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‘The Secret of Monkey Island’ Is Still Everything I Want in Video Games

It's ancient, slow, and you (almost) can't die in it. And yet LucasArts' 1990 adventure remains absolute gaming perfection for me.

by Mike Diver
31 January 2016, 8:49pm

This dude, yeah? He's you. He's adorable. And almost completely useless.

I'm about a third of the way into another playthrough of LucasArts' seminal The Secret of Monkey Island. (Can I say "seminal"? I think that's appropriate, in the circumstances.) I couldn't tell you what number this is for me, how many times I've seen the game to its conclusion prior to now. It's in the tens, easily, which might not seem all that many given its age – it came out in 1990, and has been available ever since (I've owned it on Amiga, iOS, and now PlayStation 3) – but since the game plays essentially the same way, every time, its "replayability" is questionable by some standards. So, too, is its length – at around six hours, assuming you suss every puzzle without too much trouble, it's a game that's going to cause some players, and we've all met the type, to stink up the place up with their thoughts on its value, based on some fictional ratio between money spent and screen time.

Of course, you're allowed to think whatever you like about this game, or any others for that matter, whatever someone you've never met writes about it on the internet. But for me, The Secret of Monkey Island remains golden, a release that I can still look to and see everything I want in any video game. Here, let me explain, beginning with how long it takes to actually play.

It's the perfect length

There comes a point in every self-identifying gamer's life when they catch sight of themselves in the mirror and see the hollowness of their eyes, the paleness of their skin, the cracks in their lips and yellowing of their nails, and conclude: I need to spend less time playing these fucking things. Long-ass games are amazing when their worlds are constantly rewarding – Bloodborne, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Fallout 4 all qualify from 2015. But so many games get bloated through pointless distractions, needless collectibles; developers swell their products with acres of shit we just don't need. The Secret of Monkey Island doesn't do that. You'll finish it in a couple of evenings. Everything you pick up has a vital part to play in the game's progression. (Okay, most things.) It's so perfectly streamlined, with every ounce of fat that'd get added to proceedings if it were made today left on the proverbial cutting room floor. A rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle? That's what you need to zip across a cable connecting the starting (chapter one) area of Mêlée Island to the small hideaway of Sea Monkey crew member in waiting, Meathook. Obviously.

See, the chicken works

It has brilliant puzzles that make no sense, until they do

Case in point: the rubber chicken. Monkey Island is full of stuff, stuff that you – as wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood, who I'll get onto in just a second – pick up and shove inside your blousoned shirt, a garment with infinity-depth pockets. There's room enough in there for a shovel, a sword, a couple of cooking pots, a red herring (get it, you see, at the bridge, with the troll, a red herring?), a box of delicious cereal, umpteen bananas, a fantastic idol that could get you killed, if you're a fool (or simply want to see Guybrush dead), and so much more. Sometimes items need combining to solve a story-blocking puzzle, but once it all clicks in your head, the logic jumps up and down on the skull like a blood-lusting big cat on a children's inflatable castle: it's all you can see, terrifyingly apparent now you've noticed it. The route to finding the Treasure of Mêlée Island, using dance steps, is simply glorious game design. Look, you know how when you played Portal 2, and you got to a really tough room, but then you cracked it and wow, the rush, eh? The Secret of Monkey Island has that in spades. Okay, so the solutions can be rather more oblique, cerebrally befuddling and occasionally adroitly testing (in as much as sometimes you need to move quickly through the menus, or risk losing your grog all down your trousers), but there's no doubting their genius.

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It has genuinely funny jokes in it

Not one-liners, as such, although it features its share of running-gag quips that pop up across the series, and the odd gem of a pun: "LeChuck? He's the guy that went to the Governor's for dinner and never wanted to leave. He fell for her in a big way, but she told him to drop dead. So he did." But Monkey Island has a strong sense of physical comedy to it, and a certain pungent pithiness to its patter that relays the impression that its writers might have once watch a Curtis/Elton production. Or, in other words, it's got the same high-quality ensemble cast banter – Threepwood, Governor Elaine Marley, the villainous LeChuck, the castaway Toothrot – as made Blackadder (after series one) such a treat. And it smashes the fourth wall at its end to take the piss out of itself, and you, the player, for spending your money on it in the first place. Ah-haaar.

Your man Guybrush here, and a Moon approximately way too fucking big to not kill us all by raising sea levels across the world

It has a relatable protagonist

Guybrush Threepwood, our protagonist who begins with no goal greater than to become a mighty pirate, is almost utterly useless at everything. His one talent from the outset: an ability to hold his breath under water for ten minutes, which may come in handy later on – assuming you're not so immediately handy with that weighing-you-down idol. We can all relate; most of us are completely without skills. This is the 21st century – robots do most things for us. Have you filled up a car lately? You can pay at the pump. It's like somebody made the world of Minority Report a reality 50 years ahead of schedule. Ask an average man to start a fire in a forest using just stones and twigs and he'll burst into tears, try to call an Uber, fail and die there on the spot, because what's the point of going on any longer if you can't even get a 4G signal. But Guybrush is a sweetheart, a pure soul, as simple as a blank sheet of A4 and every bit as beautiful. You want him to succeed. And he will. Eventually. Not that he needs to.

Because while you do sort of have to "rescue the princess", she's a total badass

Guybrush, aka sugar boots, falls for Elaine; and Elaine, aka honey pumpkin, for Guybrush. It should be straight back to her mansion after said dockside epiphany for slaps and tickles atop some waxy lips, but the game's antagonist LeChuck, a ghost pirate terrorising the waters of this entirely fictional Caribbean setting, goes and kidnaps her. Threepwood snaps into action, getting a ship and a crew and sailing to her rescue. Except, she keeps on escaping. She's the most resourceful character in the whole game. While the situation for her appears desperate come a climactic wedding scene, she's got everything under control. Which is more than can be said for Guybrush, who ultimately needs Elaine to save him from getting his arse handed to him right across Mêlée.

Elaine rules, and is the real "hero" of the game

The world feels real (it's not, but look, you know what I mean)

Obviously Monkey Island isn't an open-world game, but its locations all feel legit, like "real" places. The jigsaw pieces all come together properly. Mêlée is a believable, albeit fantastical, hideaway for pirates without guts enough to even stitch up a sail, let alone take a vessel out onto the open sea. Monkey Island itself is a tropical paradise overrun by imbeciles – a castaway with a thing for giant monkey heads, and a bunch of cannibals who'd rather watch their weight with a steady diet of nutritious fruit than dine on red human meat night after night. It all fits within the fiction. Fast travel would be nice, though, as rowing that boat is a pain in the dick.

Pirates, obviously

I don't feel any need to expand on this point.

The music is gorgeous

There are moments in modern open-world games when a crescendo rises in time with your ascent of some incredible peak and you're just yes, you know, video games. Monkey Island's not like that, but the music (oh, shit, here's a cliché, strap in) is just as much a part of its character as any of its central players, amazing places or perplexing puzzles (think I got away with it). Composer Michael Land didn't exactly get along with the tech he had to work with, unsurprising given this game dates from the Iron Age of the industry; but his arrangements, ultimately made using a bespoke music system called iMUSE, absolutely capture a Caribbean that wouldn't feel out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon. And they're wonderful today, immediately evocative of the horizons they were designed to accompany – unless, that is, you've the misfortune to stumble across some no-name dance producer's absolute butchering of its main theme.

Probably the least-threatening cannibals ever encountered in video gaming

It's a game that anyone can play, like, anyone, even your mum who hates these bleeping, buzzing things

No fiddly controls. No cursing, no violence. (Well, sort of, you know, I'll get to that, hold on). You can't die. (Okay, you can. But you really have to be committed to it, or distracted by a leaking tap, or champion-gobshite Jehovah's Witnesses at your door.) That makes the game sound completely challenge free. And in terms of contemporary obstacles, it is: you need not learn crazy button combinations, or muck about with dialogue wheels while a timer shrinks, or make any decisions that will lead to the demise of an ally. It plays at the pace you want it to – save for the grog-in-the-lock bit, and the point-the-cannon-at-the-island part, and probably a couple of others I've forgotten about. But if they're proving tricky, call a mate over who's handy with the quick reactions. For the most part, it is a game that anyone, whatever their age or previous experience with the medium, can play and, more importantly, enjoy.

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It introduced a genuinely new combat mechanic to video games

With its own form of grinding, too, as you couldn't just crash into insult sword fighting while green around the gills. You needed to walk the mean paths of Mêlée, stopping swashbuckling sorts and challenging them to a trade-off of pun-tickled put-downs. Losing is necessary to learn enough comebacks to go up against the island's legendary Sword Master, Carla – the second main female character in the game, and another who's way tougher than any of its dudes. Best her and she'll join your crew on the voyage to rescue Elaine – who, as we've established, really doesn't need any help. Insult sword fighting was removed for Monkey Island's sequel, LeChuck's Revenge, but reinstated for the third game in the series, The Curse of Monkey Island. Because it's great, and while LeChuck's Revenge is arguably better than its predecessor, the lack of witty ripostes while engaged in blade-clashing combat inarguably made it less memorable.

It's available as a remaster that doesn't shit all over the original version

Play the game's special edition, as I am right now on PS3, and with a simple tap of the Select button, the screen shifts back to the visuals I remember from the Amiga. So even if you hate the voice acting and "improved" visuals of the 20th anniversary revision, the original game's still in there, just beneath the hood. Still funnier than a game you've played a dozen times and more has any right to be. Still the right side of frustrating. Still fantastic, whatever other options argue their cases from the growing pile of shame. I'll probably still be playing it another 20 years from now, assuming the rising tides haven't done for us all by then.

@MikeDiver

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