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The Curse of Monkey Island
 
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Pros:
Just about everything: outstanding animation, plot, dialog, and puzzles add up to the most satisfying adventure of the year.

Cons:
Ends too quickly; final cut-scene is a letdown.

Appeal:
All adventure gamers, fans of the old LucasArts comic adventures, pirate fetishists.

Difficulty:
Easy
 
Price: $39.95

System Requirements: Pentium 90, Windows 95, 16MB RAM, PCI graphics card, 4x CD-ROM drive, Win 95-compatible 16-bit sound card. 3D Support: None.

Multiplayer Support: None

Developer: LucasArts

Publisher: LucasArts

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While most gamers associate LucasArts with their Star Wars games, for some, the company will always be revered as the purveyors of some of the greatest comic adventure games of all time. With Sam & Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle, and the two Monkey Island games, LucasArts virtually created its own genre - a winning combination of Warner Brothers cartoon-style animation and humor with traditional adventure gaming. Now, after a three-year hiatus, LucasArts returns to adventure gaming in a big way with The Curse of Monkey Island, a game that proves to be not just a worthy successor to the Monkey Island series, but is - easily - the most entertaining adventure game of 1997.

A Pirate's Life for Guy
For those unfamiliar with the series, the Monkey Island games tell the ongoing tale of hapless, would-be pirate Guybrush Threepwood and his struggle against his nemesis, the evil undead pirate LeChuck, and the woman caught between the two: Guybrush's true love, Elaine Marley.

As The Curse of Monkey Island opens, in a beautifully animated cut-scene, the lame "It was all just a dream" ending of Monkey Island 2 has been conveniently forgotten (it's explained, kind of, later in the game), and we find Guybrush adrift at sea, hungry and thirsty and - typical for Guybrush - oblivious to the food and drink drifting by under his nose. Before he knows it, he's in the middle of a cannon battle between Elaine and LeChuck, and quickly, he's a prisoner aboard LeChuck's ship.

As Guybrush, you must first find a way to escape from LeChuck's ship. Once you do escape and drift ashore, you unwittingly place a cursed ring on Elaine's finger, turning her to solid gold. To add insult to injury, the solid-gold Elaine is then stolen by pirates. Your primary objectives in the game are, of course, to search for a way to remove the curse and then find Elaine.

Barrel o' Puzzles
Monkey Island is a very structured, six-act story, but within that framework there's a great deal of nonlinear action. Most of it takes place on two large islands, where you can freely travel between locations and solve puzzles in a somewhat (though not always) random order. There are also a few places where the game makes you confront a specific predicament - such as being swallowed by a snake, trapped in quicksand, or trying to get your shipmates to stop singing - and won't let you proceed until you've figured it out.

Anyone who has ever played a LucasArts adventure will be right at home in Curse - no big changes have been made to the same SCUMM engine that has driven all their adventure games up through Full Throttle and The Dig a few years back. Now, however, the interface is as seamless as could be and is all but invisible onscreen, leaving as much real estate as possible for the game's stylish, meticulously drawn graphics - the best they've ever done.

The gameplay, too, is nothing we haven't seen before; for the most part, it's standard point-and-click, inventory-based puzzle-solving. The game can be played on two settings, regular or "mega monkey," which is harder, but essentially just adds more puzzles (or more steps to the same puzzles). Regardless of the setting, the puzzles are abundant and, for the most part, fairly simple - though they're tough enough to keep you from breezing through without a challenge.

The greatest thing about the gameplay is that, as in all LucasArts adventures, the designers consciously acknowledge that they're operating in a cartoon world. In fact, they revel in the absurdities of such a world. Thus, rather than try to offer some kind of half-baked "realistic" explanation as to how Guybrush could possibly carry around such things as a head-sized block of tofu, the game simply has him shove it casually down his pants.

What's particularly cool is that despite the fairly silly nature of what you pick up or how much you can carry, the puzzles themselves follow an internal logic - and that keeps the game on solid ground. In the game's most memorably grotesque puzzle, for example, you have to figure out how to get a tattooed map off the back of a sunbather. It'd never happen in the real world - I hope - but the way you do it here makes perfect game sense.

LucasArts also does the right thing in terms of never letting you really screw yourself over. You can't die (except in one of the game's most memorable puzzles, in which dying is the object) and you'll never enter a new section of the game without the minimum of what you need to complete it.

The only part I could have done without is the ridiculous, arcade-style ship combat in the middle of the game. Mercifully, you can toggle it to a very simple setting. The second part of the combat - dueling insults with the enemy ship captains - is hilarious, but goes on just a tad too long.

Watchoo Talkin' Bout?
The highlight of this game, of course, is the dialog. LucasArts writes funnier scripts than anyone else, including most of Hollywood these days, and Curse of Monkey Island features humor writing of the highest order. Whereas dialog can often be a chore in adventure games - something to slog through to get the necessary clues - it's a complete joy here. As you choose your responses to the people you run into, you'll find yourself actively following dialog trees that deliberately, blatantly have nothing to do with solving the game, just so you can get to the next joke. The designers waste no opportunity to be shamelessly silly in every conversation, yet they never penalize you for following useless paths - the correct choice will always be there when you're ready to proceed.

The game features the best comic voice-acting since, well, Full Throttle, with one memorable character after another taking the stage, including a shifty lemonade vendor (played wonderfully by Gary Coleman), a snooty, please-hit-me cabana boy for an exclusive beach club, and, best of all, a disembodied skull named Murray, who if he had a shoulder, would have a very large chip on it. Murray, like Kramer on Seinfeld, manages to steal every scene he's in. If he had legs, he'd walk away with the game.

That's It?
Given all the time and energy spent to create comic payoffs for even minor puzzles and conversations throughout Monkey Island, it seems odd, then, that the ending - the game's only real disappointment - should be so abrupt and perfunctory, as if the designers suddenly ran out of time, money, or inspiration. It's still funny - especially if you sit through the credits - yet after a terrific buildup, there's really no payoff.

Still, the game is so great until then that there's no sense in denying it a perfect rating. Just as Fallout did recently for the reeling RPG genre, Monkey Island provides a case study in how to do things right, without reinventing the wheel. For those who have been turned off to the adventure game genre by the overabundance of portentous Myst clones or feeble FMV mysteries, The Curse of Monkey Island is the perfect tonic. Easily one of the best adventure games of the year, it joins LucasArts' hallowed pantheon of comic classics. Even those who've never played an adventure game might want to check it out. Computer gaming rarely gets more entertaining than this.

By Jeff Green

Posted 01/14/98

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