39: Monkey Island 2

This overall feeling that I gleaned from Monkey Island 1 was freshness. I felt like I was playing in a game unencumbered by preconceptions, with the designers trying to play with your expectations as cleverly as they could with the limited tools they had. Lots of it was, for want of a less extreme-sounding word, raw. Some puzzles were clunky or poorly signposted and the island maps were particularly poorly implemented. The game sputtered forth in fits and starts, there were several moments where the story advanced massively so you could get to the next cool thing they had planned. There was a limited cast of memorable characters as all of them had to be conjured from whole cloth and the focus was on defining the pro/antagonists, and the things you were doing were small, introducing you to the world. You were Guybrush, a chap with no idea of how to be a pirate, trying his best to understand how this strange world worked, and that world was held together with intelligence and enthusiasm and bits of sellotape. I loved it because it embraced this spirit of reckless amateur adventuring but it wasn’t flawless.

The feeling I get from Monkey Island 2 is different, as in fairness you would expect it to be. This is not a brand new gameverse, this is the expansion of a franchise. Not much time passed between the first and second games, a little over a year, so I didn’t actually expect there would be that much difference, but I was wrong on that score.

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In every single mechanical and technical way, this is an advancement on the previous game. Let’s start with the interface, which is immeasurably improved from the first special edition. Actions are now contextual so you don’t have to scroll through all of push/pull/give to get to the verb you actually need. Voices are now fully incorporated in both the old and new styles (as opposed to just the new), and in general the mapping between the old and new versions is even smoother. The island maps are much better and the inventory has lost all of its niggling bugs, too. There’s more environments, more stuff and more animations. These are changes which are relatively easy to make but it’s nice to see that the conversion team didn’t just rest on their laurels and concentrated on ironing out the unsatisfactory aspects of the conversion.

See, I can say that and it’s true but obviously I can overlook it, it’s all bells and whistles and revolving tassles. The key question is, does the 1991 game (underneath its 2010 refit) still have that same joyous freedom as that 1990 game (under its 2009 refit)? God these dates are going to get confusing. I promise not to use them again.

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The short answer is no. The long answer is going to take a bit more time. I didn’t enjoy Monkey Island 2 anywhere near as much as the first. Partially this might be a product of familiarity; if I’ve just played through the first game then the second one may seem slightly less novel and slightly more underwhelming. But then that doesn’t really tally with what I’ve felt playing episodic adventures. If anything, a connection to characters and locations has seemed to strengthen my attachment to a series in those cases.

Monkey Island 2 has less moments of brilliance, certainly, and I think that’s a factor. There was no one thing that just me sit back and giggle at the silliness of what I’d just been allowed to do. There was no convincing someone by saying please about six times, no moment where you could just pick up the object you were stuck to, no bit where the plot had rocket skates attached because it was funny. The game was more serious. I want to be clear: the tone of the game is the same, it’s still the same anarchic pirate adventures, the same writing team, the same excellent dialogue and characters, but it’s the way you solve things that feels different. It’s much more structured and ordered and, ultimately, less exciting and interesting.

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This is exacerbated by a familiar crawling sensation at the back of my skull. This is my version of spidey-sense and it is finely tuned for adventure game bullshit. I’m sure you all have your own particular memories of some series of events you were required to perform, during which the thought “this is stupid this is stupid this is stupid” flashed in great big neon letters in your head. Monkey Island 2 has far too many of them for my blood. I was accessing the walkthrough far more often than is healthy for a man of my age and weight but, what was worse, the solutions weren’t very satisfying. There’s the Metronome-Banana-Monkey Wrench, yes, but it’s by no means alone as a god-damned stupid solution. There’s just about enough meat-and-drink puzzling to drown that out but you can sorta see this was progressing along the path that leads to a cat fur moustache

And what makes it even worse is the larger scale. There are many more locations, many more objects and many more puzzles. At any one moment, I was carrying approximately four to five thousand things that seemed to relate tangentially at best with what I was doing. There were moments at the end where I felt like three or four of the objects I was carrying should solve the puzzle in front of me, purely because I’d acquired so much crap that every aspect of an item (sharp, long, shiny,..) seemed to be covered ten times over. But no, it had to be exactly this one that they’d envisaged. Add in the fact that you are able to criss-cross the ocean between three islands’ worth of locations and you have a recipe for completely confused and fed up Jim.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that this is exactly the same problem that Time Gentlemen, Please! had, following on from the smaller, rougher, funnier Ben There Dan That. Those are tributes to the great early LucasArts adventure games and they fall into exactly the same trap despite twenty years of hindsight. I don’t know, maybe I’m the King of Wrong here. Everyone I spoke to with fond memories of the game had played it when they were young, maybe with their parents, when they had the time to mindlessly clicking things on things until something happens. Maybe I’m just too late to truly enjoy this genre.

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And yet, and yet, there are many areas where Monkey Island 2 does excel in comparison to its predecessor, and shines as bright now as in 1991. The characters, for instance, are uncompromisingly great. They are an imposing wall of greatness, a Great Armée, marching ruthlessly across the lands of mediocrity with their completely distinctive array of looks, speech and actions. Every single one was designed for a purpose, to communicate something about their purpose, and they do it superbly, from bloated Governor Phatt, to the fucking smug fisherman, to swaggering, threatening LeChuck. There’s a consistency of dialogue too, all contributing to a marvellous wholeness.

Dialogue (though there aren’t many memorable lines) has been carefully sculpted, too, reflecting the multitude of cast members in a multitude of ways. I’ve had more personal reactions to people in this game than the average Bioware RPG and that is to the great credit of the writers. You are dealing with people, not NPCs. The backgrounds are even more sumptuous now and the people and places are wonderfully animated while still fitting into that distinctive visual style. It’s a great gameverse, it really is, but the game is not good or fun enough.

Monkey Island 2 is a wonderful place, but I wouldn’t like to live there. Oh, and the ending is fucking terrible.

6 hours played, 3 stars

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3 Responses to 39: Monkey Island 2

  1. Pseudonyymi says:

    This was a hit with me and my friends when we were kids (maybe twelve to fourteen) and horrible at English. We had a few years of ESL under our belts, but it was a shock to replay the game at an adult and understand all the text.

    We’d plug away at ME2 time and time again, walkthroughs firmly in hand, with no challenge beyond the language barrier. I ended up on translation duty for my little sister and it’s kind of a pity that I didn’t invent outrageous lies.

    I don’t really know why the game was so brilliant. Maybe we understood enough, or the slapstick got across well. Maybe it was the exploring of a pretty and funny virtual world, maybe it was the challenge of the English language and the words the game taught us. Maybe we had no taste and would’ve loved anything. I and sis laughed ourselves silly at the word “rutabaga.”

    Anyway, I bring this up because it was a great way to enjoy Monkey Island 2. Certainly better than the time spent on Leisure Suit Larry’s age verification.

  2. jiiiiim says:

    I must admit, I can’t really think of a better game for getting across a love of the English language.

    • Pseudonyymi says:

      And come to think of it, the game might have been amazing /because/ of the language issue. We didn’t have a chance of completing it normally – without puzzles to solve, there was no reason to see the setting in terms of item chains and fetch quests. It was just a big, funny, pretty world that we could explore.

      It wasn’t (just) that I and the gang were freaks, either – as far as I can tell, Sierra and Lucas adventure games were a countrywide hit among schoolkids too young to understand them. For some reason that’s a happy thought.

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