Secret of Monkey Island: A noob walks into a pirate bar

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1990’s Secret of Monkey Island. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

While I was mulling my options over for a new retro gaming series, I ended up watching a video on LucasArts’ Monkey Island series and being reminded of how great it was. Actually, I was reminded of how much I liked it and yet had to completely play through the main four games in the series. All too quickly, I felt the call of the sea and the puns dragging me down into a loader screen and this here post!

Even though I’ve played through the first game and parts of the second and third, I would love to do this entire series start to finish while writing about it. We’ll kick things off with 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, which was remade in 2009 with better graphics and voice acting. All of it is based on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which is one of my all-time favorite amusement park experiences, so I’m all for soaking up that atmosphere.

In any case, let’s dig into this farcical series about a wanna-be pirate, a world set out to frustrate him, and an island that contains many secretive monkeys. Who’s with me?

From the get-go, I have an agonizing decision to make: original flavor monkey or special edition monkey? Both have virtues in my book. I like the pixel art of the original, which looks stunningly good for 1990, and the remake’s graphics can border on looking a little flat and flash-like. On the other hand, the remake features better mouse controls and the addition of pretty well-done voice acting.

At least I don’t have to choose for good — this game actually lets you instantly swap versions on the fly with the F10 key. I think I’ll play the special edition primarily while swapping over to see what the original screens looked like. I’ll probably be showing screens from both, so go with me here.

Anyway, meet Guybrush Threepwood, a man who appears out of nowhere to talk to a guy on a cliff about his (Guybrush’s) deep desire to become a pirate. Turns out that this isn’t as easy a prospect as one might hope, as Guybrush will need to apply and undergo three trials just to make it. Who thought buccaneers were so discerning and exclusive?

First stop, the SCUMM Bar (SCUMM was the game’s engine that powered a lot of LucasArts’ adventure titles). I love the happy smiling face in the title there. And speaking of LucasArts, one of the things I’ve always liked about these adventure games versus Sierra is their decision not to put death traps everywhere. I don’t even think it’s possible to die in this game, although you can get stuck trying to get past an obstacle or puzzle. While I love a funny death screen, I appreciate the “no deaths” design because it encourages me to explore and experiment more.

For example, the SCUMM Bar is pretty entertaining to visit, especially as I talk to the various pirates around the tavern. Aside from some blatant fourth wall-breaking talks (not to mention a pitch for a LucasArts game few people actually remember), there’s some vital background information on what’s been happening on and around Melee Island here.

Turns out that a fearsome pirate named LeChuck fell in love with the island’s governor, Gov. Marley, and went on a quest to find the Secret of Monkey Island to impress her. He died, came back somehow, and now he’s terrorizing the seas and nobody wants to sail out there. Hence the packed bar.

My enjoyment of this series is derived from two factors. First, Guybrush is a very likable and affable character. He’s sincere and earnest while playing a funny straight man to the lunacy around him. I genuinely wanted him to succeed.

But past that, the second factor is that Monkey Island is enjoyable in the moment-to-moment. It’s hilarious to talk to everyone, including the dog (with whom you can hold a surprisingly long conversation). Even though there is a story to progress through, the descriptions, actions, and conversations in each section are a lot of fun to behold.

Guybrush’s quest to become a pirate leads him here, to the three Important-Looking Pirates that apparently serve as the gatekeepers to all piratedom. They tell Guybrush that he can join up if he completes the three trials — that is, proving himself successful at swordplay, thieving, and treasure hunting. To do this, I’ll have to defeat the Sword Master, steal an idol from the governor’s mansion, and find the legendary lost treasure of Melee Island. I also find out what’s actually in grog, which ends up being a horrific list of ingredients including sulfuric acid, pepperoni, and red dye no.2.

Can I also say how much I adore this soundtrack? In both editions, it’s so soothing and perfect in striking that Caribbean pirate mood. Just an all-time classic and one of my favorite video game OSTs of all time.

There are lots of great environmental gags to notice as well, like the vat of poison (grog?). Oh, and the picture of the Pillsbury Doughboy. HE IS TOO ADORABLE FOR WORDS.

MEANWHILE IN HELL…

The ghost pirate LeChuck is informed by his laconic skeleton first mate that there’s a new pirate wannabe on Melee Island. Don’t know how the word of such an insignificant detail has gotten down here, but here we are. LeChuck mulls this over and vows to take care of it personally. After all, his plans are too important to be thwarted by a greenhorn such as Guybrush.

8 thoughts on “Secret of Monkey Island: A noob walks into a pirate bar

  1. Shintar February 20, 2019 / 9:38 am

    There is actually one way to die in Monkey Island… by drowning. It’s designed in such a way that it’s unlikely to be a problem for most people though.

    I definitely also appreciated the lack of death penalty in MI and LucasArts’ other adventures going forward. I played the original Maniac Mansion and Zak McCracken too, and those had so many weird ways to die…

  2. Jeromai February 20, 2019 / 11:41 am

    I remember the “rubber tree” part so well. Such a sneaky jibe at Sierra games at the time, where walking a pixel too far in the wrong direction usually meant tumbling into a lake of acid, hurtling off a cliff, or otherwise dying in some new and unique fashion. (Hope you remembered to save a new game at practically every scene change!)

    In the case of the first game, I think the pixel art original version is still a classic. The remastered art looks too abstract and cartoony. The vagueness of the detail adds to the player’s ability to project their own interpretations into the game and the characters. My Guybrush Threepwood would declaim his desire to be a mighty pirate in a way different from yours. A voice actor would make that experience too consistent. That works if the original already had voices like Grim Fandango, but not if it doesn’t. (Also, the Grim Fandango remaster was exceedingly faithful to the old version, very little changes visually.)

    It’s like Final Fantasy 7. Part of its charm is the blocky models. If they ever get the remake out, it’ll look fantastically cinematic, I’m sure it’ll be a nice game experience, but it won’t have the nostalgic effect without the old aesthetic, baggage and all.

  3. Syp February 20, 2019 / 11:57 am

    Yeah I actually ended up sticking to the original pixel art in the second installment of this series (I’ve already written about five parts so far). Just feels better and the dialogue text is funny enough on its own.

  4. Syp February 20, 2019 / 11:57 am

    Yeah you have to work hard to die in this game!

  5. Gobsmacked February 20, 2019 / 1:03 pm

    Yes, there is a way to die via drowning in one scene. However, since Guybrush can hold his breath for 10 minutes you need to sit around under water for over 10 minutes in real time.

  6. Naithin February 20, 2019 / 5:52 pm

    Oh man. The first two games in this series were really something. Right up there with Quest for Glory 1 & 2 as classics in my book. (Not sure what it is with 3 and 4 in a series that means I didn’t get on with them as well!)

    I bought both the remakes of these, but uh.. Still need to go back and play them at some point. 😉

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