Deep in the Caribbean, the island of Mêlée Island™ – this is how the 1990 classic adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island opens up to the quest of one Guybrush Threepwood to become a mighty pirate. Released under the Lucasfilm Games label, the game was developed by a team headed by industry legend and all-American funny man Ron Gilbert, who has cited the Pirates of the Caribbean theme ride as one his prime sources of inspiration for the game.
After a brief introduction, the player takes control of our protagonist. Like all Lucasfilm adventures from that period, the game uses a version of the SCUMM user interface: to interact with objects in the world, the player chooses from a list of actions such as “walk to” and “look at”, and then clicks the mouse cursor on the object on screen or in the in-game inventory. Conveniently, the game highlights the most appropriate action for any given object and automatically executes it when triggering the right mouse button.
Your first course of action is to seek out the local pirate leaders at the local gastropub. However, even before Guybrush approaches the mighty trio, the player has ample opportunity to chat with the pirate patrons enjoying a fine mug of grog. To advance these conversations, you pick from a list of predefined responses, working your way through a dialog tree. Unlike other adventure games, many of the conversations cannot be repeated, so you are advised to listen well. Then again, there’s not always a need to exhaust all dialog options, as many of them are not crucial for the plot but merely provide opportunities for Guybrush to make a fool of himself. If you do listen closely during these first minutes, you will get acquainted with the story of the local governor Elaine Marley, as well as the ghost pirate captain LeChuck, both of which will turn up again later in the story.
In order to join their ranks, the pirate leaders give you three trials: to master the sword, learn the art of thievery, and to go on a treasure hunt. As you set off to explore the island to complete these tasks, Guybrush gets to know a number of unique, well-written (and well-named!) characters such as the mysterious voodoo lady, the suspicious local sheriff Fester Shinetop, or a group of cannibals who want to discuss their dietary concerns with you. In addition to these conversations, the plot is also furthered by in-game cut-scenes supplying you with insight into LeChuck’s course of actions.
The majority of puzzles require you to scout the game’s locations for items, and then combine them with other objects at the appropriate time. The solutions are not always obvious, and do require some thinking, or in lack of that, a lot of patience combining every item with every object on screen. As an example, Guybrush encounters a band of deadly piranha poodles guarding the governor’s mansion, blocking his way to a stone idol that will prove his prowess as a thief. While talking to a prisoner in his jail cell earlier, you heard about the petals of a yellow plant that are rumored to have a sedating quality. So, all you need to do, is to find the flowers, and then to find a suitable container for them to feed to the dogs, which should take them out – sounds easy, right? Of course, there is more to it than that. Once inside the mansion, Guybrush finally meets the elusive governor Elaine Marley and falls head over heels in love with her.
One of the most memorable experiences of this game is the sword fighting: to have a shot at beating the resident sword master of Mêlée Island, you have to defeat a number of pirates by parrying their insults which witty retorts. Once you have acquired a sufficient amount of these phrases, you have to convince to local shop keeper to seek out the master for you, and follow him surreptitiously through a labyrinth-like forest. After challenging the sword master, a fight ensues which to win will require your finest insults.
After you complete the final challenge, LeChuck returns to kidnap Governor Marley and sets off towards the fabled Monkey Island. Guybrush, being the man of action that he is, assembles a crew of local misfits and sets course to follow him. Once you reach the island, the previously structured gameplay opens up quite a bit, as your objectives are no longer spelled out to you and the locations require you to travel across multiple screen-spanning maps.
It should be mentioned that with one obscure and hard to find exception you cannot die in the game, and that you cannot make Guybrush perform any actions that make it impossible to complete the game. Overall the level of difficulty is well balanced, and allows the game to be played by all types of players, as long as they bring plenty of patience with them to the table.
Compared to modern games, the graphics obviously cannot hold up; however there is something to be said about the classic charm of the hand-drawn 8-bit backgrounds. Similarly, the sound effects are rather sparse is most locations, yet when there is background music it is catchy and adds a lot of atmosphere.
While the majority of puzzles in the game are quite ingenious, there are some that become a bit tedious. For example, in order to lower the price of your ship, you have to repeatedly talk the used-boat salesman Stan out of including any extra features. Given that you cannot skip most of the dialog, you end up seeing the same sequences over and over again, until you are able to afford the purchase. In the end though, you do gain a certain amount of satisfaction once you solve even these puzzles.
What really sets the game apart as one of the classics of the golden age of adventure games is the writing: packed with inside jokes and a good dose of self-awareness, the plot moves along at a rapid pace and leaves you wanting for more. Once you have spent 10-15 hours with Guybrush on his journey to save Elaine and defeat the evil LeChuck, these characters will stay with you for a long time, and I cannot imagine anyone not wanting to pick up the sequel to see the adventure takes them…
Final note: does anyone out there have a theory as to why the speed of the row boat on Monkey Island varies so drastically? Unless you click on a named location on the map, it takes Guybrush forever to get anywhere. I remember being annoyed by this back when I first played the game over, but this persists even on modern machines, so I cannot image it being bound to any path finding / processor issues.