Why Monkey Island is my Star Wars
During my childhood I was sucked into a seemingly vast fictional world that was populated with rogues, scoundrels, a dark evil and a plucky young kid wanting to learn the ways of a time long gone by. I speak, of course, of The Secret of Monkey Island, a game written by Ron Gilbert and published by LucasFilm Games (who later changed their name to LucasArts).
I was four years old when Secret was released, and while I couldn’t really read at the time I would watch for hours as my cousin Andy played the game on our old Amiga 500. I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but I was captivated by what I saw on screen. Back then games didn’t have voice actors to deliver the lines – there simply wasn’t the space on the floppy disks – so all of the in-game dialogue appeared on screen above the characters. I couldn’t read at that age, but I pushed myself to learn so I could play the game myself. I was, I think, six when I finally completed the game for the first time, when I finally saw the hero Guybrush Threepwood and his love Elaine Marley standing at Stan’s Second Hand Shipyard watching the body of the Ghost Pirate LeChuck explode like fireworks against the night sky. I have never been so infatuated by an image in all my life. It is burned into my mind, a perfect glistening memory, the one thing I think of when I remember the youngest days of my childhood.
A couple of years later I’d heard that a second game, LeChuck’s Revenge: Monkey Island 2, had been released. Although I would read about it in the Amiga magazines my Dad bought it would be several years before I finally got to play the game myself. I filled that time with other, similar adventure games. I found my Dad’s old King’s Quest games and worked my way through the first three in the series. They were charming but they didn’t elicit the same feeling of excitement and wonder that the first game did. The closest a game came to doing that was 1993’s Simon the Sorcerer, a British-developed game that felt spiritually very similar to Secret. This was also the first adventure game I played with voice actors instead of on-screen text, and it featured none other than Red Dwarf star Chris Barrie as the titular teenaged wizard.
1997 saw the release of The Curse of Monkey Island, the third game in the series, but that year I was too busy wrapping my head around Revenge for the first time, having been given a cracked pirate copy for the Amiga by a friend of the family. That beast came on eleven floppy disks, by far the biggest game I’d ever played at the time. I can’t define the sheer amount of excitement that filled my young heart as I installed the game to my computer’s hard drive (at that time a beefed up Amiga 1200 that my Dad had left us when he moved to the States). Each time the installer asked for the next disk I felt the grip of anxiousness and glee tighten. One disk down, ten to go… one step closer to being able to see what happens next to our entrepid pirate wannabe.
I was probably just as taken aback by the ending to Revenge as practically every other Monkey Island fan out there had been years before when the game had first come out. Without wanting to ruin it, the ending was a bizarre, unexpected, bittersweet cliffhanger that has been both hailed as one of the finest endings to a game of all time and the laziest, worst piece of trash ever to come from the Lucas stable. At the time I hated it. It felt like a kick in the groin, like LucasArt and Ron Gilbert had taken our money and ridden their solid gold speedboat down the cash river out to the open waters of the Financial Gain Ocean. Anyone who’s played any game by Hideo Kojima no doubt knows the feeling well.
Over time, and after discovering an article that explores Guybrush’s world and what the secret of Monkey Island might be, the ending began to make more sense to me. It began to feel less lazy and more finely crafted. A second playthrough of LeChuck’s Revenge some years later (and, in fact, a playthrough of the very first game) revealed a ton of stuff to me that helped make the ending much less nonsensical to me. I now think it’s the greatest ending to a game ever produced.
The series could, and perhaps should have ended there. It didn’t. Two further games were produced, without the aid of Ron Gilbert who left LucasArts to do his own thing. While The Curse of Monkey Island was an exceptional game, a thoroughly enjoyable and very humorous adventure, it was missing something integral… some key element that made it feel like a Monkey Island game. In many ways Curse is the end of Monkey Island because the fourth title, Escape From Monkey Island, is a trainwreck – the leap to 3D didn’t benefit the game at all, leaving fans with horrible controls, terrible fan service and failed attempts to revisit locations from the previous games. It still had that classic Monkey Island wit, but without the charm and with an ending even worse than Curse’s it wasn’t worth the time it took me to go to the store and buy it.
The entire Monkey Island franchise can be easily compared to the Star Wars saga. Secret is an utterly brilliant game that took gamers by surprise when it was released. Revenge is a marvellous experience building upon the groundwork laid down by Secret building to a crescendo cliffhanger (in this case, almost literally) that fans desperately wanted to see resolved. Curse is a good third entry, but the veneer is beginning to peel – it’s clear that this is the beginning of the end. And Escape… well, Escape is the entry everybody was looking forward to that couldn’t deliver and left fans feeling bitter and angry.
The Star Wars parallels continue – yesterday saw the release of The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, a high-definition reworking of the game that started it all. The artwork had been completely redone from the ground up. The music has been rescored, this time using actual, real, actual instruments. The dialogue, that brilliant, gloriously witty dialogue, has been recorded by a team of voice actors many of them reprising their roles from later games in the series. The entire thing has been, dare I say, remastered. And has it worked? Well, it’s hit and miss, and I’ll address that another time.
I grew up with Monkey Island. I grew up wanting to be Guybrush Threepwood. The Secret of Monkey Island is the game that made pirates cool again. It’s the game that made adventure games not just another game on the shelf but made them events. Before Secret I hadn’t experienced a game with such a wonderfully crafted narrative before, and while titles like King’s Quest had stories they were so loose and freedom (what you’d probably call a “sandbox” game in today’s gaming vernacular) so as to be largely irrelevant. Secret was the first game I fell in love with. It’s the game that made me want to make games myself. It’s the game that made me want to be a writer.
The Secret of Monkey Island, along with two of its three sequels, is the greatest computer game of all time. It will always have a special place in my heart.
This article was originally published at benpaddon.com.