If you’re anything like me, the only thing you want from this review is either an imperial thumbs-up, indicating that it does the franchise justice, or a thumbs-down, indicating that it disgraces it and deserves to be beheaded by a slave. Well, it’s up. Right up. Big time. Now off you go.
For the rest of you cross-legged, wide-eyed innocents who’ve yet to embark with master Guybrush Threepwood on what may be the finest adventure ever committed to silicon, I’ll try to convey the sheer majesty of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition without robbing you of the enviable joy of discovery by saying too much.
I recently read P.G. Wodehouse's Something Fresh, and a few pages in I came across a character called Freddie Threepwood. Freddie Threepwood; Guybrush Threepwood. It was one of those satisfying moments when you discover a reference all by yourself.
It’s a telling reference, too. Monkey Island’s heritage is in video games, of course, but it’s also in literature (as well as in the same Disneyland ride that spawned Pirates of the Caribbean). Video game writing has rarely reached the same heights.
You take on the role of Guybrush Threepwood’s semi-potent carer as he sets out to become a pirate. Using a cursor to point and click, you have to guide Guybrush through fixed 2D backgrounds, picking up objects and deploying them to solve puzzles either singly or in combination with others in your inventory, as well as interacting with the scenery and talking to people.
Your control over Guybrush is limited in the sense that you can choose what he says in conversation, but only from a range of possible sentences; you can tell him to pick things up, but if the object is irrelevant to the vast mechanism of progress Guybrush will find an excuse to disobey. You’re controlling him to a large extent, but he’s also a beautifully drawn independent character whose endless buffoonery makes you laugh.
The lasting appeal of Monkey Island is in its dialogue writing and in its central character. Guybrush is an incompetent but optimistic youth whose guiding ambition is to be a pirate. He’ll apparently do whatever it takes to accomplish this, yet he’s far too good natured to understand what being a pirate really entails. All around him far more sinister characters - real pirates - are exploiting him and plotting his demise, but through persistence, dumb luck and your guiding hand he manages to triumph.
Like all good works of fiction, it’s only when you play through the game a second or third time that you can fully appreciate it. The writer Chekhov said that if there’s a gun on the mantle in the first act of a play it ought to go off in the third, and Monkey Island abides by this edict. In the opening scenes Guybrush tells some important-looking pirates, “I can hold my breath for ten minutes,” and the significance of that line becomes clear later on, after less attentive gamers (thickos) have forgotten that he ever said it.
The puzzles that constitute the actual game are secondary to the story, for sure, and not all of them are winners, but Monkey Island for the most part manages the tricky balance of constructing puzzles that are neither obvious nor illogical, neither too hard nor too easy. You’ll be stretched, but never stumped. The whole game is theoretically completable in a couple of hours, though it took me several weeks back in 1990.
Monkey Island: Special Edition came out recently on XBLA, and this is a version of that game rather than the original. If you’re ready to bear arms at this act of sacrilege, there’s no need - by swiping two fingers across the screen you can change it to the old version at any time. It’s like magic.
Let’s stick to the default mode, though. The Special Edition is an update of the original in terms of interface and presentation, but the gameplay and dialogue are left, as far as I can gather, entirely intact.
The interface changes are minimal. Rather than a single crosshair for a cursor, there’s now a circle with a pointer attached. The circle contains a picture symbolising what interaction you can do (a foot, say, to denote walking), and the tip of the pointer touches the thing you’re interacting with. It’s an unnecessary refinement, and fiddly to use at first, but it’s ultimately harmless.
In both modern and classic versions of the game the cursor moves relative to your finger rather than directly under it, which helpfully prevents your finger from obscuring the important action.
Unfortunately, the fact that you have to drag the cursor around with your finger is, well, a drag. You’ll want to touch objects directly, but given that functions are already assigned to tapping and double-tapping the screen it’s almost certainly a problem whose solution would create even greater problems.
Seasoned Monkey Island fans will immediately wonder where the old verb table is - the grid of words and terms like ‘pick up’, ‘give’, and so on. Don’t panic: it’s still there, but tucked behind an icon in the bottom left of the screen. The inventory is in the bottom right. Given the limited screen space on an iPhone or iPod touch, this is a welcome tweak, and all of the tweaks are minor. None changes how the game plays in the slightest.
The visual changes are much more significant, and here gamers may be divided. Replacing the old 32 colour graphics is high resolution hand drawn artwork in which the characters are better defined and the backdrops are crisper and more detailed.
Guybrush takes on his modern lanky appearance, and his voice is ably supplied by series regular Dominic Armato. The voice acting from every cast member is superb, betraying, I suspect, an XBLA budget. Even so, purists will probably stick to the classic version, and the ability to do so is very welcome.
Of course, Monkey Island is an old game and in the two decades since it first came out video games have become much slicker and, for the most part, easier. If you can resist using a walkthrough you’re likely to spend many long hours trudging from location to location, and the lack of an option to instantly click out of a screen - such as was included in later sequels and other LucasArts adventures - will further irritate players who find themselves at a loss.
The one concession Monkey Island: Second Edition makes to this generation’s desire for simplicity is a tips system whereby shaking your iPhone or iPod touch causes a hint to appear across the screen. It’s a nice touch, but it’s far too easy to accidentally bring a hint up while moving normally. Those who like a challenge should prepare to look away quickly and often.
Whether or not my remarks about difficulty and endless trudging constitute criticisms is down to you. If you’re an impatient gamer who likes endless small rewards and a clear path to the end then this is possibly not your game. If, however, you’ve got the patience - and, let’s face it, the strength of character - to invest your time and energy into Monkey Island, start now. You’re about to discover a true classic.