Gaming Classics: The Secret of Monkey Island

Playing The Secret of Monkey Island, The brainchild of Ron Gilbert and Lucas Arts, is a somewhat bizarre experience. Paradigm of a genre that, bar a couple of indie hits, doesn’t exist anymore and featuring both the spritely graphics of a bygone era and a comic script at odds with the gritty realism of modern gaming, what’s most surprising about this point-and-click adventure hit is that it hasn’t aged badly one bit.

The Secret of Monkey Island has you following the exploits of the curiously named ‘Guybrush Threepwood’ throughout his endeavours to become a pirate, rescue his love and discover the aforementioned ‘secret of monkey island’. The game is of the ‘point-and-click’ genre, and you’d be forgiven for looking bewildered at your monitor if you aren’t quite sure what that means. In point-and-click games you must navigate an enviroment, which is often littered with puzzles and characters to overcome, using basic commands, such as ‘look at’, ‘pick up’ or ‘talk to’, to manipulate your world and the objects in your possession. It may seem like a clumsy interface now, but back in the day these adventure games stood at the height of video game immersion.

The original 16 colour EGA release

The quaint graphics of The Secret of Monkey Island are a testament to the hardware limitations of the time. The original game (using EGA) could render a measly 16 colours, this is the reason for Guybrush’s simplistic black and white costume, and the game was later updated (using VGA) to include 256 colours. However with this limited repertoire, Ron Gilberts team was able to create scenes that come to life and absord you into their world. Consider the Scumm bar (named after the scripting language used to create the game) who’s limited range of colours is no impediment to its charisma and style.

Aside from the nostalgic game mechanics and endearing graphics , perhaps the most charismatic part of Guybrush’s adventure is the humour exhibited by every facet of the game. Balancing itself skilfully between parody and absurdity, between encounters with satirical  salesman ‘Smilin’ Stan S. Stanman’ and hordes of gophers,  The Secret of Monkey Island is one of few games that can be considered genuinely funny. Comedy is a skill not much exercised in gaming but The Secret of Monkey Island nails it.

Its not difficult to see why Guybrush Threepwood’s adventure secured itself a place in so many gamers hearts however, the evidence of this is perhaps as curious as the game itself.  In 2005 the game recieved the Guinness world record for “first graphic adventure to become a stage play” after student Chris Heady wrote, directed  and produced a live stage version of the game. In other theatrical endeavours,The Secret of Monkey Island had a chance at Hollywood fame when it nearly became a film, the screenplay being written by Ted Elliott who would later write the screenplay for the Pirates of The Caribbean series, before being cancelled mid-development. The success of the game would be exposed completely in the four subsequent sequels it would spawn.

In this light, The Secret of Monkey Island, as a classic, doesn’t illustrate the major technical advancements and the progress games have made in recent years, but rather something they’ve lost. The charismatic humour of the title is a welcome sight when gaming today finds itself bogged down in either deep realism or an unrelenting existentialism. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Portal was so beloved by fans and why, despite being at the humble age of 22,  The Secret of Monkey Island seems so fresh and enjoyable. The original game can be hard to come by but, if you’re looking for something a little different, a little nostalgic, and completely bizarre, try the remake entitled The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, which features revised graphics and voice acting, and is available for most major platforms.

Tom Mackay

One Comment
  • Will
    5 July 2012 at 11:07
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    Nice to see the original MI still getting some attention, also worth a look in terms of point and click games are ‘Day of the Tentacle’ and ‘Sam and Max Hit the Road’. It’s fairly easy to find the original games if you search hard enough online and use a DOS emulator.

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