It was my mother’s new husband who introduced me to PC gaming, around 1990. Up until then it had basically been exclusively Commodore 64 and NES for myself. For the PC, it was above all Sierra’s text adventures that attracted, especially Larry and Kings Quest, but also LucasArt’s point/click games, several of which are today regarded as timeless classics that have completely withstood the test of time.
A receipt for how good the concept, graphics engine and script were, we got five years ago when the legend Ron Gilbert returned to the genre with Thimbleweed Park, an absolutely brilliant adventure with extra everything that showed that more than the simple SCUMM system is not really needed. So when Ron Gilbert announced earlier this year that he is actually also working on a new Monkey Island, I was fired up. Almost on one thing.
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Gilbert and his studio Terrible Toybox had chosen to modernize the game. The SCUMM system had been streamlined and the graphics style replaced with something more abstract. Because of this, I’ve been conservatively a bit skeptical beforehand as to whether the game could really bring back the magic of yesteryear. And for this, of course, I should be ashamed.
Revisiting the wonderful pirate world I left in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (no, I don’t consider the sequels “real” because Gilbert had then left the schooner) feels absolutely wonderful and Guybrush Threepwood is the same lovely wannabe pirate as always, albeit a few years older but with a final adventure in itself. It quickly becomes clear that what Gilbert (and several other veterans from the two original adventures) wanted to do, is to say goodbye to the gang and sort of tell how it went then, as well as try to solve the mystery of Monkey Island once and for all.
But before you do this, you need to decide who you really are. Have you played the previous adventures and are you familiar with the genre? If you’re unfamiliar with Monkey Island, there’s a wonderful walkthrough of the entire story that guides you through the madness that, over three decades later, still remembers these adventures with such fondness. And if you’re not used to the genre, there’s also an easier game mode that removes the most grueling puzzles.
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I of course chose to play the higher difficulty, and I can honestly say that I actually enjoy getting stuck into these games. To be able to run around everywhere, go through one’s carry-on items 600 times and finally have a flash of genius and figure out how to move on, is pure love for me. This time, however, there is something called the internet, something we didn’t have when LeChuck last. If you get stuck (and you will in a few places), Terrible Toybox has decided that you will not have to surf Gamefaqs.com or Youtube in search of a solution. Instead, there is a tool that kind of guides you towards the next solution instead of giving you all the answers, something that actually works very well and makes it feel a little less fraudulent to use.
Return to Monkey Island features several people you’ve met before, but since this is a game that thrives on knowing as little as possible, I actually thought about leaving this part out entirely. But let me state in any case that you will have dialogues that will make you really warm with sweet nostalgia, while other times you will laugh or just beat your forehead at strained Gothenburg jokes. And that, I’d argue, is exactly how I want it, and if you love the genre as much as I do, you’ll want to go through all the dialogue choices just to take in all the brilliance. Add to this that you also come across new moments that instantly feel as classic as mock contests, sword fighting through insults, three-headed monkeys, strong grogs and a mildly questionable use of the term “monkey wrench”.
The music is also composed by Michael Land and includes both new notes and classic ones. It’s absolutely top-notch all the way through and at times I’ve actually just put the controller down to listen to the soundtrack. Also, Dominic Armato is back in the role of Guybrush Threepwood (a role he also played in the later adventures as well as in the two remakes of one), which I appreciate, even though he wasn’t involved at the time Gilbert created the series.
The new graphics, which I initially struggled with, turn out to work perfectly with the new game system. Everything, like flaps and events, now fit together in a completely different way than before and that the world lives in a completely different way. You will also recognize old places and it is actually fun to see them from a new, three-dimensional perspective. While I love the old pixelated design, I can’t honestly say I missed it since starting the adventure and the new look has grown on me. If anything, I’m thankful they didn’t go for that slightly impersonal Flash graphics-like design that so many games have been drawn to in recent years.
The biggest downside for me with Return to Monkey Island is ultimately the uneven difficulty. I’m not trying to sound like an oracle on the genre, but I can point/click. Here, however, there are a couple of places that feel unnecessarily awful, while large parts of the adventure go far too easily instead. If I have to guess, the new game system is part of the reason for this, because Thimbleweed Park didn’t have this problem. In addition, I think it is difficult to see the greatness of this if you have not played the predecessors, but it is perhaps difficult to count as an actual minus, but is still good to know.
All in all, I absolutely loved my time with Return to Monkey Island and I’m already on a second lap to try and find things I missed the first time around. There are simply very, very few games that have this brilliance of writing and a sense of humor that is actually genuinely funny, combined with the feeling of reuniting with what feels like old friends. In short, if you’ve missed Monkey Island, don’t bloody miss this. You need to know what Monkey Island’s secret really is.