Genre: Point and ClickAdventure
Developed by: Lucasfilm Games
Published by: Lucasfilm Games
Platforms: Most of them (PC mainly)
Feeling Like: Insulting Nidhogg
1990? No, that can’t be right. The Secret of Monkey Island was so revolutionary, so creative, so clever that it surely must’ve been the mid 90s. Surely.
*checks the internet again*
Alright, 1990. Man, what an impressive feat. The brainchild of the legendary Ron Gilbert (along with Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman), The Secret of Monkey Island ignored standard tropes of the genre and showed that players wanted to explore and have fun too. Point and Click Adventures were massive in the 80s and 90s, though many included labyrinthine puzzles and the possibility of death around every corner. How was that appealing? Well, due to the pre-rendered backgrounds and the use of CD-ROM, Adventure games in particular were all of a sudden capable of ecstatic beauty and voice acting – no console could compete with that. The trade-off was the lack of real action, and little to no replay value.
No matter. Oftentimes the games were so difficult that without a friend who knew what they were doing, you could be stuck on a single puzzle for months. Remember, no internet (though thank the gaming gods for PC Gamer).
Secret of Monkey Island was a breath of fresh air in this regard. You had to try REALLY hard to die, every piece of dialogue was expertly written and often very funny. The game’s location was inspired by the Pirate of the Caribbean theme park ride and it shows; every corner is littered with pirate stereotypes, shifty merchants, bloodthirsty thugs and sharp tongued sword fighters. The tropical music and instant intrigue meant you were hooked from the very first screen.
You play as the eager Guybrush Threepwood, a friendly chap who wants nothing more than to be a pirate. Soon he’ll be romancing Governesses, using Root Beer as exorcism tool, and buying a second hand boat. He’ll be trudging up the island’s biggest mountain just to almost scare an old timer to death. He’ll be navigating noisy pubs, submerging himself for no more than ten minutes and all with a smile on his face. I still think Guybrush has the best name in all of video games.
Sean Mc and I played it on his computer in Gordon Head and, despite having no help, we managed to get pretty far. The design, unappreciated at the time of course, is incredibly forgiving. If we tried a certain “use, move, push” combo with an item or person, Guybrush breaks the 4th wall and tells us why that wouldn’t work or gives a hint on what might. I distinctly remember one challenge where we had to pass a pack of vicious little dogs. Being 9 years old, we tried using our sword on them. Perish the thought! Guybrush doesn’t want to hurt the gnashing puppies (there’s very little violence in the game, another smart choice), only pass them by! Ok, well what do we do? Can we dress up as somebody else? No…AHA! We can feed them this ham we found! Hmm, they ate it…and we still can’t get past them. Cartoon logic applies here, so we ended up figuring out that we had to put something ON the ham so the dogs would fall asleep after they’ve had their snack. The satisfaction of figuring out puzzle after puzzle was an endless source of triumph and the solution never felt too out of reach.
I could point to many highlights of an incredibly enjoyable experience, but the lasting legacy has, and always will be, the insult sword fighting. I remember reading somewhere that the developers thought they put too much emphasis on it, but I disagree; we’ve seen so many ways to do combat before that this was a fresh and funny take that few others have attempted – before or since. Undertale does come to mind.
When you approach certain pirates that won’t get out of your way, you’ll have to duel them with your blade. However, you don’t control any of the swinging or the maneuvering…but you DO choose the most important aspect of the combat – insulting your opponent! Either you’ll start with an insult and wait for their retort, or they will and you’ll have to come up with the appropriate response. If you haven’t received enough training, or learned the ways of how to throw a verbal swing back, you’ll lose the fight.
Insult – You fight like a dairy farmer!
Retort – How appropriate! You fight like a cow!
Insult – I’ve spoken with apes more polite than you!
Retort – I’m glad to hear you attended your family reunion!
The fights become quite easy when you expand your vocabulary, but the thrill is learning a new retort and going BACK to the guy who beat you the first time, better equipped to handle the confrontation. I would’ve done much better in debate class if they’d let us fence at the same time.
Others apparently felt the same way about The Secret of Monkey Island, spawning several sequels and a 2009 update. It seems ahead of its time now. One of the creators, Dave Grossman, went on to join Telltale Games. Tim Schafer went on to become a legend in his own right, heading the creation of Grim Fandango, Psychonauts and Broken Age. You can easily see Schafer and Gilbert’s fingerprints all over the script, with clear attention being paid to dialogue. They wanted players to examine every corner of every location, and wanted them to trust that Guybrush would deliver SOME morsel of information for doing so.
Nothing but fondness for The Secret of Monkey Island. It always brings a stupid grin to my face and certainly deserves to be ahead of (at least) 160 other games on the list!