesque green zombie. The dread pirate’s new form is an interesting reflection of the direction that LeChuck’s Revenge ends up going in, a little edgier and a little more cynical than the first game. Don’t get me wrong, the theme-park, pop-culture pirate spectacle is still there, but it’s more self-aware than ever and even then, much like LeChuck himself, there is something rotten festering underneath the surface. I wouldn’t go as far as to call the game mean-spirited, but it certainly skews towards the darker end of the spectrum. Death, even in the blackly comic form it takes in LeChuck’s Revenge, is ever-present and, indeed, a central tenet of the story. The second chapter in the game sees Guybrush sailing around the Tri-Island area in order to collect the four pieces of the map that will lead him to Big Whoop, which is revealed to be some sort of secret connected to ‘another world’. These four pieces belonged to four different pirates (including Elaine’s grandfather, Captain Horatio Torquemada Marley) all of whom died, some under mysterious circumstances. In a sequence that is equally disturbing as it is funny, Guybrush, using a voodoo bottle of ‘Ash-2-Life’, resurrects the pirate cook Rapp Scallion in order to obtain his piece of the chart. This involves breaking into a cemetery crypt and pouring the contents of the bottle over the residue left inside the cook’s coffin. First, a skeleton materialises, then organs populate the body, a veil of green skin covers the pulsating mass (with a pair of boxer shorts, thankfully) and Rapp Scallion appears before you. The entire animation is exceptionally well done, amusing, but with that morbid, icky edge of realism; if magic really did exist then maybe that’s exactly what a body reanimating would look like. That overarching feeling of something being not quite right makes itself present during the second act of the game and lingers until the credits roll, whether the player is on board with that sort of atmosphere is completely down to personal preference. In this way, LeChuck’s Revenge has more of On Stranger Tides in its DNA than Secret, a light splattering of the spooky macabre.

Rapp Scallion’s resurrection is one of the more grotesque in-game moments.

Across his Tri-Island, map-seeking quest, Guybrush also runs back into Elaine, who is now the governor of Booty Island. Before he can even see her, he must win an invite to her party and acquire an outfit. Of course, said outfit is a frilly pink dress that Guybrush wears with little to no embarrassment. At the soiree, Elaine laments their brief relationship (which was implied at the end of the first game) and calls it a ‘mistake’. The player is then tasked with sweet-talking Elaine, not for the purpose of reuniting the lovers, but to acquire the piece of the map to Big Whoop that belonged to Elaine’s grandfather. While this entire sequence is very funny and a genuine deconstruction of generic romance tropes, it does circle back around to being a little questionable; not in any ethical sense, but because it removes Guybrush even further from that wide-eyed, good-natured boy that we got to take control of in Secret. He is such a likeable guy that it seems out of character for him to take advantage of Elaine just for treasure, especially since he went to all the effort to save her in the first game, expecting nothing in return. This is certainly a nit-pick, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth; it feels wrong. Granted, this is also the same Guybrush who ends up nailing Stan shut in a coffin just so he can grab a key from his establishment. I guess I just feel that this is the point in the story that tests the idea of the adventure game protagonist having to do questionable things to get ahead; Secret trod that fine line but kept it within reason. As annoying as Stan is, did he deserve to essentially be buried alive? It is certainly a funny sequence and works well as a puzzle but paints our hero as more morally ambiguous than his initial incarnation. However, the real point of contention for most players is the game’s twist ending.

Stan tries to look on the bright side.

Guybrush, after his cartographer friend, Wally, is captured by LeChuck, heads to the zombie pirate’s lair and makes an explosive escape. He winds up on Dinky Island where Big Whoop is buried and attempts to dig it up, leading to him dangling over the pit holding on to the chest and returning players to the scene they witnessed at the start of the game. After Guybrush spent so much time telling his story to Elaine, his rope snaps and he is sent plummeting into what appears to be a maintenance tunnel, where LeChuck appears to torture him with a voodoo doll. The last puzzle is as well designed as the rest of them, and tasks players with constructing their own makeshift voodoo doll of LeChuck in order to fight back. This involves wonderfully wacky moments like distracting the zombie pirate with a coin in order to give him a wedgie and obtain a shred of his underwear and chopping off a little of his beard in an elevator door. LeChuck stalks Guybrush this entire sequence and teleports him all around the tunnel and its various rooms, giving the puzzle an exciting sense of urgency without the punishment of death hanging overhead. You may have noticed I mentioned an elevator earlier and, while Monkey Island, is chock full of anachronism (usually used to humorous effect), the maintenance tunnel is a full-on modern setting, complete with an employee lounge and even some skeletons labelled as ‘lost parents’ (a reference to Guybrush’s own mother and father who are shown in a hallucinatory sequence earlier in the game). After Guybrush constructs the doll, he proceeds to dismember LeChuck in a relatively gory fashion, removing his arm and his leg. Before dealing the finishing blow, the dread pirate asks our hero to come closer and unmask him, revealing LeChuck to be Guybrush’s ‘creepy brother’ Chuckie. If this wasn’t bizarre enough, a theme park employee then enters the scene, ‘you kids aren’t supposed to be in here’. Cut to an actual theme park with Guybrush’s parents standing in wait, a kid version of the blond pirate and his ‘brother’ Chuckie leave a nearby attraction. ‘[This] isn’t The Screaming Weenie Hut where we told you to meet us’ Guybrush’s father says, ‘your mother and I were very concerned’. The children are then led away by their parents but, of course, Chuckie turns to the screen, his eyes glowing red and a sinister laugh escaping his lips – credits roll. The final post-credits scene has Elaine standing by the hole to Big Whoop, wondering what’s keeping Guybrush and hoping LeChuck hasn’t cast some evil spell over him. This ending was, and still is, seriously polarising for a lot of players, which makes it even more interesting that most consider LeChuck’s Revenge to be the strongest entry in the series. You can still visit online forums and message boards today and witness people seethe about the twist ending and what exactly it even means. This is something I guess we won’t know until the release of Return to Monkey Island later this year, which is set to ignore the events of the last three games in the series. Even then, there is a chance that Ron Gilbert won’t give us any concrete answers, that’s just the way he rolls.

LeChuck stalks Guybrush through the backend of the theme park.

To offer a completely personal take on the sequel, I enjoy it a lot, but a little less than the original. While reference and fourth wall breaks can be some of my favourite moments in video games (especially in titles like No More Heroes and The Silver Case), I prefer the less tongue-in-cheek, honest swashbuckling of Secret. The ending of LeChuck’s Revenge doesn’t make me mad, I don’t even dislike it, but it also doesn’t do a whole lot for me. I appreciate Gilbert’s enigmatic storytelling and the fact that he didn’t hold back from taking the game in the exact direction he wanted to. The darker tone and more questionable character arcs just aren’t for me, and I honestly prefer the lighter story direction that the next three games end up going in. Is Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge a stone-cold classic? Absolutely. Is it the best game in the series? You could certainly make that argument, but I’m of the opinion you could do the same for every entry.

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The Curse of Monkey Island (1997)

Despite incredible critical success, LeChuck’s Revenge was considered a commercial failure and the Monkey Island series wouldn’t see another game until 1997, well after Gilbert, Grossman and Schafer had all left LucasArts. The new project leads and designers for Curse were Larry Ahern and Jonathan Ackley (who had previously worked on Schafer’s Full Throttle), assisted by Bill Tiller who created the game’s backgrounds. The Curse of Monkey Island is a game of firsts for the series in many ways and, taking advantage of the CD-ROM format, includes a full musical score, gorgeous hand-drawn animation and impeccable voice acting. Indeed, the cast of the game feel like that final missing piece that elevates the Monkey Island games beyond the boundaries of the greatness they had already achieved. Dominic Armato is Guybrush Threepwood, an unmistakable stroke of perfect, genius casting. Armato’s softly spoken, casual tone captures every nuance of the character: the self-assuredness, the little asides, the competent incompetence and the moments of self-aware self-deprecation, it’s all there. It is no surprise that Armato would be recalled to voice Guybrush in every incarnation, even in the remastered versions of the first two games, retroactively adding another layer of distinct personality to the originals. This is not to say that the rest of the cast aren’t stellar as well, with Earl Boen imbuing series antagonist LeChuck with a suitably gravelly pirate gravitas, and Alexandra Boyd providing Elaine Marley with a cheeky, no-nonsense British accent. It cannot be overstated how each of these actors come to embody their characters fully, and it becomes impossible to imagine ever having played these games without hearing their performances bring every hilarious line to joyous life. The game’s new art style conjures up the same emotions; detailed and intricate pixel art giving way to sumptuous, stylised cartoon characters and backdrops. Guybrush, in line with the game’s tone, has been given a slightly goofy, lankier re-design. Our hero is pretty tall now and tends to either tower over the game’s other characters or at least stand at equal height with them. This works on a few levels design-wise, further playing into Guybrush’s reputation for being a loveable dope, but also providing a comedic juxtaposition with the often small, stocky and angry pirates he encounters – like a constant string of Laurel and Hardy style visual gags. LeChuck is now a lot less creepy and a lot more cartoonish which, again, fits the lighter narrative tone of this instalment. Everything is more traditionally ‘Disneyfied’ (for lack of a better term), but still retains that modicum of edginess that the series is known for. Of course, I must also admit my personal positive bias towards this art style (and game in general), since it was my first Monkey Island game, and this is my Guybrush. Whenever I’d get the chance to dig through my brother’s big-box PC games (of which there were three, Curse, Blade Runner and Myst) and play on my dad’s Windows PC, it was always Curse I wanted to experience, though my four-year-old brain could barely make it off the first island.

Our lanky protagonist stands among some cartoonish skeletons.

Plot-wise, The Curse of Monkey Island was faced with the difficult task of continuing where LeChuck’s Revenge left off and tackling its strange theme-park-based twist ending. How does Guybrush escape Big Whoop? We never really find out. The game, for better and worse, sort of brushes the whole thing under the rug. The story begins with an incredibly impressive cutscene featuring Guybrush, sans beard, floating in the middle of the ocean in what appears to be a modern-day bumper car. Writing on a piece of parchment, our hero laments his current situation and waxes lyrical about wanting to see Elaine again, before floating right towards Plunder Island and a siege battle, coincidentally, between LeChuck and Elaine. Immediately, Curse sets out to try and re-establish the relationship between Elaine and Guybrush – our hero overhearing the female governor telling LeChuck, once again, that she will never marry him and that the only man she has ever loved was the pony-tailed pirate himself. Gilbert has previously expressed his opinion that Elaine and Guybrush shouldn’t necessarily be together and that their relationship as friends is more suitable, and it is interesting to see Curse spare no thought in immediately undoing a lot of the romantic tension that was set up in the previous game. Guybrush is then captured by LeChuck and placed in custody on the zombie pirate’s ship, encountering the cartographer from the previous game, Wally, who fell in with LeChuck’s crew after he was left at the fortress during the events of LeChuck’s Revenge. The introductory puzzles in this first room set the tone for the entirety of Curse both game design-wise and narratively. Players may be interested to find that, after prepping it, they can use the cannon to blast away boats full of undead pirates in a quasi-FPS style. While brief and seemingly inconsequential, this is a large mechanical departure for the series, which has mostly avoided any sort of reflex-based challenge (apart from, perhaps, the grog juggling mug puzzle from the first game). This is a sign of things to come, a small taster before the eventual introduction of a full-blown mini-game in a couple of chapters’ time. Also, seemingly to show off the talents of the voice cast, dialogue takes more of a front seat than ever. Our titchy companion turned pirate, Wally (although his latter profession doesn’t last for very long), has a ton of things you can talk to him about, dialogue trees branching out and lasting longer than they have before. This is particularly enjoyable and, as opposed to the mechanical changes, really plays to the strengths of Curse, allowing the sharp writing to shine through. Wally is a good first character to interact with as well, since bringing back a recognisable face helps to both ease long-time players into the new art style, while simultaneously creating a solid sense of scope for the in-game world. Indeed, Curse manages to tread a fine line between reference to, and reverence for, the first two games, while carving its own unique niche at the same time. In fact, one of the all-time best characters in the series gets his glorious debut in this very opening sequence, the megalomaniacal talking skull, Murray (voiced by the ever-talented, Denny Delk).

Poor Wally just isn’t cut out to be a pirate.

Outside of these small changes, the moment-to-moment puzzle design remains consistently strong, only occasionally devolving into guesswork. The underside of LeChuck’s ship tasks the player with uncoupling the cannon from its rope so that, when fired, it will launch backwards, and the momentum will break the door leading to the treasure hold. Perspective is key here, and savvy gamers will realise that they can stick their head out of the available porthole from either side, only being able to obtain the floating cutlass from the left. During this sequence, the number of items at the player’s disposable is limited, so while the treasure hold itself can prove a bit of a head-scratcher, it won’t be long before players exhaust all their items and successfully cut through the window with the diamond ring. It is a little disappointing that the logic in this instance isn’t immediately clear, and the number of glowing riches in the hold is clearly intended as a red herring meant to distract the player. This nit-pick isn’t to disparage Curse in any way, but purely an observation that further proves the insane amount of care and consideration that went it the design of Secret and LeChuck’s Revenge. Following on from Guybrush’s escape, we are treated to another beautifully animated cutscene, in which LeChuck, accidentally dropping a special ‘voodoo cannonball’ intended for Elaine, explodes (leaving nothing but a pair of ominous black boots on the deck of his ship). Of course, the first thing that Guybrush does upon reaching the beach of Plunder Island is propose to Elaine, emboldened and incensed by their time apart. Hilariously, he does this by gifting his lady love the very ring he used to escape LeChuck’s ship – a large, diamond-encrusted piece. Wally, having been thrown clear of the exploding ship, witnesses the proposal and comments on how the ring looks like the one that was in the ship’s hold, ‘the one with the ghastly, disfiguring voodoo curse’. Elaine leans back to sock the idiot pirate and, suddenly, turns into solid gold. This setup works in favour of Curse’s greater focus on character and straightforward narrative, providing Guybrush with a distinctly personal quest to save the woman he loves from the consequences of a mistake that he made – it takes the general ‘save Elaine’ portion from the first game and adds that extra emotional punch by means of Guybrush’s proposal. It is, dare I say, a genuine bit of character development after LeChuck’s Revenge, our hero shedding some of his selfish, treasure-hunting habits and realising what is important to him (even if he did just horribly curse the woman he loves). Guybrush is probably at his funniest when he’s channelling the self-absorbed idiot, but I like him most when he’s being a genuine, well-rounded character. It is disappointing, however, due to the plot focusing on the results of the voodoo curse, that most of the game is Elaine free, especially when she is so much fun in the first two games.

Surely that wasn’t the cursed ring? Right, Guybrush?

Chapter 2, which essentially acts as the first half of the game, takes place on Plunder Island and, much like Secret, initially tasks Guybrush with acquiring a new crew, ship and a map to his destination – Blood Island (specifically to acquire an uncursed ring of greater value to save Elaine). The main township of Plunder Island is Puerto Pollo, so named for its abundance of chickens, and stands as one of the most strikingly gorgeous locations in the entire series; sun-drenched, lush with greenery and both suitably familiar and different in all the right ways. Background artist, Bill Tiller, successfully takes the angular Caribbean townscapes of the first two games and reinterprets them in a stunning hand-drawn cartoon style. It is a joy simply to walk Guybrush around all the richly detailed locations, each one populated by a unique set of oddballs and, out of all the freaks and geeks, Curse might just have the best of them. It’s hard to choose a favourite when you’re forced to pick between the struggling Thespian pirate attempting to reinterpret Shakespeare for a nautical audience, a trio of singing ex-swashbuckler hairdressers, an insane chicken restaurant proprietor with a deep-seated fear of ‘El Pollo Diablo’ and a juvenile entrepreneur voiced by the late Gary Coleman. Once again, comedy and game design are combined in a spectacular way on Plunder Island, the eccentric giving way to and informing a line of logic that makes total sense within Curse’s world. Who would make a better crew than three angelic-voiced pirates? Each one demands something different from Guybrush, one wants to be bested in a duel, one in a test of strength and the other wants to see something gold. The duel, in this case, is particularly ingenious and involves the player finding a glove to slap the pirate with. This suitably offends the man, and the player can then, when duelling, pick up a stringed instrument instead of a pistol, initiating a Duelling Banjo’s style mini-game showdown. This ‘Simon says’ sequence is short and snappy, a brief change in mechanics that injects a little bit of variety into proceedings – a successful change of pace. Once the aptly named Edward Van Helgen proves his musical superiority, Guybrush can then pick up the pistol and shoot the banjo right out of his opponent’s hands, winning the battle. Like all good comedy, the joke here is ingeniously multi-faceted. Maybe slapping the guy with a dainty white glove was good enough, but then you realise the next step is picking the instrument over the weapon, and then even after that you get the actual string-picking Deliverance parody face-off, and then there’s another gag, the shooting of the banjo with the gun that you initially ignored. You expect it to end at some point, for the punchline to come and go, but it just keeps building in delightfully unexpected ways. The fact that this intricate string of comic events is then combined with actual in-game puzzle-solving is nothing short of a masterclass – a seamless merging of gameplay and comedic storytelling; complex code expertly obfuscated by purposeful design.

Helgen plays a mean banjo.
Puerto de Pollo is stunning.

However, there are still a few puzzles on Plunder Island that, while clever, fail to quite reach the same level of wacky yet understandable that LeChuck’s Revenge does. The brain teaser that immediately comes to mind is the aforementioned task of finding something gold for one of the barbershop pirates. Like all good adventure game puzzles, it starts strong with a clear indication of what you’ll end up needing – the gold tooth of resident loony, Captain Blondebeard (the owner of the chicken restaurant). The challenge, as it often should be, is figuring out how to obtain the tooth, rather than figuring out where to find it to begin with. The trouble with Curse, in this instance, is that the logic gets a little too moon-esque. The first part of the puzzle is clear enough, you give Blondebeard a jawbreaker to loosen the tooth and then give him some gum, which leads to him blowing a bubble with the gold gnasher visible inside. Pop the bubble, pick up the tooth and leave, right? Afraid not. Blondebeard will scold Guybrush for trying to make off with his favourite canine and take it back. The solution, in this case, is to chew some gum yourself, place the tooth inside the chewed gum, inhale some helium from a balloon, chew the tooth-laden gum and blow a bubble. Of course, this then results in the bubble floating out a nearby window and into the top of a drainage pipe (please note that you don’t actually see this happen). Guybrush then must use an empty pie tin to pan the puddle of mud at the bottom of the pipe and finally retrieve his golden prize. Is this puzzle in keeping with the odd, creative riddles that Monkey Island is known for? Yes. Does it take it too far? Absolutely. The thread of logic is stretched to breaking point with this conundrum and, almost certainly, most players will be reduced to trying every item in their inventory in every conceivable combination. You can’t even brute force the solution like the earlier tutorial puzzles, you simply have too many items in your inventory and the string of actions is far too specific. Again, it is a nit-pick, but it is worth pointing out in order to understand that The Curse of Monkey Island, while building upon elements of the previous games and putting more focus on narrative, does occasionally struggle mechanically in ways that the series hasn’t yet. Speaking of struggle, Chapter 3 introduces something completely new to the series, an element of real-time action, more fleshed out than the brief mini-games we’ve seen previously.

Blondebeard’s dilapidated chicken shack.

Before I talk about the pros and cons of in-game naval battles, I should mention that Chapter 3 of The Curse of Monkey Island begins with, arguably, one of the greatest scenes in video games as a medium. With a new ship (acquired from a crew of monkeys, no less) and a map to Blood Island, Guybrush sets out on a voyage with his barbershop triplet pirate crew. Will his new band of swashbucklers assist when another pirate steals the only map they have? Not a chance. They wait until the fight is over and break into song instead. A Pirate I Was Meant to Be is fantastic. A tuneful sea shanty that forces our hero to come to terms with the fact he’s essentially obtained three musical morons as crewmates. Every line is a rhyme, and they all harmonise for the iconic chorus ‘A pirate I was meant to be! Trim the sails and roam the sea!’. Also, they just won’t stop. Every time the player attempts to dissuade them from singing with a new dialogue option, they take the last word Guybrush spoke and create a new verse from it. Even the blonde buccaneer himself accidentally joins in a few times, it’s all just a perfectly chaotic, catchy comedy of musical errors. The only way to stop them from performing is, of course, to give them a word they can’t possibly rhyme. ‘We’ll surely avoid scurvy if we all eat an orange’, Guybrush slyly chants – cue several disappointed pirates. Along with being pure, grin-inducing spectacle, this wonderful moment also prepares you for what’s coming next: Insult Sword Fighting is back, but this time with an extra catch. Since you’re at sea, it’s not good enough to just respond with the correct witticism, you’ve got to rhyme it now as well. It is fun to see a gameplay mechanic return from Secret and get built upon at the same time, even if it is re-treading familiar territory. By sailing around and participating in these vocal battles, you can build up your booty and upgrade your ship, all in order to face off against Captain Rottingham, the man who stole your map. The ship upgrades (cannon upgrades, to be more exact) are required, since in between these battles you’ll be taking part in real-time naval combat, steering your ship around an arena from a bird’s eye view and firing artillery at other pirate vessels. After beating them in this mini-game, you can then board their ship and initiate the Insult Sword Fighting. Unfortunately, while an interesting experiment and a decent change of pace, the moment-to-moment action is both simplistic and a little tedious. Essentially, you do the same thing every encounter, sidling up next to the enemy ship and mashing a key to fire your cannons. Every time you destroy a ship and win the rhyme off you can go back to Plunder Island and upgrade your cannons to take on the next most powerful ship – rinse and repeat until you reach Rottingham. Without the fun character interactions and puzzle-solving to balance out the shooty shooty, the whole thing gets old very fast. Fortunately, the game does allow you to set these battles to easy and breeze through them, but you should still be prepared to sink at least an hour into this section of the game. Curse does deserve to be celebrated for pushing the series in a new direction and trying to recycle older material with added twists, but this doesn’t quite hit the mark. At least you’ll be humming A Pirate I Was Meant to Be the entire chapter.

The greatest scene in adventure gaming history.

The last chapters of the game are a return to usual form mechanically and narratively, placing Guybrush on Blood Island and setting him up with more interesting puzzles and new characters to interact with. Talking skull Murray returns for some great moments and Stan also makes his mandated appearance – now dabbling in life insurance after being buried alive by our hero last game. Guybrush gets to fake his own death twice (perhaps as punishment for his actions in LeChuck’s Revenge), feed cheese to a lactose intolerant volcano and spend a lot of time with the reanimated skeletons of the undead. All in all, Blood Island is characteristically well done, with Curse’s unique penchant for extra dialogue and backstory spotlighted front and center. Of course, LeChuck has somehow returned during Guybrush’s quest and amassed his army of the undead (and a few theme park mascots) in order to continue his scheme to marry Elaine. Indeed, as soon as the governor is freed from the curse, both she and Guybrush are captured by LeChuck’s crew and wind up imprisoned on Monkey Island, which has been partially repurposed as a theme park. Despite being visually sumptuous, the ending of Curse was clearly rushed to meet market. Entire scenes and interactions seem missing, and a lot of plot is unceremoniously dumped during a very long conversation between our protagonist and antagonist. The game does, however, have time for one last section in which Guybush is turned into a child and forced to break the curse by interacting with a load of seedy carnival workers. Though the puzzle solution is, as with the golden tooth, a little out there, the environment is fantastic and something really quite different for the series. Building upon the theme park ending of LeChuck’s Revenge, a mini Guybrush is thrust into a Tim Burton style carnival nightmare, complete with its own mascot knockoffs (the ever-hilarious Goofy parody Dinghy Dog). The final sequence, which to plays out like the end of the second game, has LeChuck chase Guybrush around animatronic re-enactments of previous series events before he finally acquires all the items necessary to trap the demon pirate under a block of ice. Suddenly the game cuts to Elaine and Guybrush happily married, off to enjoy their honeymoon on the Caribbean seas. It is brief, sweet and clearly missing huge chunks of plot information and in-betweens. Altogether, a relatively satisfying conclusion that is marred by its swiftness. The Curse of Monkey Island is a game of high highs and low lows, reaching heights the previous games did not, but also waning in quality a couple of times along the way. It is still my favourite game in the series purely for its focus on character development, writing, voice acting and drop-dead gorgeous art, while also managing to keep the puzzles to a (mostly) incredibly high standard. It does, however, suffer from moments of tedium and starts to come off the rails towards the end. It is a flawed masterpiece in every sense.

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Escape from Monkey Island (2000)

Escape from Monkey Island has the dubious honour of being the very last LucasArts adventure game and one of the very few to be released on console (specifically the PlayStation 2 a year after its PC release in 2001). Considered by fans as the black sheep of the series, Escape is a departure both graphically and mechanically from its predecessors. This was the first Monkey Island game to go 3D, with fully realised polygonal character models and pre-rendered backgrounds, much like the PlayStation 1 Final Fantasy games. It looks about as good as you might expect of early-ish 3D, which is to say, nowhere near as nice as the first two games and a whole universe removed from the lush illustration of Curse. Most of the cast appear like a mass of clumsily stitched together shapes, lacking in detail and only coming to life through brief, yet expressive cutscenes. Guybrush, somehow, looks younger than ever, despite, at this point in the overarching plot, being 20/21 years old (Escape taking place a mere three months after Curse). Clearly, most design cues were taken from the previous game in the series, and our hero remains tall and fresh-faced. I do like the general aesthetic of his outfit, and the red coat is a nice, unique touch for this incarnation of the character – you just have to get over the fact he looks about sixteen. Elaine, like a lot of the supporting cast, lacks any standout features, her personality having to fill in for a lack of distinct visual detail. Despite not appearing until towards the end of the game, LeChuck arguably suffers the most from the implementation of 3D models. The dread pirate has, to no one’s surprise, returned once again, this time regularly shape-shifting between his three previous incarnations: ghost, zombie and demon. The spectral model is simply okay, while the other two are downright ugly. His zombie form, in particular, seems to up the gross-out factor, with a half-stitched together mouth and vacant eye socket – it’s just unpleasant to look at and watch walk around, a pulsating, green sack of bumbling flesh. LeChuck’s demonic character incarnation suffers from directly lifting from Curse, and the simple, hand-drawn illustration that was so effective (and somewhat cutesy) just doesn’t transition very well to 3D, resulting in an entirely flat, inexpressive model. The pre-rendered backgrounds are a little more of a mixed bag, occasionally offering some lovely set dressing, but also delivering some dull, rubbery locations. Even the best of the backdrops fail to match what a lot of companies were doing as early as the mid-’90s, and Escape looks dated beyond its years in comparison.

Guybrush and Elaine looking a little potato-esque.

The gameplay changes are also a point of contention for a lot of fans, and it’s not hard to see why. Being a fully 3D experience, Escape completely does away with the point-and-click aspect of the series (shock, horror), instead replacing it with a sort of walk-and-click hybrid system. The player now directly controls Guybrush using tank controls on the PC version, or full analogue control on the PlayStation 2 port (as opposed to just clicking where you want the plucky pirate to go). On console at least, this is fine, and our hero is responsive enough to inputs, but it becomes finicky whenever you want to directly interact with an object. Picking up items, combining items and doing anything that requires a degree of finesse can be troublesome. What was a simple case of dragging and dropping bits and pieces from your inventory is now a case of stringing together button inputs. Every time you want to use an item you have to select it in a separate menu, which results in Guybrush taking the object out and holding it in his hand. It is a slog to simply experiment in Escape from Monkey Island, each time you attempt to use an item relegated to a slow back and forth through your inventory and a parade of yawn-inducing character animation. This really is a case of trying to fix something that wasn’t broken and, the only reason I can imagine they attempted to change the system, was to add an extra layer of immersion to proceedings, which has the adverse result of slowing everything down to a complete crawl. Indeed, even interacting with a certain part of the environment is a troublesome exercise in meticulously manoeuvring  Guybrush into a very specific spot. You will constantly try to focus the blond pirate on a certain item only to have his head snap to some other point of interest, bobbing all over the place like an over-stimulated five-year-old. The game attempts to remedy this by offering a list of available options if several points of interest are close together, which can be navigated and selected with the d-pad, but these lines of text often rearrange themselves on a whim, making it occasionally troublesome to do something as simple as select the option you want.

Guybrush slowly cycles through his inventory.

So, between a clumsy interface, questionable art direction and a tediously slow pace, we should have a real stinker on our hands, right? Well, no. There is certainly a case to be made for Escape being the worst Monkey Island game but being the worst Monkey Island game is like being the worst Andrei Tarkovsky film – as in, it’s still got a lot of valuable qualities. Written and directed by series veterans Sean Clark and Michael Stemmle, Escape stands on its own feet with a unique, consumer-culture parody narrative that sets it apart from its predecessors. The puzzles, especially during the first two-thirds of the game, are solid, with a few sequences that even make it up there with the best of the best. The voice acting is still exceptional, with the talented cast of Curse returning to bring each character to life (apart from, strangely, Elaine, who now sports an American accent courtesy of Charity James). Behind the veil of questionable early 2000s design trends, there is the heart and soul of a great game. Plot-wise, Escape begins with Guybrush and Elaine returning from their honeymoon three months after the end of The Curse of Monkey Island. Together, they set sail back to the original game’s Mêlée Island, Elaine planning to resume her position as governor. Upon arriving, they discover that she has been declared dead, there is a new, mysterious man running for governor (who turns out to be LeChuck in disguise), an Australian business magnate named Ozzie Mandrill is buying up the Caribbean and their home (Elaine’s mansion) is due to be knocked down. What follows is a string of events that see our now hen-pecked hero run tasks for his beloved while she attempts to rescind her falsely filed death certificate. Escape’s primary narrative and comedic focus is squarely on the all-consuming force of corporate capitalism, the monetisation and franchising of popular things and the ridiculous hoop-jumping that comes bundled in with every form of bureaucracy. The whole thing is wonderfully relevant and exceedingly high concept. Monkey Island, a marketable series in itself (that was once even going to get its own Pixar movie), is wrestling with the question of what happens when the fictional, Guybrush inhabited game world becomes a commercialised commodity. The meta elements of the first two games are brought to a stunning head in Escape, which might have the cleverest fourth wall breaks in the entire series. In what other game would the main character visit a chain restaurant called ‘Planet Threepwood’, fully complete with a reference filled ‘themed menu’, its shelves stacked with a ton of miscellaneous items from across all three previous titles? Monkey Island’s knack for biting self-awareness is on full display here, enhanced and built upon through the series maturation, which now places a firm, self-deprecating eye on its own place within adventure gaming canon. The Secret of Monkey Island already touched upon commercialisation as comedy through the three pirate trials of Mêlée Island, which were essentially tourist attractions (the prize for finding the buried treasure, for example, is a piece of commemorative clothing that reads ‘I found the Treasure of Mêlée Island and all I got was this stupid T-shirt!’). The commodification of the entire in-game Caribbean feels like the next logical step – how does our hero deal with the challenges imposed by pop-culture pirating reaching peak financial marketability?

The joys of Planet Threepwood.

The legal document-driven narrative does eventually give way to the series staple of the powerful voodoo MacGuffin – in this case, ‘the Ultimate Insult’, a Marley family heirloom with the power to mentally incapacitate any pirate through the sheer power of its insults. Indeed, the prior game’s Insult Sword Fighting mechanic has also undergone marketable evolution within the world of Monkey Island, essentially becoming old hat in-game. All arguments and disagreements are solved by some form of insult combat, and even Guybrush manages to acquire his navigator by beating him in a bout of insult arm-wrestling. Escape, overall, takes a lot of elements from the original Secret of Monkey Island and recontextualises them for further comedic effect. While this works most of the time, the sheer amount of reference can occasionally feel like cheap nostalgia bait. It is fun to reconnect with Guybrush’s original crew (Otis, Meathook and Carla) and explore their post-traumatic stress after getting stuck on Monkey Island (this game also officially canonises the alternate ending to the first game, the one in which Guybrush accidentally sinks his own ship, stranding his shipmates), but it doesn’t always feel particularly relevant. Getting to converse with these characters works because they are familiar faces in a once familiar setting – it makes sense that Guybrush should witness how the original Mêlée Island inhabitants have been displaced by the arrival of Mandrill. On the other hand, the actual section of the game that takes place on the titular island is, much like the title it pays so much reverence to, tedious. Herman Toothrot is reintroduced and retconned in a clumsy, pointless way; now revealed to be Elaine’s missing grandfather who was originally mentioned in LeChuck’s Revenge. He is even given a new backstory to help tie in a relationship with new antagonist, Ozzie Mandrill, and it all feels a bit like forcing a square block into a circular hole. Toothrot works in his original incarnation as a parody of a parody – the crazed stranded island pirate archetype who talks a lot of nonsense and exists as living proof of where lust for adventure can get you. Giving this character a degree of gravitas just feels odd, the need to tie him to current affairs removing an important element of scope from the game world; next players are going to find out that Mandrill is Guybrush’s long-lost uncle.

Toothrot returns.

As I mentioned earlier, the puzzle-solving is still great, especially during the middle portion of the game and Guybrush’s adventures on the islands of Lucre, Jambalaya and Knuttin Atoll. There is a fantastic sequence in which our hero must find out where a pirate that framed him for robbery lives, and he does so by navigating the Mystes o’ Tyme, a mysterious swampland. Using a clock and a set of directions, the player must navigate the marsh in a very specific way, until they reach a point with a locked gate where, bizarrely, another Guybrush appears. This alternate version of the hero says a few lines, hands you three items that he claims you’ll need and sails away again. After following a few more steps, you end up in the same position as the very Guybrush you just saw, face to face with your doppelganger on the other end of the same gate. The puzzle here involves repeating exactly what the previous Guybrush said to you and handing over the same items in the same order. Failure to do this properly results in a time paradox, and our hero is warped back to the beginning of the area. It is so wonderfully strange a puzzle. This little section manages to riff on so many concepts that it deserves to be up there as one of the best sequences in the series. I love the idea of infinite, looping versions of Guybrush caught in a perpetual circle of handing each other the same items, and how it raises questions about the nature of existence within a video game to begin with – truly the fourth wall break to end all fourth wall breaks. The puzzle immediately after is great too and involves using an unassuming duck to freak out the pirate who framed you, all so he slips into a lobster cage that you can then lock (said pirate has a phobia of ducks ever since one nibbled off his nose). While a few riddles in Escape can verge on incomprehensible, there are several very competent, clever brainteasers, which more than make up for the slightly stranger challenges. However, what can’t be forgiven on a mechanical level, is the frankly awful Monkey Kombat.

Beware the paradox.

Cheap and outdated in both pun name (seriously, a Mortal Kombat reference in 2000?) and on raw gameplay terms, Monkey Kombat is the absolute nadir of quality in the Monkey Island series. It is, for all intents and purposes, Insult Sword Fighting without any of the wit or wordplay; a randomised game of rock paper scissors that involves memorising and combining three of four button inputs in order to switch between one of six stances that can all counter and defend from each other on different levels. For example, Gimpy Gibbon might beat Drunken Monkey (or not, it’s different every playthrough) and in order to change from your current stance, which is, let’s say, Anxious Ape, to Gimpy Gibbon, you must input OOP, EEK, CHEE – if you want to switch from Drunken Monkey to Gimpy Gibbon though, that’s a whole different combination. Just from this alone, you can see the sheer number of permutations that can end up existing when you must constantly switch between six stances, and you are expected to achieve this while remembering what beats what. So, in order to beat Monkey Kombat, be prepared to waste half an hour (minimum) making a note of every little piece of information you can parse from your trial-and-error simian smackdowns. It’s not fun and it’s certainly not challenging, some of the least interesting, late game padding I’ve ever seen, which manages to further sour the weak final stretch of the experience.

This image gives me a migraine.

The last area of the game is, of course, Monkey Island, which Guybrush has been banished to by both Ozzie Mandrill and LeChuck, the latter owing a debt to the Australian for freeing him from the block of ice that encased him at the end of Curse. This section, on top of containing Monkey Kombat and Herman Toothrot, has some stale timing-based puzzles that eschew any kind of item-based logic for selecting things in the right order. The backgrounds, at least, finally start coming into their own at this late stage of the game, and areas like ‘the Church of LeChuck’ are visually detailed and impressively realised. The ending sees Guybrush, with the help of Toothrot and a talking monkey called Jojo Jr., pilot a giant mechanical ape – the very same ape whose huge head was the gateway to LeChuck’s lair in Secret. I’m sure a lot of fans were peeved about the introduction of a giant robot into their pirate series (as well as the retcons it brings with it – where did the big old theme park from the end of Curse go?), but I find it ends up doing the job. The series, since LeChuck’s Revenge, has struggled to wrap things up in a smooth or satisfying way. At least the mecha-ape goes some way in introducing a sense of ramping tension to affairs, as our hero and his motley companions trek through the ocean to face down the Australian tycoon. Indeed, the final confrontation sees Guybrush use the dreaded Monkey Kombat to battle a huge stone LeChuck, who was been made subservient by Ozzie after he acquired the power of the Ultimate Insult. No final puzzle, just a few strings of inputs to take down the granite monolith and put an end to Mandrill. While not thrilling on a gameplay level, it is narratively consistent and manages to feel like an ending to the self-contained story of Escape from Monkey Island.

Mandrill and LeChuck are, fortunately, no more.

I know I claimed that Curse was a game of highs and lows but Escape truly takes the cake for the largest dips and peaks in quality, regularly bouncing between some of the best and worst moments in the Monkey Island series. For every relevant, clever pop at consumerist culture, there’s a familiar character introduced and retconned, diluting the narrative potency of the fictional Caribbean. The outlandish, creative puzzles are often marred by tedious, timing-based sections and the mind-numbing Monkey Kombat. The game can be ugly and charming, brilliant and boring, funny and frustrating – it’s a mess I can’t help but enjoy. The whole experience is saved by the quality of its character, by Guybrush himself once again inhabiting this world and interacting with its denizens. I wanted to experience it all because I wanted the blond, pony-tailed buccaneer to as well; I wanted to know his thoughts and reaction to every inch of the game world. I wanted to speak with Murray again, as he hawked passers-by outside Planet Threepwood, Carla as she got drunk in the Micro-groggery, and Meathook, now slopping wax on a canvas and calling it art. These characters are all as charming as ever, worth engaging with and suffering through the brief troughs of miserable design choice to get to them. Some part of me hates Escape from Monkey Island, but a larger part loves it even more.

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Tales of Monkey Island (2009)

Currently, the latest Monkey Island in the series, 2009’s Tales of Monkey Island was developed by Telltale Games under license from LucasArts. The gap between Escape and Tales constituted the longest fans had to wait in-between franchise instalments so far, a whole nine years, which would only eventually be eclipsed by the stretch of time in-between Tales and the upcoming Return – thirteen years so far and counting. The game is another interesting departure in the series for a few reasons, but it also worth noting the returning alumni who helped assist in the design process. Ron Gilbert returned to help with the early planning stages of the project, and Dave Grossman is credited as director of design, with Michael Stemmle returning to direct (along with Mark Darin, Joe Pinney and Jake Rodkin). Despite having two-thirds of the iconic development trio from the first few games on board, Tales of Monkey Island is a very different beast both in style and substance. Like the majority of Telltale’s output, Guybrush’s latest adventure was split into five separate episodes, all of which released over the course of six months, between July and December 2009. Taking place at least a decade after Escape, players are placed in the shoes of an older Guybrush, who has, once again, decided to grow a beard. Indeed, Tales seems to primarily look to LeChuck’s Revenge for design inspiration, as our hero has redonned his blue coat. The opening act of the game is business as usual for the series, LeChuck is back (in green zombie form) and desperately trying to make Elaine his bride, even though she is still married to Guybrush. Our hero has spent several years searching for items to help him create the Cutlass of Kaflu, a voodoo blade with the ability to do away with the demon pirate once and for all. Of course, he drops the cutlass overboard early in the opening sequence and the blond pirate is forced to improvise with what he can find aboard LeChuck’s vessel (which he has boarded in order to assist his kidnapped wife). This makeshift blade, once stabbed into the dread pirate, causes a huge voodoo explosion. Much to everyone’s surprise, LeChuck is now human, all the evil energy sapped from his body and transferred to Guybrush’s hand, which develops an Evil Dead II-style mind of its own. He has contracted the Pox of LeChuck. The explosion sends Guybrush overboard and he washes up on Flotsam Island, where the entire first episode of the adventure takes place.

A green hand for your troubles.

Graphically, Tales is a huge improvement over Escape. The character models are expressive, and everyone receives a suitably cartoony makeover. It’s not my favourite Guybrush design in the series, but I do enjoy how they have managed to make him look a little more mature and distinguished, while still retaining the goofy elements of his personality. He is more appropriately dressed for an older, semi-successful pirate, but his eyes still belie a child-like innocence, and his face is as puppy lovable as ever. The new area of the Caribbean that the game takes place in, the Gulf of Melange, is not as immediately recognisable or visually distinct as the Tri-Island Area but has enough character of its own to remain interesting throughout. Flotsam Island acts as a decent enough starter area to acquaint players with the new gameplay systems but suffers from a lack of variety and enjoyable side characters. Most of the pirates Guybrush interacts with in the first chapter (and, indeed, across his adventure) can end up feeling one-note. There was always a sense, in the previous games (except Escape), that a lot of the individuals you encounter have their own little lives within the game world, and that you were just getting to experience a small piece of them. This feeling was enhanced by the considered character design, each pirate having distinct proportions and a unique outfit. A lot of the side-cast in Tales look generic and interchangeable, with some even sporting the exact same character model, just a different set of textures slapped on top. Of course, in a 3D game this is to be expected, you can’t give everyone a unique body type, but it still removes a layer of individuality from proceedings. The gameplay systems, mechanically, are like Escape – players move Guybrush around using the thumbstick, or keyboard, but can thankfully click directly on items using the mouse (or an in-game cursor, on console). Players are also given the option to move around using just the mouse, by clicking and dragging in the direction they want to go, and right-clicking to run. This is clumsy and unintuitive, which results in the optimum PC control scheme (which is the only way to currently purchase and play the game) involving holding a USB controller in your left hand and using the mouse with your right. Perhaps it was due to the game’s console releases, but I have no idea why you can’t just point-and-click where you want to go and what you want to do like in the first three games. Instead, this halfway house between Escape’s setup and the original titles just ends up feeling clunky. Item usage is at least like the PC games, albeit with a combination system that means you must drag any items you want to use together into two separate boxes and press an addition button to merge them together – an extra step of questionable necessity.

Flotsam Island’s pirates are a little vanilla.

Guybrush up to his usual hoarder antics.

The puzzles, as has been the case since Curse, are often decent, but erratic in quality. There’s a neat sequence on Flotsam that involves convincing an action figure-obsessed pirate that the final doll he needs for his collection is buried nearby, which you do by stealing one of his duplicates, dying it black and then burying it yourself for him to eventually dig up. On the other hand, there’s an annoying forest maze that borders on busywork rather than anything mentally stimulating. Perhaps it’s the change in development studio, but a lot of the brainteasers feel disconnected in a way they didn’t in previous entries. There is an understated naturalism to the bizarre logic of the riddles of Monkey Island, but Tales has more of a ‘puzzle for puzzle’s sake’ attitude. There are elongated sections that involve trekking around the map, placing a weathervane on top of a plinth, and matching three rotating wheels to form the correct face. The reason you do this four times feels little more than padding. The best part of the first episode takes place in the establishment of new antagonist, the Marquis de Singe. This is arguably one of the stronger puzzles in the whole game, tasking an incapacitated Guybrush with adjusting his operating table position in order to use his feet and face to activate a series of contraptions that eventually release a key he can use to escape the antagonistic Frenchman (who wants to remove our hero’s hand for ‘research’). This little puzzle-box room works expertly within the systems that Telltale has created for Tales, using lateral, physical movement in combination with context-sensitive actions in order to achieve a set goal, playing completely to the strengths of the in-game engine. The Marquis de Singe, however, is no replacement for LeChuck as main villain and comes across as more of a dated, unfunny stereotype – a dainty, make-up-wearing, silly-voiced French ham. While a flawed antagonist, Tales at least provides players with a very solid plot to follow along all five episodes, and I would even go as far to say that, courtesy of Telltale, the game has the strongest focus on narrative in the entire series. Character interaction and moment-to-moment story beats are classic Monkey Island. The game is still funny, but the comedy is no longer necessarily the central focus, the parody, meta-humour and cynical, biting wit replaced with something more akin to a traditional adventure. The stakes are made clear from the end of the first act, when it is revealed that Guybrush is accidentally spreading the Pox of LeChuck (keen-eyed players will notice the inhabitants of Flotsam Island slowly turning green) and transforming all nearby pirates into foul-tempered, semi-sane menaces. Once again, the Voodoo Lady appears to Guybrush and instructs him to obtain La Esponja Grande, yet another mythical artifact that has the ability to soak up the Pox. The goal of the quest is clear, the pieces are in place, and there’s nothing particularly subversive about the direction the narrative progresses in. That’s okay though, and it’s honestly a lot of fun to see all these characters (both new and returning) getting to interact in a fleshed-out world. All the expected voice actors return and are as good as ever, including Alexandra Boyd as Elaine, restoring her accent to what it totally should be (British Elaine is best Elaine).

De Singe’s operating room is a brilliant slice of puzzle solving.

The newest addition to the cast (and the one with the most screen time) is plucky and capable pirate bounty hunter, Morgan LeFlay. An excellent spanner in the works, Morgan appears at the beginning of the second chapter (hired by de Singe to retrieve Guybrush for experimentation) and lops off the plucky pirate’s pox-ridden hand. Her introduction is interesting in the way it sets up her relationship with Guybrush, whom she admires as a great pirate, having grown up listening to tales of his adventures. Never have we really had a character who openly respects Guybrush as a person, and it further enhances Tales’ representation of our protagonist as a more mature, accomplished individual. Of course, one of Morgan’s defining arcs is coming to terms with the real Mr. Threepwood, who prefers persuasion over swordplay, much to the young girl’s chagrin. On the other hand, the blond pirate also comes to learn a lot from Morgan, understanding that sometimes physical force is necessary in tandem with his usual silver-tongued antics. The game hints at a possible relationship between the two, but Guybrush is loyal to Elaine in every way and rightly so – to have him act otherwise would be completely out of character, especially with how he has been represented since Curse. After losing his hand, our hero obtains a suitably pirate-y hook, which can be used to pick the locks of various chests. Most of the second chapter involves reuniting with Elaine and the now human LeChuck in a village full of merfolk. In his new form, LeChuck is attempting to make up for his past mistakes and helps the happy couple with retrieving three artifacts in order to summon the sea creatures that will lead Guybrush to Le Esponja Grande. Human LeChuck provides a great opportunity to watch two long-standing enemies interact with each other on a personal level, and it is hilarious. Our hero openly detests the large, now jovial man, who takes all insults in his stride and is often disarmingly nice to his greatest rival. This is, forgive the pun, the most fleshed out that LeChuck gets, and it is particularly funny that he is absolutely terrible at puzzles, needing Guybrush to slowly guide him through the simplest of logical processes – like using a crowbar to pry out a jammed emblem. It is strange, however, to see mythical creatures make an appearance on Jerkbait Island. Despite voodoo curses and all sorts of strangeness in previous games, this is the first time Monkey Island has introduced such a thing, seemingly, a completely expected element of everyday life in the Caribbean. This is expanded on even further in the third (and best) chapter of the game, when Guybrush is, once again, ambushed by Morgan, and they are both swallowed by a gigantic manatee.

Human LeChuck looks about as goofy as our protaginist.

The pair really get to connect during this section, building a natural rapport with each other as they deal with the zany inhabitants of the large sea mammal. Mechanically, the manatee feels like an expanded version of de Singe’s operating chamber from the first chapter and provides a smaller, densely packed area flush with interesting, challenging puzzles. There is little to no backtracking inside the beast, and the focus is squarely on solving a small selection of riddles in order to reach a greater goal, which is to obtain an artificial cochlea to attach to the manatee. This is solely to repair the creature’s sense of direction, so that it can lead Guybrush to the ‘Manatee Mating Grounds’ where the mythical sponge lies.

Morgan and Guybrush plan their escape.

The acquisition of the cochlea involves many things, including long lost conquistador Coronada DeCava and his crew of mutinous-turned-union pirates. Murray also reappears in perhaps his best incarnation to date, acting as both a piece of the wider cochlea-based puzzle and as an ever-charming source of comical evil. This entire chapter is just extremely tight in design, flowing from one excellent encounter to the next and providing the player with a variety of puzzles to solve and characters to interact with. The only mini-game to appear in Tales is housed in this chapter as well, involving a literal face-off in which Guybrush competes with Bugeye to see who can form the most despicable pirate face. This works a little like Insult Sword Fighting but relies on the blond pirate learning different expressions from nearby characters and bits of scenery, including the figurehead of a marooned ship. The end of the chapter also includes a hilarious sequence in which Guybrush must help the very manatee that swallowed him with wooing a female at the mating grounds. This involves the player picking pre-written responses from what is essentially a quick-fix manatee language translation book (like one you would find in an airport). The female manatee might say, for example, that she doesn’t ‘want anyone with a lot of baggage’ and Guybrush can then select the ‘Money and Customs’ section of the book and respond with ‘I have nothing to declare’. The whole thing is clever, funny and, actually, very satisfying to solve. This consistency is carried over to the last two chapters as well, with the penultimate one dedicated to a trial in which Guybrush is brought into pirate court for his crimes committed on Flotsam Island (tricking the locals and causing general mayhem). Stan makes his mandated appearance here as the prosecutor, a fun, expanded role for the character. A lot of plot is dumped in this chapter and a few twists and turns are revealed – Elaine becomes fully consumed by the pox, de Singe reveals his plans to use Guybrush’s strain of the disease to concoct an elixir of eternal life, Morgan straight-up dies and LeChuck reveals that he has been play-acting the good guy all along, stabbing and killing our hero at the end of the chapter. Narratively, this all feels thematically appropriate and thrilling, setting things up nicely for the final part of the story. The only questionable element is the reveal that the Voodoo Lady has been masterminding the lives of all the characters in the game, pulling the strings behind the scenes. The game doesn’t necessarily villainise her for this, but there is a clear implication that she might be the true Monkey Island antagonist. It feels cheap in the sense that one of Guybrush’s closest allies and reoccurring friends is relegated to the twist big bad, and goes some way to sabotage an otherwise likeable, recognisable character.

A strange, questionable twist befalls a series regular.

The final chapter of the game sees Guybrush, with the help of Morgan and several other deceased pirates, rise from the underworld to save Elaine (now LeChuck’s demon queen) and vanquish the undead pirate once and for all. The ending is pretty on par, if not better than that of Secret’s, and manages to feel both substantial and complete. Indeed, Tales greatest strength is its consistency, providing players with a solid narrative and solid puzzles. While it never reaches the highs of some of its predecessors, it also avoids the pitfalls of their lows. Maybe you could argue that a by the books, relatively normal Monkey Island game misses the key features of what makes a Monkey Island game and that those peaks and troughs are an integral part of the overall experience. As it stands, Tales is certainly the most different game in the series, reflecting Telltales’ development style and general aesthetic; that is not to say that is any worse or better than any other Monkey Island title, it is just completely its own thing.

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The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition & Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck’s Revenge (2009)

While Tales of Monkey Island is currently the most recent original game in the series, the first two entries did receive full remakes in 2009. The graphical ‘upgrades’, unfortunately, are a little questionable. Both games ‘update’ the pixel art of the originals to a style more like Curse, but nowhere near as detailed or polished. Some of the backgrounds manage to look quite nice but suffer from a cartoony softness that ends up washing out a lot of the intricate detail. The character models also feel off, stripping a lot of personality away from the cast, while also moving in a stilted, puppet-like fashion. You can, thankfully, switch back to the original graphics at any time via the push of a button, which should be the way first-time players experience these two classic adventures. Returning veterans are likely to get something more out of the new coat of paint, and it is intriguing to see the ways in which the art has been reimagined. The absolute best addition to these remakes, however (outside of the built-in commentary tracks that can be activated in the menu), is the addition of full voice acting. The entire cast return to imbue these older titles with a new sense of life, and Monkey Island 2 Special Edition even allows you to play with the original art and the voices at the same time (the same can only be achieved for Monkey Island: Special Edition by means of modding the PC version). This alone makes it worth the price of admission, but both titles should also be celebrated for the fact that they have successfully brought two classics to a modern audience and modern systems. It’s very simple to grab them on any digital PC storefront, and they are also backwards compatible on current Xbox systems as well (you can even dust off your PlayStation 3 if you are so inclined). Crank those graphics to old school, turn on those new voices, and enjoy the best way to play Monkey Island 1 & 2.

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As we reach the end of this monumental retrospective, I can’t help but wish I had something clever, or grand, to say about the wonderful series of games that is Monkey Island. Instead, all I can do is reiterate the qualities of every title and their collective ability to absorb the player in a deeply realised, expertly crafted fictional Caribbean. Playing through every game in order, I came to realise that it was not necessarily the puzzles that kept me entranced. While ninety percent of the mechanical gameplay challenges were masterclasses in eccentric adventure game design, it is the characters that truly bring the entire experience to life. Guybrush, Elaine, LeChuck, Stan, Murray, the Voodoo Lady and all the individuals the player gets to meet along the way are richly detailed and filled with life – you come to truly love this cast of misfits. The world, even in its ugliest incarnations, is endlessly appealing, filled with the kind of locations that you dream about exploring yourself, and wishing you could jump into the world just so you could walk around it. In this way, Gilbert succeeded from the get-go, taking his own passion for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, his personal wish to break free from the constraints of the boat that shackled his creativity, and superimposing it upon millions of gamers worldwide. That infectious enthusiasm, that boundless artistic fervour is the heart and soul of Monkey Island; they are games filled with a great sense of personal, intimate warmth, even in their most cynical moments. Each incarnation stands on its own two feet, guided by series veterans and newcomers alike, miraculously consistent in their inconsistencies and quality, providing something unique with each new title. Return to Monkey Island is hotly anticipated due to Gilbert returning with complete creative control, and no doubt some fans will see this as a true continuation of the original two games. While I am as excited as the next person for this instalment, and will no doubt absolutely love it, I would also argue that the series cannot really ‘return’ – especially when it never even left. Monkey Island, as a series, is as consistently enjoyable as it gets, and every game leaves a little legacy of its own. Again, I really wish I had some incredible, illuminating insight to leave you with at this point, especially if (God forbid) you managed to get through all 15,000 words. But, as it usually goes, I played every Monkey Island game and all I wrote was this stupid retrospective.

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