I was young when I first played The Secret of Monkey Island. I didn’t beat it until years after my first shot at it, but it was cemented in my memory far before then: early in my discovery of the game, I knew it was my favourite game of all time. That’s held steadfast, although challenged, for the past few years, much in the same way I profess Donnie Darko as my favourite film of all time; there’s something about Monkey Island that has endeared me through the blockbuster releases of Half-Life 2 and Assassin’s Creed and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I’ve just never been able to pinpoint it.
I should probably establish straight away that The Secret of Monkey Island is a point-and-click adventure, one of the many that LucasArts produced back in the day. There’s Day of the Tentacle and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, as well as Loom and the slightly more modern Grim Fandango in their extensive library of works, too. Its charm, then, is primarily in its dialogue and its puzzles; players take control of Guybrush Threepwood, wannabe pirate, who approaches the three pirate leaders of Mêlée Island™ (complete with trademark symbol to humorous effect) and is burdened with three tasks.
By completing these three trials – in the areas of swordplay, thievery, and treasure huntery – he can finally call himself a pirate. Unfortunately, he is smitten by the island’s governor Elaine Marley in the course of his trials, and when she is kidnapped by the ghost pirate LeChuck, he decides to gather a crew and rescue her. This brings me onto the game’s next strong point: its fantastic cast of characters. From Stan of Stan’s Previously Owned Vessels to the parrot-fearing Meathook and the deaf old man who opens the game, the game exercises its wit through the words and actions of dozens of unique and idiosyncratic characters.
It’s rare to play a game with such a well-written script, as much today as it was then. The writers outdid themselves, creating a solid narrative and a linear structure that lacks even the slightest bit of tediousness, and even going so far as to keep in mind the literary principle of Chekhov’s gun, whereby “if you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off; if it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there”. Asked of his special skills early in the game, Guybrush tells a bemused pirate leader that he can hold his breath for ten minutes; later, his feet are tied to a brick and he is tossed into the sea, his unusual lung capacity the only factor facilitating the player’s survival.
Of course, there’s also nothing quite like the game’s combat system; rather than actually engage enemies in battle directly, players exchange insults and comebacks in order to gain the upper hand in the fight. Only by constantly fighting do players learn new insults and their corresponding comebacks and add them to their repertoire; some well-known classics include “You fight like a dairy farmer!” to the comeback of “How appropriate. You fight like a cow.” and “I got this scar on my face during a mighty struggle!” to the comeback of “I hope now you’ve learned to stop picking your nose.”
A high-definition remake of the game was released in 2009, called The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, but quite frankly I couldn’t say it’s better than the original. The original graphics are charming, crafted with the kind of charisma that could only be related in the 16-bit style, and although they are offered as an alternative, the default settings see the Special Edition take on a new, revised style that offers none of the same endearing characteristics, nor the artistic merit of The Curse of Monkey Island’s similar aesthetic. They even had the audacity to attempt to recreate the original game’s outstanding score, with just enough of a disparity to make me feel uncomfortable.
Unlike many other old favourites of mine, The Secret of Monkey Island stands the test of time remarkably well; its wit is just as sharp and its characters just as loveable as they were when I first played it. Thanks to the development of ScummVM, an engine which can run any of LucasArts’ SCUMM-based games (Indiana Jones, Sam & Max, etc.), you can today enjoy it on a variety of new platforms: not only Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows, but unofficially the Wii, the BlackBerry PlayBook, the Nintendo DS, and iOS. To anyone who has yet had the pleasure of experiencing the game, I can offer only one bit of advice: play it, or you’ll regret it. You’ve no excuse.