The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) Review – 10/10

Note: That monkey does NOT know the Secret of Monkey Island

Combine one of the most talented studios of the early 90’s with a pirate-themed parody adventure, mixed with a healthy dose of 4th wall breaks, all while during a time when pirate themed media was virtually dead, and you have an instant classic. ‘The Secret of Monkey Island’ was developed by LucasArts right at the onset of the 90’s, using brand new talent in the name of Tim Schafer under the directorial leadership of Ron Gilbert, who would both be instrumental in the game’s success; they along with the rest of the crew, manage to create an unforgettable masterpiece of not only the point and click genre, but video gaming as a whole.

Immediately from the intro screen featuring the Caribbean-styled steel drum-inspired theme combining pirate whimsy and Jamaican voodoo styles, it creates an atmosphere that inspires a sense of homeliness, yet at the same time, exotic and tropical locales ripe for adventuring. Indeed, as we are introduced to lush and eye-catching art, we are also introduced to the ever-welcoming soundtrack. A double-header, as far as I can tell in terms of the greatness that awaits. There is not a single misused or poorly made song in the game, which each manages to perfectly encapsulate the section of the game you are in, and the characters you are introduced to. I would say the sound design is among LucasArts’ best here. There is nothing more iconic than ‘Monkey Island’s’ theme than perhaps maybe ‘Halo’s’ iconic hymns or ‘Super Mario Bros.’ start screen theme. Michael Land deserves a special mention as the game’s composer, having done a stellar job in crafting actual music, unlike most games of the time which consisted primarily of short, looping, chip-tune-esque bits of rhythms and patterns that can be easily inserted and recycled. Here we have actual composition that includes multi-layered instrumental backing with refrains, verses, and bridges; what one would call ‘real music’.

And would you know it, they even created a game for the soundtrack too! We start off this adventure as Guybrush Threepwood, whose only aspiration in life is to become a pirate. Needless to say, he ends up finding out just what that entails, mostly being ripped off and betrayed. While we play as Guybrush, the sarcastic and none-too-enthralled wannabe pirate, the real story centers around the ghostly LeChuck and his infamy on the seas. The game switches from introductory trials, to recruiting a team, to going on a rescue mission, to finally confronting and defeating the big bad LeChuck and saving the day. Its story is simple and easy to follow, while also delivering plenty of characterization that makes each character standout as memorable, even the smaller characters like Stan, the used boat salesman. The writing is off-the-wall bonkers, pushing the limits of what is acceptable for immersions sake at just the right times, while still managing to build onto the lore of the game world. This is no easy feat, as many writers will attest. If you make the jokes too silly or out-of-place, the setting becomes secondary to the jokes and the audience loses interest and the setting itself becomes the joke. Luckily, they manage to make it through without losing anything in the process. While there are jokes about the company itself, the concept of commercial markets, meta jokes about the player, and commentary over the events of the game, none of it overrides the setting and storytelling of the game, feeling more like asides than derailments.

The game world is also very fleshed out, featuring very naturalistic travel. In point and click games, the game world can tend to feel a bit jumbled, as you are constantly changing screens, backtracking trying to find the correct path, it can all feel very confusing. Not here. Everything flows exceptionally well here, and becomes less of a maze and feels more like a genuine world to explore. Part of that is due to the genius design of the world, but a major part of it is also the exceptional background artwork that is detailed, filled with atmosphere, and contains exceptionally realized environments.

Hard to forget something as lively as a pirate bar

The bits of the game where it shows an overview of the surrounding area helps, but the way the world is structured feels very naturalistic.

Boasting top-notch character design, visually mesmerizing artwork, stellar sound design, and writing that is approachable but filled with enough depth to bring a ship in to port on, it of course has puzzles to match it. Even for the impatient types, the puzzles on display here are quick enough to solve that you almost never feel bogged-down trying to solve. There are a few pun-based puzzles that stumped me, but a lot of them were not too difficult. Besides, what fun would it be if all the puzzles were solved immediately?

As for the items you are required to gather, they are all quite obvious to the watchful eye. Not an item fades into the background or can be too easily missed, though even if you do, you cannot advance much further, as ‘Monkey Island’ features painstakingly developed fail-proof measures to keep players from being stuck in unsolvable scenarios or dying too easily. There is only one such situation in which you can die, and it gives you ample time to escape. Some say this lack of death or being stuck takes away from the challenge since there is little at stake, but I would say all other aspects of the game are so well designed, and polished to such a degree, that the lack of stakes is nearly unnoticeable. It makes the game feel like a joyride instead of a thrill ride.

Aside from the puzzles, the game also features a few more interesting mechanics, such as the insult sword fights. Parrying and riposting based off how good your insults and comebacks are is an ingenious way of inserting combat into a comedic pirate fantasy, turning it into a true swashbuckling adventure. There is also a dialogue tree which, as far as I can tell, is among the first point and click adventure games to do so. Normally this kind of interaction was relegated to text adventure games, but implemented here it adds what was once a new degree of player interaction in a visual medium. Innovative for its time, quaint now.

Look too long into the eyes of the Guybrush, and he stares back into you

A classic for a reason, not merely the product of the era, ‘The Secret of Monkey Island’ is both a treat to those looking for something new in the gaming sphere, and a perfect introduction for those who are new to point and click games. The game’s witty irreverence is just as poignant as the tip of a pirate’s saber.

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