Sadly, I did not play the original Secret of Monkey Island back when it was released in 1990 (I was five). Actually, it was well into my life as a gamer that I stumbled into the PC adventure genre with 1998’s Grim Fandango. That event began a love affair with the genre that led me through its past, exploring the brilliant games I had missed during my formative years. I can’t recall exactly how I got my hands on a copy of the Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel, LeChuck’s Revenge. Was it packaged with Grim Fandango? With another game? Whatever the case, I did manage to play the original game some years ago. I’m a fan. Of adventure games; of LucasArts adventure games; of creators Ron Gilbert and Tim Schaefer; and of Monkey Island as a series. I should probably mention that the announcement of a remake and the episodic Tales of Monkey Island was, for me, the highlight of E3 2009. Fortunately, the Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition doesn’t fail to meet my hype.
It feels strange explaining the story of a 20 year old series but I’m going to go ahead and assume there are a few newcomers out there. The Secret of Monkey Island is about aspiring pirate Guybrush Threepwood. Guybrush arrives on Melee Island hoping to become a full-fledged professional pirate. After meeting the Pirate Lords he is set on three trials that begin his quest. However, the schemes of the ghost pirate LeChuck soon thrust Guybrush into an entirely new endeavor.
If you’ve ever played an adventure game, you know the drill. Gameplay consists of logic puzzles, either in the form of branching dialogue trees or navigating and exploring the environment, using items to overcome obstacles. Guybrush needs a key, but to get the key he needs a banana picker, to get the banana picker he needs access to the cannibal village, and so forth. One aspect of the adventure game genre that LucasArts has always managed well was the consistency of the puzzles. Very rarely do they dabble in the moon logic for which the genre is infamous. This is due partly to the fact that LucasArts adventure games are often comedies. Often, the most logical solution and the most humorous solution are one in the same. The Secret of Monkey Island is no exception to this trend (well, actually, it established it).
All of that is been-there-done-that, unchanged from the 20 year old original. So what’s new to warrant a Special Edition? Well, for the one, the special edition is no less than a complete remake of the original. New HD graphics (with gorgeous hand-painted environments), a new re-recorded and re-mastered score and complete voice acting for every character and every line of dialogue in the game.
Also new is a redesigned interface, which hides the verb and item menus that take up the lower half of the screen in the original. Each menu can be called with the push of a button, but hiding them allows a view of the screen not obscured by a HUD. In theory this seems ideal, as the new hand-painted backgrounds really are breathtaking. However, it quickly becomes annoying, having to constantly switch between menus in order to interact with items or the environment. The game features context-sensitive control with the right mouse button, however it lacks a good concept of context and rarely performs the action you need.
Another new addition is the three-level hint system. Hitting the ‘H’ key provides a hint on how to solve a current puzzle. A second press will provide a clearer hint and a third will pop an arrow onto the screen indicating exactly where to go. It’s a welcome new feature that streamlines the head scratching process inherent to adventure games. I’ll admit that I had to rely on it a few times and it sure beat alt-tabbing out of the game to hit up a FAQ.
One of the game’s best features is the ability to switch between the classic game and the special edition with a simple buttons press. Instantly, it switches from the new graphics and sounds to the originals and back again. This came in handy quite often for a number of reasons. With every new environment and with every new scene I did find myself switching back and forth just to compare the then and now. However, it also highlighted one of the more glaring issues with the game. While the graphics have received a major overhaul, most of the animation has not. It’s distracting to see Guybrush instantly go from facing left to right with no animation for the turning in-between, or to see characters close-ups, speaking with voice acting, but their mouths not moving. Despite the gorgeous new environments, I often found myself switching back to the original because I still preferred it. This could be a fair amount of nostalgia talking, I’ll admit, but some new animation would have been very welcome. Also, what’s up with New Guybrush’s hair?
So is the Monkey Island remake perfect? Sadly no, but it would be hard to please fans of such a classic game. Still, it’s pretty damn great. None of these issues affect the game significantly. Even the menu switching is no more than a minor annoyance (that can be remedied by switching to classic mode). It would be nice if the game offered some customization options for how to experience the game. For example, I would have enjoyed playing the classic graphics with th new music and voice acting, occasionally switching to the HD graphics to take in the oh-so-pretty new environments. Fans of the original will be overcome with warm fuzzy feelings and newcomers have a genuine chance to experience a true classic.