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Retrospective:- What Was The Secret of Monkey Island?

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With all the games on offer today I often feel it is important to think back and remember what games affected you in your childhood.  Certainly those of us in our thirties likely have memories of playing pong on a black and white television, but as technology progressed, we found ourselves in the more creative era of the home computers and for many text adventures became our domain.

As a child in the ‘80s, I was really keen on Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books.  Feeling like I was controlling the outcome of events was both immersive and enthralling and so it was only natural that I spent many hours on the ZX Spectrum playing games such as The Hobbit. To this day, I have sadly never completed that game. In 1990 I started secondary education and I will forever remember the game that captivated me in that first year.  A game that most of the clever (yet still cool) kids would talk about.  A game that introduced me to a games publisher that would remain in my heart until their unfortunate demise earlier this year.  That game would be by .

Box art led the way back then, and everything about the box told you what you needed to know.  You could be a PIRATE!

The intuitive control scheme with the point-and-click interface allows the player to choose verbs such as “Talk to”, “Use”, “Open”, and “Look at”.  This made perfect sense from a text adventurer’s perspective and finally let us see the protagonist on screen.  In this case the hero was a simple man named Guybrush Threepwood, who had travelled to Mêlée Island to fulfil his hopes of becoming a pirate.

To achieve his goal, Guybrush has to complete three trials.  He needs to beat the swordmaster in a swashbuckling duel, find some buried treasure and steal an idol from the Governor’s mansion.

SoMI 2As you travel around the island you hear tales of the Ghost Pirate LeChuck who supposedly died on a journey to the titular Monkey Island, as well as encountering a cast of amusing characters including Stan the Used Boat Salesman, Otis the prisoner, and the governor Elaine Marley, with whom Guybrush falls in love.

LeChuck soon returns, kidnaps your new love interest and retreats to his hideout on Monkey Island, compelling Guybrush to launch a rescue.  Upon reaching Monkey Island you are faced with new challenges, as you meet new characters and have to solve their disputes to gain assistance.

One of the most charming aspects about this game is the creative way in which you solve puzzles, ranging from trying to distract the Monkey Island Cannibals by telling them there is a three-headed monkey behind them, to running across Mêlée Island with pints of Grog to break Otis out of prison (the grog dissolves the very glass it is being held in).

The most memorable section is surely the sword fighting.  The game’s creators, Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman were known to watch the swashbuckling movies of Errol Flynn, and designed their sword fighting mini-game around the fact that the pirates in those films often taunted each other, rather than fight.  This was implemented by way of a direct taunt and counter-taunt response.

SoMI 3As Guybrush, you must travel the island looking for wandering pirates to duel.  Although this starts out frustrating because you will lose every fight, you do at least learn insults to throw at opponents.  Pretty soon however, you will seize your chance to throw insults back, and pick up the retorts you need to achieve success.  I will never forget answering “You fight like a dairy farmer” with “How appropriate. You fight like a cow!”

I was also very impressed with the clever play on words that often achieved bizarre results.  In the latter part of the game, you have a leaflet entitled “How to get ahead in navigation”.  This turns out to be a cooking recipe, and when the required parts are used, Guybrush obtains a disembodied head which he then uses as a compass, holding it out, and following the direction it points.

Another amusing character, going by the name of Cobb, can be found in the pirate’s tavern, The Scumm Bar (likely named in reference to the SCUMM interface used in the game).  Cobb can be easily spotted, as he has a large badge on his top which reads “Ask me about Loom”.  Loom was another Lucasarts game released the same year, and if you do in fact ask Cobb about Loom, he proceeds to give a very animated sales pitch to the player to try and persuade them to purchase the game.

SoMI 1

The game received high praise at the time, regularly achieving review scores in the 90% region, and was updated and re-released in 2009 as The Secret of Monkey Island : Special Edition on Xbox Live Arcade, Windows, and iPhone.  This was followed in early 2010 with releases on Mac OS, iPad and PS3.  The Special Edition was received well, achieving review scores of eight or nine out of ten, and included a feature to allow players to switch between classic and new audiovisuals at will.

This was a perfect puzzle game in the pre-Internet era.  School lunch break discussions were held to figure out how to sneak past guard dogs, and how to outwit the Swordmaster.  Remember, in those days there were no guides to help you.  A player had a real sense of achievement when they cracked a conundrum, and it would be followed with titles such as Full Throttle, The Dig, and of course, Monkey Island 2 : LeChuck’s Revenge.

With the Special Edition adding updated visuals and voice-over, it remains one of my favourite games of all time and I highly recommend that you check it out.

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