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Game: The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition
Developer: Lucasarts
Publisher: Lucasarts
Year: 2009
Reviewed: 2010
Platform: PC
Genre: Adventure
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

Lucasarts returning to the adventure genre after nearly a decade was as welcome as it was completely unexpected. Following years of releasing very little other than mostly mediocre Star Wars cash-in titles, a sudden announcement out of nowhere that they were remaking the original Monkey Island had me checking the date to see if it was April 1st. And yet here it is, a modern version of the title that kicked off the greatest adventure game series of all time. It might not be a return to new adventure games, but it’s a start.

Secret of Monkey Island Herring old style Secret of Monkey Island Herring new style
Hmmm… and it’s red… could that be a clue…

If you’re unaware of the game, which was originally released in 1990, The Secret of Monkey Island follows naive Guybrush Threepwood as he attempts to become a pirate. This task eventually leads to him having to rescue Governor Elaine Marley from the ghost pirate LeChuck. Along the way, there are plenty of fantastic characters to engage in funny dialogues with and lots of solid, old fashioned point and click adventure gaming goodness. It’s a game that’s loved by many, so the thought of it being updated was a joyful one, though one which could have been risky if they didn’t do it properly. And while they didn’t mess this up completely, it has a few too many flaws which spoil what could have been a really amazing game.

The problem is, they didn’t go far enough with the improvements, limiting them simply to upgrading the graphics and adding voice acting and a proper non-bleepy score. That sounds like enough at first, but once you start playing you realise it isn’t, since there’s some things they haven’t touched that really needed to be brought up to date, while other things were changed for the worse. Looking at the graphics first of all, everything has been replaced with high quality hand drawn art in a stylised manner. The environments always capture the feel of the original graphics, but in high resolution. The problem is, for some reason they haven’t upgraded the animation in the same way, so the characters don’t fare quite as well as the backgrounds. Given the age of the original game, the small number of frames in the movement animations was perfectly adequate. It doesn’t really show when the characters are just a few blocky pixels on a low resolution screen. Now the graphics are high resolution, but the animations are recreated frame for frame, meaning Guybrush now jerkily waddles across the screen in an annoying way that makes the game look lazily made. Similarly, conversations with certain characters result in a close up portrait of the person talking, and again they’ve done a direct conversion of the original, which wasn’t animated at all. A close up of a face with a voice over but no moving lips was fine back in 1990 but it just looks odd and distracting in a modern game.

The new inclusion of speech also creates another minor flaw. The voice acting itself is of a very high quality. Dominic Armato reprises the role of Guybrush which he played so well in all the games with speech to date. He perfectly captures the spirit of the character and makes Guybrush one of the most likable characters in gaming, so it’s hard to imagine anyone else voicing the role. LeChuck also has the same actor, Earl Boen, returning to the part, while Elaine is voiced by Alexandra Boyd who previously played the part in Curse of Monkey Island. All the additional parts are played well by their respective voice actors throughout. The flaw mentioned is down to the fact that after each line, or part line, of dialogue, there’s a brief pause before the game carries on to the next line. This means the conversations never flow in the same way they did in the other voiced games and throws out any comic timing the lines could have had. Also annoying is the fact that you can’t skip a line of dialogue, an unforgivable flaw considering that you could do so in the original game by pressing the “.” key. They’ve actually downgraded something from the original 20 year old game!

Secret of Monkey Island Insult Swordfighting
Insult Swordfighting! Probably the funniest puzzle ever to appear in an adventure game.

Most of these problems are down to one feature which is actually one of the positive aspects of the game: you can switch between the new updated version of the game and the original version at will simply by hitting a key. It becomes quite addictive simply to compare the two versions and it’s almost impossible to enter a new location without wanting to switch to the old version to see how it’s been changed. The delay at the end of lines of dialogue seems to be to wait for the speed of the original subtitles to catch up to it, while using the same frames of animation is probably to keep it moving at the same speed as the original to change over smoothly. This doesn’t really excuse the flaws though. With a bit more effort there would have to be a way to make the transition without having to recreate old issues in a new game.

The final area of change is the interface, and unfortunately the game is weaker in this area that the original too. The original game used a straight forward point and click interface, but the new game has replaced it with an interface involving hitting a key on the keyboard before being able to point and click. In the original Secret of Monkey Island, all the actions you could perform were listed at the bottom of the screen with the inventory alongside them so you could choose what you wanted to do by simply clicking the appropriate options. The remake has removed this, in a sensible attempt to make everything look better and less cluttered. There’s many ways they could have done this which would be an improvement over the old game, such as having an inventory that pops up only when you move the mouse to the edge of the screen as used by many other games. Instead, they’ve created an overly fiddly system where you have to press one key to bring up the verb choice menu and another key to bring up the inventory items. The screen vanishes as soon as you select something which also means that you have to start the whole process again if you accidentally click the wrong item. Because of all this, certain puzzles in the game become an unnecessarily complicated mess of opening and closing windows and it becomes easier to switch to the original version for a couple of minutes to solve them rather than put up with it.

Secret of Monkey Island Insult Swordfighting
If you’re a shopkeeper, take note. “Ahoy there, fancy pants” is the best way to greet people when they walk into your shop.

There are several other places where the game is showing its age too. For example, there are many possible things you can try that elicit no response other than to tell you that you can’t do it, and there are quite a lot of items where even looking at them simply gives you an “I don’t see anything special about it.” response. Other features that have become standard in modern adventure games aren’t included, such as being able to double click on an exit to jump to the next screen without waiting for the character to walk through the entire scene. This might sound like a minor point, but when many puzzles involve backtracking through several locations, it can be quite tedious. Features like this could have been added to the game to bring it up to modern standards without detracting from the actual game in any way. There are also some strange omissions, such as not being able to mix and match features from the old and new versions. It would have seemed an obvious feature to be able to play the original game but with the voice acting included.

It’s hard to rate a game like this. It’s not a brilliantly done update of the original game, but the entire original game is included here so can it be considered any worse than the original? On the other hand, the original game is also very old, and despite its classic status, it wasn’t the best game in the series, with the second game improving greatly on the original. Despite this, The Secret of Monkey Island was still a funny, high quality adventure game, but I have to judge this as a remake and so the game does lose marks for its several implementation flaws. However, if you’ve never played Monkey Island before, this is well worth having.

Save System Review: Save anywhere.
Graphics: High quality hand drawn backdrops that are consistently good except for Guybrush’s bizarre hairstyle.
Sound: Brilliant voice acting and a fully rerecorded version of the classic soundtrack.
Bugs: None that I noticed.
Gameplay: Strong traditional point and click gameplay, featuring the classic Insult Swordfighting.
Storyline: The plot is just there to drive the comedy, but the writing is first rate and very funny, if not as detailed as in later games in the series.

Arbitrary Final Score: 4 stars

If you like this, you might also like: The rest of the Monkey Island series, other classic Lucasarts adventures, Ceville.

Does this remake ape the original closely enough or does it monkey around with it too much? Comment in the forums!