Posted: October 19, 2014
The Secret of Monkey Island - a game reverently enshrined in a hallowed place of honor from the golden age of adventure games. The Secret of Monkey Island is indeed a definitive masterpiece of adventure gaming and one of the most important games in its genre. It's also incredible fun to play, even today. While the Special Edition is a mixed bag, the underlying game is as funny and charming as it has always been. Every gamer deserves to treat themselves to this timeless masterpiece.
The Secret of Monkey Island was a watershed game for Lucas Arts. While their earlier efforts were also excellent (especially Zak McKracken, which is so unfairly forgotten), The Secret of Monkey Island is where everything comes together and the stage is set for a truly incredible run of masterpiece adventure games that would culminate with 1998's Grim Fandango - the greatest adventure game of all time. The Secret of Monkey Island takes the brilliant ideas in Loom and for the first time, fully realizes them. The Secret of Monkey Island is a game that refuses to allow the player to reach a dead end - one of the most maddening aspects of earlier adventure games where the player could reach a point in the game where further progress was impossible due to the lack of an item missed earlier in the game. This required reloading an older save game, or even restarting the game entirely. Not fun. The Secret of Monkey Island also refuses to kill the player. Unlike so many other early adventure games where death was a frequent and often unforeseeable occurrence, Monkey Island recognizes that dying is unnecessary and detracts from the fun. The heart of adventure games is the exploration, story, and puzzles - and these are exactly the elements that The Secret of Monkey Island embodies. The Secret of Monkey Island thus laid the foundation upon which the future of adventure gaming would be built. No longer were adventure gamers going to be satisfied with unforeseeable deaths or maddening dead ends.
Not only is the game a hallmark of the genre, but it is also a joy to play. The characters are simply drawn, but charming. Mighty pirate wannabe Guybrush Threepwood is a hilarious lead character and he is impossible to dislike. His one liners will have you rolling. Even some of the dialog choices you don't choose will have you snickering. The story of Guybrush's quest to become a pirate is a wonderful mash-up of pulp piracy cliches. There's buried treasure, thrilling sword fights, voodoo magic, mysterious islands, and even cannibals. It's an inherently lighthearted and silly game, and every one of those elements (and much more) are inverted or lampooned in very funny ways.
The Special Edition update, however, is a mixed bag. The game's graphics have been updated for significantly higher resolutions than the game's original 640x480 resolution and now supports widescreen resolutions. I have mixed feelings about the update. There is a certain flatness to the graphics work that I don't find attractive. I do give the artists credit, however, for their attempt to remain very faithful to the original artwork as well as subsequent games in the series. The animations are also rather rough. Characters moonwalk around the screen in a decidedly unnatural way and there are some clipping issues. All of these faults are almost certainly due to Lucas Arts not investing enough resources and trying to get by on the cheap. It's a shame, because there is indeed potential for a wonderful remake. The game also now supports full voice acting for all characters using the familiar voices from the later Monkey Island games. The main cast is wonderful, but some of the supporting voices are a bit rough. Also, some of the jokes are ruined with the poor timing of the audio - for instance, try asking the Men of Low Moral Fiber in town about what's in the keg. It doesn't work like it does in text. The other poor aspect of the Special Edition is the changes to the inventory and verb (interaction) system. The game no longer has the classic SCUMM verbs in the lower portion of the screen along with inventory items. The inventory must now be accessed via keyboard hotkey, and verbs must be selected via mouse scroll wheel or hot key. This is a significant downgrade, in my opinion. The original system was more streamlined and allowed for faster interactions. There was one puzzle in the game that I couldn't manage in the Special Edition due to the cumbersome inventory system, but can easily accomplish in the original. I won't spoil it for you, but will say that it involves grog.
The truly brilliant aspect of the Special Edition, however, is that the original, unaltered game is included and can be seamlessly switched between. Essentially, you get two games and you can try them out and see which you like better, or complete the game both ways. I still prefer the older version, but I'm an old grey beard gamer. As I see it, there's just no improving on perfection, and The Secret of Monkey Island is a very near perfect adventure.