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The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition Review


No more excuses to not play this perfect adventure game.

First, a moment of full and honest disclosure: The Secret of Monkey Island is the game that got me into PC gaming. Sure, back in 1990, I was loving me some Super Mario Bros. 3 and Final Fantasy for the NES, but playing a game focused on dialogue and solving wacky logic puzzles tapped into the book-loving part of my brain at the time. It also helped that Monkey Island was unique in that it was about pirates (not something I ran into a lot as an NES gamer) and was genuinely funny. I realize this is probably nostalgia affecting my viewpoint, but Monkey Island grabbed me, caused me to seek out other adventure games, and then branch out into other genres on the PC. So, yes, Monkey Island had a substantial effect on my gaming history, and when I first heard about a remake -- The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition -- I immediately considered it one of the best piece of gaming news in years.

I'm really glad that I happen to attach such love and admiration for a game that did, and still does, legitimately much of its praise. Even after 19 years, Monkey Island still stands tall on LucasArts' slate of perfect point-and-click adventure games (along with Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango). The story (which is, of course, actually important, due to being an adventure game) of fresh-faced fellow Guybrush Threepwood and his journey to becom a pirate (which took me about four and a half hours since I generally knew what I was doing, but a total newbie could take six to eight hours) has not aged badly at all -- nor has the gameplay.

The moment-to-moment gameplay alternates between navigating through dialogue trees to advance the story, and manipulating objects to get past obstacles that the plot throws at you. A hermit possesses a needed key, but demands to have his custom-crafted banana picker returned. The map to the mysterious Monkey Island turns out to be a recipe for soup that Guybrush needs to brew. Guybrush needs to fight the fabled Sword Master of Melee Island, but he needs money for lessons -- money he can get from a circus troupe provided that he obtains the necessary helmet for the act, and so forth. The way that Monkey Island stood out among the numerous point-and-click games was, that, for the most part, the puzzles were actually pretty logical and internally consistent. The only downpoint, if any, is perhaps the somewhat grind-like length of the classic "Insult Swordfighting" sequence. The good news: if you get stuck, Special Edition includes a hint system that should gently guide you towards the right sort of thinking.

Besides the built-in hint system, Special Edition has one pretty awesome feature: giving you the game in two flavors. With an easy button press, you can instantly switch between the original version's DOS-era graphics, interface, and lack of voice, and the remake edition with HD-era graphics, a streamlined interface, and fully-voiced dialogue. I not only used this feature to give myself constant "then-versus-now" moments, but also to verify that the dialogue is unaltered. No egregious "Greedo shoots first" revisionisms, nor lame attempts to "contemporize" jokes here; quips about buying Loom and adventure game death penalties from rival developer Sierra On-Line are still present (though, for hardcore fans, I wasn't able to replicate the tree-stump-asking-for disk-#22 joke, so this remake might actually be based on the CD-ROM version).

Click the image above to check out all The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition screens.

Switching back and forth also reveals that while the remake is pretty faithful, the best way to play Monkey Island is still, undoubtedly, in its original state. The team behind the remake version has done a pretty good job: the backgrounds look vibrant and lush, the interface has been streamlined to give the art room to impress, most of the characters made the 1990-to-2009 transition fine, and the dialogue is generally well-acted. Yet as good as the remake is, there's just enough that's a bit off that cements the original version as superior. For example, while the voice acting is pretty good, there are occasional moments where the actors have a different sense of comedic timing and delivery than what script calls for -- which sometimes makes the remake's spoken dialogue feel a bit off-step compared to the perfect flow of text that the original version produces. Also, Guybrush actor Dominic Armato occasionally infuses his lines with a bit too much of the snark that Guybrush has developed from Curse of Monkey Island (the third game) through Tales of Monkey Island -- which also feels off, especially paired with dialogue from the younger, more na´ve Guybrush of this game. And I realize the following is purely personal, but since this is the first time many silent characters now have voices, there are times where I think the casting director clearly interprets a character differently than how Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer interpreted that same character when writing the script. Again, it could be me, but one egregious example is how the cannibals on Monkey Island do not at all sound the way I envisioned them to. Oddly enough, even though I just complained about how not all the characters' voices feel right, it still seems a bit odd that there's no option to play with classic graphics and new voices at the same time. You basically can go all-old or all-new, but nothing in-between.

Other remake-specific quirks range from the visuals to the interface. While most of the characters look fine, I have to join the "what the hell did the remake artists do to Guybrush's hair?" club. Another art quirk is that even with the modern assets, the remake's faithfulness in emulating the original's feel backfires at times. It's charming -- in a retro way -- to see how character faces don't really animate during dialogue scenes, but with the new art, it's off-putting how no one really moves their mouths when talking. Or that it's okay when 1990 Guybrush's sprites don't have many frames of animation for walking, but in the remake, he looks really, really stiff whenever he's zipping around.

As for the interface, while it is admirable how it's been tucked away into pop-up menus to free up visual real estate, it also means that actions that were quite easy to do in the ugly-but-utilitarian menu in the original game now require a whole bunch of menu opening and closing in the remake. Monkey Island veterans will feel this pain when dealing with the "grog and multiple mugs" sequence. Also, while the right mouse button (PC) and "B" (XB360) are supposedly context-sensitive, they almost never are the required action, and often force you to pull up the menu to get the proper result. Finally, one omission from the original to the remake: skipping dialogue. Ron Gilbert himself points out that you can speed through dialogue by pressing the period button (since, as Gilbert points out, "a period ends a sentence.") in the original game; in remake mode, there is no dialogue skip. It sounds a bit silly, but whether you're either repeating dialogue, or you just plain don't like the actor, not being able to skip dialogue feels pretty weird.

Click the image above to check out all The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition screens.

Though, as I mentioned, these aren't super significant detractions; these are more like reasons why 1990 Monkey Island feels better than 2009 Monkey Island. Simply put, this is quite a perfect adventure game that joins a not-as-perfect-but-still-really-damn-good modern adaptation of a perfect adventure game. What we have is a classic game packaged in a way for everyone (PC or console gamer alike) to finally and easily play it, and that's exactly what you should do -- whether you're learning the secret of Monkey Island for the first or 50th time.

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Comments (1)

  • gmagnus
  • Dialog skip

    Posted: userComment.createdDate by  gmagnus

    Hold Y. Seems to only works for extended dialog, though.

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The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition
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1UP Editor Score: A

Average Community Score: A

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