Bringing it all back home.
When it comes to adventure games, and especially point and click adventure games, you’d struggle to find a series more beloved than Monkey Island. You’d have to be pickled on grog, half-mad from cabin fever, and twitching from voodoo curses not to have it very high on a very short list. Talking of monkeys, in biological taxonomy scientists use a concept called a “type specimen” — one individual to represent the whole species. Well, for the genre of point and click adventures, the type specimen could easily be Monkey Island.
And so it’s a really big deal for Ron Gilbert, one of the series’ OG* creators, to return with a new game after leaving LucasArts 3 decades ago(!). He helmed many classics, including nearly everyone’s Monkey faves: The Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel LeChuck’s Revenge. Yes there have been games in the series since then, and (err…) he wasn’t even involved with my fave in the series**, but for most the GOAT*** are those first two games, his games, and having him back at the helm is bringing it all back home.
For a certain wrinkly crowd then, Return to Monkey Island has a whale’s weight of expectation on its buccaneering shoulders. A weight of expectation that was probably responsible for the OG**** backlash to the art style when it was revealed online (welcome back, Guybrush, let me introduce you to The Internet 2022).
From the perspective of my rose-tinted spyglass, it’s hard to top the painterly cartoon style of Curse of Monkey Island, but this new style certainly gets the job done. It has a wacky, colourful exuberance that fits the wacky, colourful exuberance of the games. In all honestly, I would’ve taken almost anything that wasn’t the polygonal 3D of Tales of Monkey Island and Escape from Monkey Island. Begone, clunky 3D!
So when it came to the art, Ron Gilbert wandered into a thorny and squawky internet of 2022, and for this he was perhaps unprepared, but he definitely did lots of preparation to help modern gamers, whose attention spans have contracted like an unpuffed pufferfish. Return to Monkey Island has many QOL***** features to help us all, whether you’re a point and click noob, a middle-aged senescent, or just attention deficit from a thousand devices.
If you play the first two games******, one take away is how blisteringly unfair it can all seem. Even finding interaction points requires moving the cursor everywhere, and I mean everywhere, eagle-eyedly watching for it to change shape — there’s an object! Interact, interact! That hidden-object game “charm” has now been replaced with circles. Every interactable item or character has a circle, and you simply move through the circles with your analogue stick. Easy.
There are a several concessions to modernity like that one: a hint book in your inventory, a tick-list of tasks, an easier ‘story mode’, and others. They all streamline the process, remove potential frustrations, and make this entry an easy transition for fans of more modern adventure games.
But hold on, what if you’re a middle-aged sea-dog who’s using these very challenges to deny his senescence?! These are the days of From Software. Is there not space to have to “git gud” in adventure games too? Well for the most part, Return to Monkey Island neatly straddles the line: frustration is removed but there are still challenges to be overcome.
Nothing to top the puzzley hideousness/genius of the first two, or even the easier third game, but there’s still some decent puzzling here. For the experienced point and clicker perhaps some puzzles were too obviously signposted, perhaps a little too straightforward, especially given that they’ve provided a hint system and a checklist already(!), but it’s a tightrope and at least they haven’t fallen off.
If getting stuck at least once is central to a Monkey Island experience, then the humour is right next to it, and Return doesn’t disappoint. There are all the silly lines, pirate gags, conversation-tree absurdities, call-backs, fourth-wall breaking moments you could wish for, and then wish you could unwish for. And all voice-acted by those voices you know and love. Seriously, being back with Guybrush in a chat with Murray or Stan; a delight I tell you!
Perhaps the most powerful new feature of the game is its framing of the story. Guybrush, from his new home life with Elaine, is telling the story of his latest adventure to his plucky lookalike son. This storytelling framing is used when you restart the game, giving you the option of hearing what the pappapisshu you were doing when you last stopped playing. It’s a handy aide memoire for the grog-addled, and a nice way to see Guybrush has made it.
As a fan of the series, it’s really hard to assess this game. So much of the joy is revisiting the familiar, beloved characters and places: Stan, Elaine, Melee Island, Murray etc. The game even plays on this — one of the new locations on Melee is a museum, complete with obnoxious curator, dedicated to getting everything wrong about Guybrush’s past adventures.
I simply have no idea how this would all come across to a Monkey Island noob. But for the rest of us with our Monkey Island scars, you may remember earlier in this review I described Gilbert’s return to the series as “bringing it all back home”, and that’s a good way to look at Return.
It feels like we’ve all been away at sea for thirty years and have come back to assess home anew. And as we all know, that can be a double-edged sword: is everything too familiar? Would new experiences, places, acquaintances be better? How far can we circle back before it becomes sad/indulgent/backsliding? Tough questions.
I guess all I can say is that I enjoyed my return to Monkey Island. With everything this beloved, avoiding a total shipwreck is perhaps the hardest trick of all, and they’ve certainly done that. It’s a welcome return, a loving tribute, and perhaps a final send-off? Ron Gilbert has signalled this is Guybrush’s last outing, and the story certainly gives that impression, but based on Return, this weathered old seafarer would certainly appreciate another chance or two to flog one of those fine leather jackets.
*not an acronym for “odious grog”
**The Curse of Monkey Island
***GOAT Of All Time
*****Quality Of Lemur
******and you definitely should. They’ve only been out a hundred years.