Review: The Secret Of Monkey Island

The greatest trick with The Secret Of Monkey Island, after almost 20 years, is that its marriage of spectacularly witty pirate storyline and wonderfully devious puzzles is just as compelling and captivating today as it always was.  Somehow, despite the point and click genre being violently flushed away from the minds of gamers and publishers by legions of bald space marines and turbo charged shopping carts, The Secret Of Monkey Island still feels fresh, dynamic and, barring a couple of daft sticking points, brilliantly paced.  It’s not the best in class – that honour goes to the sequel – but as a starter for ten this game is fundamentally superb.

Reviewing it, of course, is problematic.  Do you assume the reader knows nothing about the game and thus requires a delicate, spoiler free introduction to the wonderful world of protagonist Guybrush Threepwood and his arrival on Melee Island, or do you preach to the converted and simply explain the differences between the 16-bit classic and this new, updated Xbox 360 version? We’ll come back to this Special Edition, because the truth is that whilst even fleetingly mentioning any of the major plot developments is tantamount to walking the plank the twisting storyline, should you be unfamiliar, is absolutely worth investigating whether that’s for the first time or tenth.

Guybrush’s arrival on Melee Island in his quest to become a pirate comprises the first act of three in The Secret of Monkey Island.  He’s a wiry, naive young man with big aspirations and completely unaware of what lies ahead, which makes for an endearing, non-threatening and dashingly charming on-screen avatar.  Once past the introduction you’ll find that Guybrush needs to perform three tasks for the Pirate Leaders, happily stationed and quite rooted in the town’s bar: theft, treasure hunting and swordsmanship – three sub-quests that introduce you to various characters and game devices that will form the basis of everything you do for the remainder of the game.

The point and click gameplay, whether you choose to play this Special Edition with the new skin applied or the old, works brilliantly having been evolved from the mechanics first seen in Maniac Mansion and the first Indiana Jones title.  Moving the cursor with the left stick and using A and B as the console substitutes for the left and right mouse buttons is an obvious choice, but the way the game intelligently seems to know which verb you require at most given points in the game is smart without being obstructive – it’s just a matter of moving down the foot of the screen in classic mode or tapping a trigger with the Special Edition visage applied to bring up the list of actions – push, give, pick up and so on – should you need to override what the game is suggesting you do.

The way the three initial tasks are presented highlights one of the key aspects of Monkey Island that has always appealed to me as a gamer – the notion that the game is utterly non-linear. Naturally, age and wisdom has taught me that this isn’t the case at all, but the three little adventures that bookmark the start of the storyline can be attempted in any order you choose even if this is never explicitly mentioned.  The game just seems to open up organically, and because you can’t ever do anything wrong in the game (a puzzle can never be unsolvable) and because Guybrush cannot die the player is encouraged to experiment safe in the knowledge that the storyline will ultimately progress forwards at your own pace.

Ironically, unless my memory has been dissolved over the years by too much Grog, this isn’t actually the first edition of the game – the ‘retro’ original presented here is the 1992 CD-ROM version with the 256 colour spites, graphical icons and optimised verb set, but that’s all academic because although the classic game has been recreated perfectly we’re assuming most Xbox 360 owners will want to play through the game using the new, Special Edition makeover.  And what a makeover it is: everything, from the characters themselves through to the environments, maps and the actual UI have been completely revamped and the different is staggering without ever taking anything away from the old-school original.  Indeed, the ‘back’ button on the controller lets you flip back and forth between versions (much like the option in R-Type Dimensions) and often with surprising results.

Normaly, when a game is taken from VGA resolutions to 1920 x 1080 HD you’re reasonably safe to assume that some dodgy filter will just be stretched over the original pixels and the game shipped to retailers. Not so with The Secret of Monkey Island, which has seen the game transformed from blocky, low resolution retro classic to a something completely modernised – it’s not just the graphics, either, the music has been rebuilt from scratch and every single line in the game now features voice acting, with the return of Dominic Armato (from The Curse Of Monkey Island) reprising his role as Guybrush.  It’s a shame you can’t try combinations of old and new, such as retro graphics with new audio, but the work here is stellar even though the limitations of the system used meant that the animation has suffered and appears rather basic.

There are other tweaks new to the Xbox 360 Special Edition too: the new style doesn’t list all the verbs at the foot of the screen, preferring to keep the overlay to a minimum with just the principal and secondary options visible to the player unless you pull the left trigger (which brings up the verb list).  Similarly, the right trigger presents the current inventory, and thus with both triggers and the A button you can create the basic sentences required: Use Item With Object being one of the most often used phrases.  It works fine for most of the puzzles, but you might want to switch back to classic mode for the time-critical sections of the game, which whilst few and far between can often require speedily selections that could be tricky with the new interface.

Whichever route you take though, The Secret Of Monkey Island is a superb game.  Yes, it’s not for everybody and if for some reason you disliked the story the first time around no amount of graphical flair will make you enjoy it anymore in 2009, but it’s well priced (at just 800 points) and represents exactly the sort of game that the Xbox 360 seems to push so well on the Live Arcade.  It’s true that some of the voice work takes away a little of the humour (and some of the pronunciations, while reasonable to most Americans, were quite jarring as a Brit) but most of it is first class and the script still holds strong.  The Secret of Monkey Island is a timeless, beautiful videogame and one best savoured over a long weekend without distraction.

Score: 9/10