Gasps of incredulity. Shocked expressions. Monocles flying all over the place. My friends, these are real scenes that I have witnessed upon uttering the words “I have never played Monkey Island” (and saying “I have played Monkey Island 4” doesn’t seem to help matters). How have I lived a life so poor in experience, so lacking in love and care? My excuse runs along the lines that I was 3 when it came out and when I actually started looking at back catalogues on amazon, they were incredibly hard to find and ridiculously priced but that does not diminish the tutting, head-shaking, pitying stares one iota. Let’s set this right in a thousand words or so.
Good god, it came out 22 years ago! Looking through the relevant list on acclaimed knowledge accumulator Wikipedia, I can’t see anything that still works so well, has such resonance. Ultima, Railroad Tycoon, Wing Commander? Fine games at the time, fondly remembered but I’m not sure you can play them now without having a small yappy dog nearby to frantically slap when the frustration boils over. Incredibly, Monkey Island is not just still playable, it’s still accessible.
But then that begets the question: why make a conversion? What do you add if the game still works, if people have been playing it on emulators such as SCUMMVM for years? Mainly, it’s a reskin job, replacing all the pixels with higher resolution hand-drawn-ish art. While the backgrounds look reasonably sumptuous, there’s a bit of a disconnect with the people, who have had their pixel counts upgraded dramatically but still keep the same three or four frames of animation. Said characters look like jerky marionettes as a result and though you do get used to it, it’s disconcerting at first.
As well as art, the originally speechless game has been fully voiced with mostly original voice actors ( and never has there ever been such a keen voice guy.) The most innovative thing that the conversion has is that it’s possible to flip between the old and new versions at will, to see exactly how close the mapping between them is. It’s actually fun in itself to flip between it randomly, and I didn’t play the whole game mode in one type, just changing whenever I got bored. 1990! 2012! 1990! Such fun. Lastly, they’ve layered in a help system that progresses from “you should check the pond” to “You need to get a rope from the pond” to “YOU SEE THIS ROPE HERE? THIS ROPE? PICK THIS UP!” which was a pleasing arpeggio of aggressiveness giving you the true experience of someone looking over your shoulder who’d already completed the game.
Enough of what is beginning to sound like a press release then. It’s exactly the same game underneath, so what was it like, to play for the first time? It was unusual because nothing was really new, I’d met the characters that matter later on in the series already, I knew roughly how the world worked, I knew the running jokes. Going BACK IN TIME to see the birth of “You fight like a cow” made me slightly depressed, to be honest. I felt like if only I could have given a different response then, I could stop a chain of imitators memeing it into insignificance in the future. But no, time marches relentlessly onwards in a linear fashion. How appropriate.
Despite all these stale wafts of the ghost of adventures yet to come, the game was a minty blast of fresh air in many other ways. This isn’t just a comedy game because it has one or two wacky characters or cutscenes, it’s built right into the fabric. There are *gasp* funny ways to solve puzzles! There are bits where they realise the game is a bit slow and so skip forward massively with a dose of slapstick! Insult swordfighting, for instance, was a superb way to make winning a fight enjoyable and requiring some thought in a way that wasn’t just combine object with object. What makes Monkey Island important, what makes it still an interesting game to play for the first time, is the way that it toys with your expectations. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about Telltale’s episodes is the way they occasionally slip into completely different game modes from time to time, but Monkey Island is doing it constantly.
These frequent breaks from the serious business of adventure gaming keep the whole thing lighthearted and enjoyable in a way that, say, Machinarium does not. Monkey Island doesn’t succeed because it’s an adventure game, it’s succeeds because it’s a clever game. It laughs at itself, it messes with you, it lies to you and then it shrugs its shoulders and goes “Games, eh?” By not taking itself seriously, you don’t take it so seriously either. You can relax.
You know what else makes it great? Scale. It has a unique and recognisable visual style and the entire universe is self-contained. It coins its own culture and while it has inconsistencies, it applies them consistently. Nothing was flying over my head because it was long past 1990, and nothing seemed to just be an obvious copy from somewhere else. What’s more, the story is small-scale and personal, there’s no invocation of the chosen one, there’s no threat to the whole world that only you can thwart, it’s just you forging a nemesisness with an evil ghost pirate. Hijinks ensue. The characters are not one-dimensional throwaway jokes, they’re developed enough to make them likeable and they’re written in such a way that you can’t help but smile. Even the evil ghost pirate LeChuck is endearing, and that’s no mean trick.
Those flaws that there are mostly relate to the interface, and I would say neither the old or new ones are blameless. It’s not necessary to have to select from around four thousand different verbs (open/close/push/pull/use/give/COME ON) when frankly an all-purpose interact key will do and I don’t think they should have kept it in the reskin. The new version has problems with the inventory too, occasionally making it impossible to scroll through it and forcing you to switch to the old version to get it to work. I’m not a huge fan of the overland maps they use either, it’s far too easy to miss things particularly on the gigantic, boring-to-traverse Monkey Island. Some of the meat-and-drink puzzling falls short of their normal originality and some of it is just crap but the hint system kept that speeding along nicely.
But overall this is a superb synergy of old and new, I think that the game really benefits from the addition of voices and the update to the style (mostly), but everything that made the original game great up to the pauses in intonation and quirks of animation seems to have been retained. It’s clever, it’s quick, it’s memorable. It’s everything an adventure should be. 22 years on.
5 stars, 6 hours played.