Welcome one and welcome all to the 2nd anniversary of Retro Freak Reviews! It’s hard to believe that 2 years have already passed since I started rumbling about retro computer games. And to celebrate such a magnanimous occasion, let’s take a look at one of the best graphic adventures ever made (and a personal favourite): The Secret of Monkey Island.
The Secret of Monkey Island is a graphic adventure made by Lucasfilm Games (before changing its name to Lucasarts). It was originally released in 1990 for the Amiga and DOS (both the EGA and the VGA versions). It was re-released the next year for the Atari ST and in 1992 it was ported to the FM Towns, Macintosh and the Sega Mega-CD. Also in 1992, it was re-released in CD-ROM format for DOS.
Both the FM Towns and the CD-ROM versions featured an updated interface and CD audio quality music tracks but no speech whatsoever.
And as always, let’s first look at the cover:
This is probably one of the most famous video game covers of all times and I can see why. It’s colourful, with great imagery (that actually appears in the game) and it could perfectly be a book cover or a movie poster. It’s that good! The only nitpick I might have is that someone might get the idea of this being a serious game. But a closer look at the use of bright colours can at least give the impression of a light-hearted game, in my opinion.
But it’s time to boot this scallywag:
As you can see in the video, you take the role of Guybrush Threepwood, a wannabe pirate who travelled to Mêlée Island (somewhere in the Caribbean Sea) to become a full-fledged pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy. And during that particular quest, he finds himself embroiled in a ghost story that will take him to the eponymous Monkey Island.
The gameplay is just like all the other Lucasarts’ SCUMM graphic adventures: the main screen where the action occurs and the bottom screen where you can find all the action commands and the inventory. To perform any action, you simply click in a command, then click in any object on the main screen and/or in your inventory.
If you’re familiar with any point-and-click graphic adventure, this interface is quite intuitive and the mechanics are just like in any other such game: grab whatever object isn’t nailed down to the ground (or if it is, finds a way to unnail it) and use the objects with people or other objects to solve the puzzles or to get more objects (to solve other puzzles to progress).
The FM Towns and CD-ROM versions feature a graphic inventory with icons instead of words that would later be used in the Special Edition of the game.
The 1st thing you’ll notice when playing (apart from the graphics and the excellent music) is the tongue-in-cheek humour. From puns to anagrams to physical humour, The Secret of Monkey Island is widely famous for its irreverent comedy. And using a sea pirates theme, somehow makes it funnier (and no, this isn’t a parody of Sid Meier’s Pirates, although I understand the confusion since both games were inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean park ride).
My favourite part of the game is the sword fighting, which instead of programming simple fighting mechanics, introduces a witty insult system where you have to not only learn hilarious insults but also the correct responses to each specific insult (I still remember most of the insults and respective replies to this day).
The puzzles can be slightly tricky (especially the ones involving puns) but with some trial and error, you shouldn’t have much trouble solving them because it’s impossible to get stuck in any situation where you can’t backtrack for a necessary object to progress.
Every time you start a new act, you should already have some of the objects needed while the rest are located in that specific act. This brings us to the next thing you’ll notice: there’s also virtually no game over! And apart from a very specific situation (in which you’ll have to actively pursuit it to happen), it’s impossible to kill Guybrush.
Ron Gilbert (the game’s main designer) said that he wanted The Secret of Monkey Island to be more focused on the story, characters and exploration than on the gameplay or the puzzles. And although this practice was originally introduced in Loom, it becomes a common feature in most Lucasarts’ graphic adventures.
Another feature that was originally introduced in this game is the ability to select several different responses (that range from common to funny) during dialogues. And each different response will elicit a different reply with whoever Guybrush is talking to (most of the time at least). It makes the game a bit more varied and replayable as most players tend to choose different responses in subsequent playthroughs just to see all the different reactions from the characters.
The humour, like I said, is the true highlight of the game. From the dialogue to the physical humour, to the puns, to the references to other Lucasarts’ titles, to the zaniness. The Secret of Monkey Island oozes with comedy throughout and I challenge anyone to play this game with a serious face. It’s impossible, I tell you! The comedic gameplay is also another Lucasarts’ trademark since Maniac Mansion and most Lucasarts’ graphic adventures would continue this tradition.
Now with the technical aspects. The graphics, whether they’re EGA or VGA, are gorgeous and very well detailed and the animation is extremely fluid. The character sprites, especially during the closeups are incredibly detailed (although both I and Ron Gilbert prefer the original EGA portraits over the realistic VGA ones. They mesh better with the rest of the game’s graphics).
The first 2 acts might not look very colourful (that’s because they occur during nighttime) but the rest of the game it’s more colourful. The music is another great highlight of the game, whether you’re playing it with Adlib or MT-32 sound cards, or even with a PC-Speaker, the music is simply memorable. My personal favourite tracks are the title theme and the SCUMM Bar theme. The sound effects are also quite good, especially if you’re playing the CD-ROM version with a Soundblaster sound card.
Like I said before, the point-and-click mouse interface is very intuitive. Even if you’ve never played a graphic adventure before, it’s extremely easy to understand at 1st glance. With 5 acts, the game is more or less long (it depends on well you play it), although I personally think that the last 2 acts are a bit short by comparison.
In conclusion, I’m going to join the masses and proclaim The Secret of Monkey Island one of the best graphic adventures of all times! From the humour, the memorable characters and dialogue (“Look behind you! A three-headed monkey!”), the graphics, the incredible music, the puzzles, etc. The Secret of Monkey Island is a true classic that is not only a great introduction to the genre but it’s still a very influential game. Lucasarts stroke pure gold with this one and cemented its position as a powerhouse among videogame developers. Needless to say that I highly recommend it.
The Amiga version has better music and sound effects, although it doesn’t look quite as colourful as the VGA DOS version and the Macintosh version adds a filter that smooths the rough edges around the sprites. Still, I think the DOS CD-ROM version is the ultimate original version of the game (Monkey Island fans still argue to this day which is the best version).
The Secret of Monkey Island was remade in 2009 for Windows, iPhone and Xbox 360 and the following year for Playstation 3, iPad, Browser and Macintosh as a Special Edition. You can buy it here on GOG.com or here on Steam. It simply updates the interface and the graphics, adding speech and new sprites and textures while maintaining the gameplay and everything else. Some fans don’t like the new art direction but I personally think that it meshes well with the game’s humour.
And if you want to play with the original VGA graphics you can simply press F10 anytime during the game to switch to those graphics. Or you can go here to download a program that allows you to play the original VGA version with the speech from the Special Edition (A great shoutout to my friend Florin who told me about this).
This game spawned a quite popular series that peaked with the 2nd title, LeChuck’s Revenge, despite a small controversy (which we’ll tackle when we’ll review it).
So, what did you think of the anniversary so far? I hope you’ve enjoyed the review and please share your thoughts in the comment section below or on our social media. Until then, keep on buccaneering and playing!