Nostalgia is a strange thing. Viewed through its slightly foggy, rose-tinted glasses, the 1990s were a time of peace and prosperity. The Cold War ended, the internet became a thing, and we had the release of The Secret of Monkey Island. There was plenty of rubbish that came with the 1990s, too – like the ‘save icon’ floppy disks being daily menaces and trying to play games from them – but there’s definitely some things that we could do with bringing back in new or improved forms. The release of Return to Monkey Island is proof of that!
Return to Monkey Island once again puts Guybrush’s fate in the hands of Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, two of the three minds behind the original game. Here, we have our venerated pirate, plunderer of monkey heads and life/death-long nemesis of the Ghost Pirate LeChuck, regaling his son, Boybrush, with the story of how he eventually found the secret hinted at in the first game.
What follows is a joyous example of a point-and-click adventure that both leans into the nostalgia of the genre and franchise — two things that are inextricably linked for many people — by helping Guybrush relive his glory days, while doing away with some of the video game mechanics that are better left in the past.
Case in point is the complete revamp of how you play the game. Instead of taking an object and verbing a noun as in the originals, the entire system has been replaced with the late 90s approach of letting you to simply click the object in your inventory and use it with the thing of your choice. If the two things are meant to go together, they will work together; if not, you get a little red circle with a line through it. It feels so much more elegant, allowing you to fully sink yourself into the story, like easing yourself into a warm bath on a cold day.
Speaking of, the dialogue in the game is both entirely what I signed up for, and baffling at the same time — baffling because the ‘Director’s Cut’ is not the default. Nobody is buying this game because they hate the wordy satire that Gilbert and Grossman are known for. You can toggle to the Director’s Cut in the settings menu, and it is strongly recommended that you do so before you start the game. Let’s all be honest here — you know what you’re signing up for when you pick up a Monkey Island game.
And while we’re on the subject of storytelling, the return to both our and Guybrush’s early days covers many of the tropes that we hoped it would. The subtle nods, obvious references and amusing Easter eggs are there en masse for players to find. Since the game is you talking to your son about the things that came before, you’re nudged back on course when things take a turn for the incredulous by a bored 10-ish year old. It’s a device that helps keep things flowing properly.
Fans of the original games will remember the scene in the third act where you could speak to a member of developer and publisher LucasArts’ helpline. Since these are now (thankfully) a thing of the past, Guybrush’s adventure now features a more modern hint system. Along with a handy to-do list that sits in your inventory at all times, our hero now has access to an arcane book of hints that will nudge him in the right direction should he get a little stuck. This comes with a word of caution though — both from the game’s returning Voodoo lady and us — relying too heavily on the hint system does diminish the fun, so should really only be relied on in a pinch.
Lastly, the big new thing worth talking about is a difficulty mode. While this may immediately conjure visions of new dialogue in the sword-fighting mechanic, this is sadly not the case (though this fan-favourite mechanic does make a comeback of sorts). Instead, the hard mode in Return to Monkey Island adds an extra layer to the puzzle-solving mechanic. One early example is that Guybrush needs to get crackers to feed a Security Parrot so he can steal an item from Mêlée Island’s Pirate Museum. On easy mode, you can simply pick up crackers from the town’s locksmith – they’re not for customers, but have them if you really want. On hard mode, you’re resolutely told that they’re not for you and you can’t have them. Instead, you have to find a room that isn’t in easy mode, grab some cracker mix and figure it out from there.
Having played through it once on easy and half-way on hard, I’m enjoying the additional challenge. Is there a correct mode to start on for franchise veterans? Not as such, but if you really want to get the most out of the game, it’s well worth starting on easy mode so you can play it twice, albeit slightly differently.
The final, final thing I want to talk about is the story itself. Without digging too deeply into this aspect of the game, Mêlée Island is not what it once was because, inevitably, time makes fools of us all. Along Guybrush’s way, we meet characters old and new, travel to islands old and new, and get to see some genuinely endearing moments between Guybrush and Elaine.
If the Secret of Monkey Island was a game about setting out on a career and its sequel about the pains of making a sequel to something that wasn’t the huge success you thought it would be, then Gilbert and Grossman’s triumphant return is them looking back on their career with the same nostalgia that we players share, and taking a moment to indulge in reliving some of their youthful glory. This is something that is alluded to in a post-credits letter from the devs themselves, and it’s something that gave me goosebumps and twanged my heartstrings at the same time.