Michael Kontoudis
19 Jul, 2009

XBLA: The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition Review

360 Review | Look behind you, a three-headed review!
As gamers, it can be easy to slip into the snug, familiar thrall of nostalgia. Those introduced to gaming at an early age have no doubt felt the yearning pang to recapture their youth and those heady days of discovery and innocence by revisiting an old favourite. However, the question which hangs over our treasure games like Damocles’ sword is whether they still hold up on their own merits. LucasArts’ seminal 1990 adventure classic, The Secret of Monkey Island, dismisses the above question with a smug, haughty guffaw. Replete with humour, intrigue and personality to spare, the game stands tall as one of the true masterpieces of the medium. Two decades on, LucasArts has seen fit to grace gamers with The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition for PC and Xbox Live Arcade, featuring updated visuals, full voice-overs and an orchestrated score. Read on to find out just how special this 'special edition' truly is and why all gamers owe it to themselves to traipse through The Secret of Monkey Island at least once in their gaming lives.

Written and designed by Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, The Secret of Monkey Island told the sly, irreverent tale of pirate-wannabe, Guybrush Threepwood, a lanky amateur who desires nothing more than to be the mightiest swashbuckler who ever sailed the seven seas. His quest takes him to Melee Island, deep in the Caribbean, and before long he becomes embroiled in a plot by the evil ghost pirate, LeChuck, who has dark designs on Melee’s Governor, the fierce and beautiful Elaine Marley. On his way to becoming a pirate, Guybrush must learn his way around a sword, commandeer a ship and negotiate the dangers of the mysterious Monkey Island. The Special Edition, being an utterly faithful recreation of the original experience, tells the same great tale which remains as hilarious and witty as ever. Slapstick, self-referential wit and tongue-in-cheek innuendo are the order of the day and twenty years on it is still a heady mixture which makes one wonder why so few games since have been as legitimately funny. Nearly every single line of dialogue zings, crackles or raises a wry smile and while the story is ultimately pretty goofy it remains satisfying and memorable throughout.

A title screen which can still bring a tear to an old sea dog's eye...

A title screen which can still bring a tear to an old sea dog's eye...

Hand-in-hand with the clever plot and satisfying story are the central gameplay mechanics of puzzle-solving and exploration. Every brainteaser is present and accounted for in Special Edition, and by and large the puzzles still hold up today, with only a few frustrating sequences to test one’s patience. A labyrinth sequence and some time-sensitive puzzles in particular may whittle some nerves. However, one of the stronger elements of the game’s design is that Guybrush cannot die, fail or become stuck; if a player has the patience to try anything and everything, success will prove inevitable. Although progress may be slow-going at times, gamers lacking patience have the all-new option to access hints by pressing the ‘X’ button the control pad. While purists might deride the system, there can be little doubt that it marks a step in the direction of accessibility and is vastly preferable to pausing the game, soliciting the aid of an online guide and withdrawing from the immersion of the game’s world. Even with a control pad, navigation and puzzle-solving are natural and intuitive and cursor control is swift and responsive. The left and right bumpers trigger pop-up windows containing ‘actions’ and an inventory respectively. While proceedings can often become complicated when items need to be pushed, pulled or opened in quick procession, with a bit of acclimatization and perseverance the simplicity of the underlying design ethos reveals itself. Ultimately, The Secret of Monkey Island remains a poster-child for the joys of point-and-click game design and the Special Edition affirms this with gusto.

Some of the redrawn environments are utterly gorgeous.

Some of the redrawn environments are utterly gorgeous.

Of course, the most striking feature of Special Edition is the game’s redrawn art and enhanced presentation. Each and every screen from the original title has been redone in an illustrative style. By and large, they look excellent and benefit from the various added details. For instance, the pirate-infested Scumm Bar now sits before a moody dock with large ships anchored in the background, all of which were absent in the original game. Conversely, the redesigned characters are arguably inferior to the charming and oddly evocative pixel-art renditions in the 1990 original. Guybrush himself is the main casualty of the newly-envisioned art, presented in the Special Edition as a weak-chinned fop with a ridiculous mop of hair. One of the funniest elements of the Guybrush Threepwood character was that he looked the part of a dashing young pirate and that it was only when the other characters engaged with him that the extent of his incompetence and naivety were revealed. The Special Edition variant appears gangly and unimpressive from the outset, and while this iteration is clearly attempting to evoke the cartoon-style of the series’ third entry, The Curse of Monkey Island, it doesn’t quite pay off. Further, the characters retain their original jittery animation which results in an unfortunate disconnect between the old and new. It comes as a sigh of relief to report, then, that LucasArts has performed some sort of technical voodoo and enabled gamers to switch seamlessly between the 1990 pixel-art visuals and the modern redesign at the press of a button. So if the character art irks or one simply wants to savour the endearing clunkiness of the classic visuals, relief is only a button-press away. Players will no doubt find themselves switching back and forth between the versions on each new screen. Truth be told, this is probably the single smartest and most respectful decision a developer has made with respect to a high definition remake of a gem from yesteryear, offering up the excitement of the new and the comfort of the old in one tidy package.

There's nothin' like the hot winds of hell blowin' in your face...

There's nothin' like the hot winds of hell blowin' in your face...

Much of the above analysis holds true of the game’s soundscape, with each of the memorable melodies graced with orchestrated remixes and the game’s myriad lines of dialogue given life by an impressive voice cast. Dominic Armato, the voice of Guybrush since the aforementioned Curse of Monkey Island, returns to his role with relish, delivering memorable lines and vintage gags with just the right amount of earnest bluster. Likewise, the supporting cast is typically strong. Playing The Secret of Monkey Island with full voice-acting makes for an exciting and uncanny experience and should prove rewarding for longtime fans of the series.

There’s not much else that can be said about The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition other than to say that it is a must-play in spite of its uneven presentation. The game is not especially lengthy and there are no documentaries or concept art galleries to flesh out its status as a ‘special edition’, which is disappointing. However, it almost seems unfair to begrudge the game for its no-frills approach, considering how unusually generous it is in dispensing its fun, wit and personality. Those who have never had the pleasure of Guybrush Threepwood’s company should buy this immediately and prepare to become lifelong fans of the series; veterans of the Monkey Island series should buy this game immediately and rekindle the old flame.
The Score
This is the superlative iteration of an undisputed masterpiece. The core game is so funny, charming and entertaining that any minor flaws in its presentation barely register. 9
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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4 years ago
Great review!
I am loving this remake so much, it is taking me back to my childhood, a time before the internet, before GameFAQs roamed the earth. Back then we didn't have your fancy walkthroughs, flying cars and nanomachines, we just tried every item on every possible thing for hours on end. Grilling every character for every possible dialog option ensured we didn't miss a bit of the story or humor. Sure it got dull sometimes, but when the breakthrough was made the whole family gathered round and was glued to the screen until the next stumbling block reared its ugly head.
As for the purist objection to the hint system, if you don't like it, don't use it, simple as that. Sure some might argue that the temptation will always be there, but if you don't have the self control not to use it then you probably don't have the self control not to use a walkthough either. At least the graded level of hintage offered by the new system lets people work most of it out on their own and removes the chance of accidentally spoiling the next three puzzles when you look it up online.
4 years ago
I'm playing it now and am finding it pretty funny. There are annoying parts to it but it is hilarious.
4 years ago
I'm buying this as soon as i get another $50 cause i plan to get Worms Armageddon 2 at the same time. BUT this game was nothing but awesome back then, and i have to say my favourite thing, is the ability to switch between old and new graphics.... I don't care if it wasn't him who did it, but THIS IS WHY I LOVE TIM SCHAFER...also he wrote some of it which is other reasons... for more reasons, see some of my posts at palgn.com.au icon_razz.gif
4 years ago
Technically, there is one place you can die...
4 years ago
Anything less than a 10 for one of the top 10 games of all time is a disgrace, hang your head in shame!
4 years ago
One of the greatest games of all time. I wasn't all that impressed with the art style, at least ToMI grew on me very quickly although LeChuck's redesign looks absolutely fantastic. Still hoping for a CMI version remake down the line.
4 years ago
^ CMI doesn't really need a remake, it still looks as great as ever, the only problem is the low resolution.
If they took the original art and redid it in high res, I would buy 10.
4 years ago
It has been like playing the game for the first time all over again. I know the story and what happens but because you now get to hear the text you used to read, with voice actors giving new life to the characters, especially hearing Dominic Armato uttering the words of Guybrush once more, it makes this feel like a new game.

The first time I ever played the original I explored everywhere even when I was told by my friend that there was nothing there, I still wanted to see for myself. With this special edition I'm not doing that but I am talking to nearly every character just to hear what type of voice they have and how the voice actors articulate the dialogue, even though I know what the characters already say.

I hope this and the Tales of Monkey Island are successful so we get a fifth entry into the series.
4 years ago
Great review.

PALGN wrote
Look behind you, a three-headed review!
No, it is "Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!"
4 years ago
^ :/
4 years ago
Nic_231 wrote
^ CMI doesn't really need a remake, it still looks as great as ever, the only problem is the low resolution.

If they took the original art and redid it in high res, I would buy 10.
No I meant like remake SMI in CMI style, like this mock up he did back in 1998, http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_lC4ytZZpKu4/SiwfBzan-PI/AAAAAAAAAHk/ZgbVtNzy_bA/s1600-h/mi_26.jpg

I agree that the art is still beautiful, I still play though it every 12 months or so as it's my fav game of all time but yes an updated version at a higher resolution would be perfect for CMI.
4 years ago
Love the game. :D

Now where's the same treatement for Sam & Max Hit the road??
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