Sometimes I think to myself, “Self… is all this dredging up of decades old games worthwhile? This is about as far from new hotness as it gets. Does anyone really care?”
Well, self, if you were that worried about people caring about what you wrote, you probably wouldn’t be blogging. Also, let’s put it this way in terms of being topical: it isn’t just the movies from the 80s and 90s getting remakes. The games are coming back, as well, and such is certainly the case with this week’s recollection, The Secret of Monkey Island, which was re-released in 2009 with all updated graphics for such platforms as Xbox Live. Lest you think this move wasn’t aimed at nostalgic nerds like myself, this “Special Edition” contained the unique feature that, at any time, you could hit a button on the Xbox controller to toggle between the fancy new graphics and sound, and the blocky, silent 1990 version. And you know what? It worked like a charm, because I bought the damn thing. Monkey Island still had that much power over me.
In the greater evolution of LucasArts adventures, Monkey Island may not have represented anything as wildly innovative as Maniac Mansion or as wildly experimental as Loom, but along with Loom it did solidify the new and revolutionary LucasArts philosophy of the “non-lethal” adventure game. With one exception (which I personally never experienced), you absolutely could not die or get stuck while playing the game, which greatly encouraged exploring all possible options.
Now by not getting stuck, I don’t mean there was no frustration, particularly with some of the harder puzzles… but you’d never again have to worry about having to reload because some crucial item was forever out of reach or some misstep sent you tumbling over a cliff. Monkey Island even played with you on that at one point by having a fake “Sierra-esque” death pop-up after your protagonist falls out of sight, only for it to disappear shortly as he pops right back onto the path and explains what a fortunate coincidence that rubber tree below was.
In a sense, the lack of death meant that the writing team had to be on their A-Game in making a compelling story, getting you to feel joy, laughter, and even fear without the usual lethal stakes being involved. They were up to it. This was a game that had both Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer on board. More than ten years before the Pirates of the Caribbean movie brought swashbuckling rogues back into mainstream vogue, TSOMI was taking its inspiration from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and crafting a comic pirate adventure tale charted somewhere between the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson and Terry Pratchett.
It always feels a bit douchey to me to be tossing the word “witty” around, but TSOMI deserves the term. TSOMI was creative. TSOMI was funny. TSOMI took what was at that time a rather unplumbed genre and turned cliches many might not even have been aware of on their heads. Your hero and avatar was one Guybrush Threepwood, an enthusiastic youth on a quest to become a mighty pirate… as you might imagine from the name, he starts the game with a long ways to go. The pirate lords in the SCUMM bar (yeah, they went there) give him three tasks to complete to prove himself, mostly just to get him out of their hair so they can go back to drinking grog… but in the course of those tasks Guybrush, in the great tradition of feckless protagonists, ends up both unleashing a great evil, and then in the end saving all the Caribbean from it (world, shmorld, pirates have their priorities…).
So begins Act I, as Guybrush bumbles his way through the moon-and-lantern-lit landscape of the pirate sanctuary known as Melee Island. Like a broken record (what’s a record, Clint? Shaddup, you…) I’ll repeat that for the time, the visuals and sound in this game were exquisitely rendered, to the point I had definite flashbacks to the quiet, firefly haunted bayou that transports you away from modern times at Disneyland. What can I say? We had to use our imaginations a tad back in those days.
But for me, where an adventure game is concerned all the pretty visuals in the world can’t make up for a weak script. Dusty old tropes like the bumbling hero and much odder concepts like ‘Cannibal Tribe Gone Vegetarian’ could have easily floundered in the hands of lesser mortals, but TSOMI keeps you guessing and keeps you laughing. Anachronisms abound, such as the “Used Ship Salesman” who talks a mile-a-minute and wears a checkered flourescent sport coat (in the 18th century style, of course!), or the Grog vending machine — Guybrush often breaks the fourth wall to address the player, and one infamous joke in the game plays directly on the computer media limitations of the time where, in the age before CDs and DVDs (and certainly before digital downloads), games were stuck being distributed on a ludicrous number of floppy disks which had to be swapped in and out as you played: The Stump Joke.
But besides shortening the lifespan of LucasArts’ technical support reps by several years due to them repeatedly having to tell callers “No, you’re not missing disk 22. It’s a joke”, TSOMI is truly one of those rare games that takes all these winky references and pop culture nods and makes them work, while still weaving a rollicking adventure story that includes voodoo priestesses, uncharted isles of hidden treasure, and of course a cursed ghost pirate and his skeletal crew!
I think the element of Monkey Island people remember most, though, is the sword duels. Remember in The Princess Bride, how after nearly every exchange of blades between Inigo and The Man In Black, they had to talk to one another? That in itself was a humorous homage to the classic movies of yore where witty banter between hero and villain accompanied nearly every thrust, cut, and parry. The creators of TSOMI took this concept to an extreme which, not incidentally, also meshed perfectly with the “no death” system: swordfights were not won by skill with the blade, but skill in dealing insults to your opponent!
Guybrush starts out with the wit and verve of a stuttering kindergartner, having access to such responses as, “Oh Yeah?!” and “I am rubber, you are glue…”. He has to learn better insults, and better counter-insults, from the pirates he challenges on the island. This means that in order to complete the game, Guybrush has to lose fights. A lot. Because you need every insult and counter you can muster before you face the Swordmaster of Melee Island, and when you do, she’s so good she has entirely new insults to throw your way that you have to improvise counters to based on context.
Brilliant stuff. TSOMI is, in my opinion, where LucasArts really started pulling away from the pack, as the SCUMM interface settled in, they firmly adopted the “no death” philosophy (and it worked!), and they raised the bar on every aspect of graphical adventure gaming… from puzzle solving, to writing, to squeezing the most juice they could out of the art and music of the time. And of course, the hardest thing of all: doing comedy, and doing it well –that the Special Edition was released with almost nothing changed except for updated audio/visuals speaks volumes on that.