At the very end of the Secret of Monkey Island, just before the credits roll and you shut off the game, you’re given one final dialogue choice. The hero of the tale, Guybrush Threepwood, tells his love, Governess Elaine, that he has indeed learned something from his adventure and it’s up to the player to decide which of three options he goes for.
- “How to deal with frustration, disappointment and irritating cynicism”
- “It’s not the size of the ship…”
- “Never pay more than 20 bucks for a computer game”
Clearly, as the goof loving individual I am, I went for the third option. Elaine asks Guybrush what on earth he’s talking about, to which he replies he has absolutely no idea. Then the credits roll.
This tiny little exchange should tell you everything you need to know about why exactly the Secret of Monkey Island, a point and click adventure game made by LucasArts in 1990, is still to this day held up as one of the wittiest and funnest games ever made.
I’d first played it as a really young kid round at a friends house. He had two older brothers who loved PC gaming and so while they were out, we used to sneak onto their computer to play games like Duke Nukem and Star Wars Dark Forces. Unsurprisingly for the 1990s, his mum was deathly afraid of the mind destroying qualities of “violent video games” so we were mostly restricted to playing his more “mother friendly” games. This meant that we spent a great deal of time playing the one game that she actually approved of – a goofy text heavy pirate adventure game by the name of The Secret of Monkey Island.
Of course, being a 1990s adventure game, we never really made any real progress into the game as the puzzles and dialogue were far beyond our ability to understand as innocent 7 year olds but the game did leave an indelible impression on me. I knew it was fun, I knew it was silly and I knew that one day I’d definitely have to revisit it and see Guybrush’s adventure through to its conclusion.
So here we are, twenty years later, and the credits have just rolled. I’m sitting on my sofa actually laughing out loud at the final joke of the entire game and how utterly irreverent the entire experience was. Ultimately I can’t believe that I didn’t come round to this game sooner and can’t imagine anything like twenty years passing before I visit it again.
Video games that are actually funny are like goldust but I feel like I have to give a warning before we delve into all the many things to love about Monkey Island. This game is absolutely 100% not for everyone and will be positively unplayable for some people. While the writing is utterly timeless, the way that the game actually plays is extremely, fundamentally dated and some people will not be able to get past that.
You control Guybrush as he explores Melee and Monkey Island (the two carribean influenced settings in the game) through selecting verbs from a list of 12 that are always available at the bottom of the screen. These are your only way to interact with the world and you’ll need to work out which are needed to interact with various objects, people and situations you encounter. On top of this Guybrush also has an infinitely deep shirt pocket in which he stores all sorts of strange objects you can pick up from hunks of meat to leaflets about navigation.
The issue some people will find is that working out what item needs to be used with which verb in which situation, is not always particularly clear. In fact I’d say that the vast majority of the puzzles are downright obtuse. I have absolutely no shame in letting you know that there was multiple times when I was so perplexed as to what the game actually wanted me to do to progress that I had to resort to a walkthrough.
To give an example of one puzzle/quest that takes place about halfway through the game –
On your journey to Monkey Island, your crew mutinies as they want to sunbathe and aren’t particularly interested in fighting ghost pirates. You are given absolutely no indication of what to do and no amount of talking with the crew can convince them to restart the journey…
What you’re supposed to do is collect 8 seemingly completely random items from around the ship and using a toy found inside the ships breakfast cereal stock, combine them all in a pot in the ships galley following a cryptic recipe found in a locked chest. You stoke the fire with a spare flag that you find and this causes a voodoo explosion that teleports the ship to Monkey Island
It doesn’t seem too bad written down like this but it’s hard to put into words just how obtuse this feels and I would not be surprised if puzzles and obscure objectives like this genuinely make the game unplayable for people not willing to cut an older game some slack. It’s lacking a lot of the smooth edges and “playability” that we’ve come to expect from modern games and I’m sure that’s definitely hurting it’s audience in 2020.
That being said, if you can get past that or are happy to just use a walkthrough, you’ll enter into one of the wittiest games ever written and probably the only game to actually make me physically laugh. Rather than simply running through the plot and spoiling all of the wonderful little moments, I thought I’d give you a taster of the sort of thing that Monkey Island is about by regaleing you with some of my favorite moments.
Within minutes of starting the game you bump into a pirate wearing a huge badge which says “ASK ME ABOUT LOOM” and if you do, you get a fourth wall shattering advert delivered utterly in character by the pirate for another LucasArts adventure game, funnily enough called Loom. It’s these first few moments that let you know this entire game is going to be much more Muppets Treasure Island than Pirates of the Carribean.
One of my favourite mechanics in the game is how Monkey Island handles it’s “combat”. I put the word combat in quotation marks because you don’t really actually do any fighting at all but instead control the insults and retorts that Guybrush and his enemies hurl at each other WHILE fighting. It’s not only inspired from a technical point of view, as I imagine designing a proper combat system would have been far more demanding on the small LucasArts team, but is frankly a hilarious way to handle conflict.
You have to use and hear insults in order to build your combat vocabulary and so while exploring and solving puzzles you’ll want to fight other pirates wandering around Melee Island. Thing is, the insults themselves are so goofy and entertaining that you’ll actually want to get into these scuffles just to see what absurd things you can throw out in combat.
Some stand out insults were definitely – “I’m not going to take your insolence sitting down!” with the response “Your hemorroids are flaring up again eh?” and the even more absurd “Have you stopped wearing diapers yet?” “why? Did you want to borrow one?”.
If anything it’s a shame that these aren’t used more throughout the game and in an odd twist, when you eventually face down the villain of the game – the evil ghost pirate LeChuck, you don’t actually even engage him in an insult fight! They do remain however one of the best parts of Monkey Island and an iconic gameplay mechanic.
The game is stuffed full of strange and funny characters although I was personally completely taken with the nutrition and health conscious cannibals that live on the titular Monkey Island. They’re particularly frustrated with LeChuck as his ghost crew have been making “the most awful ghost noises which has really driven away tourism from Monkey Island”. They share the Island with a castaway called Herman Toothrot and the two parties are engaged in a passive aggressive war of words conducted by them writing bureaucratic style memos to each other and simply leaving them around the island, presumably in hopes of the other party finding them.
It’s much more akin to squabbling roommates and is a hilarious way to position the cohabitation of a tribe of cannibals and a pirate castaway.
As if that level of absurdity wasn’t enough, when you find the cannibals themselves, they are actually pretty uninterested in eating Guybrush as they’ve become very conscious of the amount of red meat in their diet and are trying to brush up on their health. Eventually you can even befriend them and they end up helping you craft a ghost killing spritz that you use in the finale of the game.
It’s just fun silly nonsense which never stops putting a smile on your face.
The final character that really deserves a mention is Stan S Stanman, Melee Island’s resident second hand boat salesman. As if the concept of the island having a second hand boat dealership wasn’t funny enough, he comes complete with cowboy boots and a huge cowboy hat (get the symbolism? He’s a cowboy salesman) and while speaking with Guybrush he wildly fails his arms around and his mouth moves a million miles an hour. It’s incredible how just from these two small pieces of animation, you can immediately imagine a slimy, tricky sales person who talks fast and is always looking for a con job.
His section of the story involves Guybrush trying to secure credit in order to buy a ship and go and rescue the kidnapped governor. The solution itself is as ridiculous as the salesman demanding it.
You hear that the only person in town with the credit to back up the purchase of an expensive boat is the shopkeeper and after asking him politely to extend credit to you, he of course refuses. What you’re supposed to do is ask him if he can set up a meeting between you and the swordmaster (who you need to defeat once you’ve learnt all the insults to progress in the story) and then sneak into the back of his shop and simply steal the credit note.
Stan S Stanman even says outright that he finds it pretty unbelievable that Guybrush got the credit by legal means but as there is a sale to be had, he doesn’t give a damn and happily parts with the ship. Who said there isn’t a complex moral heart at the centre of the Monkey Island franchise?
Ultimately the game won’t take you very long to complete at all and most of your time will simply be spent working out what to do next. With a walkthrough to help with direction and some of the harder puzzles, you can easily blast through this game in about 3 hours or so and to be totally honest I highly recommend that you do. It’s exactly why I’ve refrained from over explaining too much of the plot or main “moments” as if you’ve found this to be at all enticing, I really implore you to check it out.
It’s not just a piece of video game history, one of the first good looking and well written adventure games, but one of the few games that can genuinely entice laughter. Given the franchise is about to receive a physical collection on the Nintendo Switch from Limited Run games, there hope that this series can find a fresh audience to entertain with it’s goofy irreverent world. If you want something that can put a smile on your face and truly entertain in a way video games rarely try to anymore, you really can’t go wrong with a short trip to Monkey Island.