The Secret of Monkey Island review

Welcome one and welcome all to the second anniversary of Retro Freak Reviews! It’s hard to believe that two years have already passed since I started rumbling about retro computer games. And to celebrate such magnanimous occasion, let’s take a look of one the best graphic adventures ever made (and a personal favorite): 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 CD/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:

43341-the-secret-of-monkey-island-dos-front-coverThis is probably one of the most famous video game covers of all times and I can see why. It’s colorful, full of 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 colors 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 (not the weirdest name you’ll find throughout the game), a wannabe pirate who travels to Mêlée Island (somewhere in Caribbean Sea) in order 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, find a way to unnail it) and use the objects with people or other objects in order to solve the puzzles or to get more objects (to solve other puzzles).

The FM Towns and CD-ROM version feature a graphic inventory with icons instead of words that would later be used in the Special Edition of the game.

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The very first line in the game and our hero’s initial motivation.

The first 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 his irreverent comedy. And using a sea pirates theme, somehow makes it more funny (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 favorite 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 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. Everytime you start a new act, you should already have some of the objects needed and the rest are located in that specific act. Which brings us to 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 in order 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 in the gameplay or the puzzles. And although this practice was originally introduced in Loom, it become a common feature in most Lucasarts’ graphic adventures.

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The SCUMM Bar.

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, if not all, Lucasarts’ graphic adventures would continue that tradition.

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Guybrush meeting some seemingly important-looking pirates.

Now with the technical aspects. The graphics, whether you’re playing in EGA or VGA, are gorgeous and very well detailed and the animation is extremely fluid. And the character sprites, especially during the closeups are incredible (although both me and Ron Gilbert prefer the original EGA closeups over the realistic VGA ones. They mesh better with the rest of the game). The first two acts might not look very colourful (that’s because they occur during nighttime) but the rest of the game (especially the second half of the game) it’s more colourful. The music is another great highlight of the game, whether you’re playing it with an Adlib or MT-32 soundcards, or even with a PC-Speaker, the music is simply memorable. My personal favorite 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 soundcard.

Like I said before, the point-and-click mouse interface is very easy to use and intuitive. Even if you’ve never played a graphic adventure before, it’s extremely easy to pick it up and understand its mechanics and interface. With five acts, the game is more or less long (it depends on well you play it), although I personally think that the last two acts are a bit short by comparison.

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Sword fighting!

In conclusion, I’m going to join the masses and proclaim The Secret of Monkey Island one of the best graphic adventures af all times! From the humour, the memorable characters and dialogue lines (“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 their 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 colorful 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).

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Finally arriving at Monkey Island.

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 in Steam. It simply updates the interface and the graphics, adding speech and new sprites 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 second title, Lechuck’s Revenge, despite a small controversy (which we’ll tackle on 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!