Review: The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

Posted in _blackbox by Bobsy on the July 22nd, 2009

It's strange to remember that back in the day Elaine was genuinely flirtatious towards Guybrush, rather than the bickering relationship they have in later games.

I don’t think any of us quite expected this.

Lucasarts, the company that perfected, popularised and nearly destroyed adventure games as a genre, have gone back to the original Secret of Monkey Island and given it a bit of a makeover. What a way to celebrate the brilliance of a true gaming classic on its, er, 19th anniversary.

So what exactly have we here? Well, it’s ostensibly the exact same game that we played back in 1990, but with the kind of polish we’d expect from a game today. Graphics and sound have been given a proper going-over with a heavy-duty duster, while the core of the game – the puzzles and story – are left entirely intact.

And let’s be clear about this: entirely intact. Even the bits that sucked. Obviously fearing the torch/pitchfork-based fury of a thousand angry internet men, the good folks at Lucasarts made the decision to scrupulously recreate every inch of the original game exactly, in pleasingly fanciful HD. In the murky world of memory that seems no bad thing – The Secret of Monkey Island was, after all, the original masterpiece which launched the adventure genre to seven or eight years of unprecedented commercial success yadda yadda, but in reality there are one or two puzzles which miss the mark a bit today. Notably, having to distract a seagull away from a fish so you can give it to a troll – a literal red herring – would utterly stump newcomers today…

Well that's a relief.

…were it not for the hints system. The only concession for the somewhat less patient manner we approach games today is that a quick press of the ‘h’ key will deliver useful advice on what to do next. It’s neat, and a generally pleasant alternative to Gamefaqs, but not quite as streamlined as in Tales, where hints are worked into the game’s dialogue proper.

Aside from the hints though, the interface is a little shoddy. Built on the original’s SCUMM engine (now in its 22nd year, which must be something of a record) it keeps the 10-verb system but keeps them off-screen, instead having you either mouse-scroll between them or remember hotkeys. It’s fiddly and annoying, especially when interacting with the inventory which is keen to vanish off-screen at a moment’s notice.

What else is new? The most obvious are the gorgeous full-colour backdrops and character art. These are consistently beautiful and accurate to the original, something which can be checked at any time with a quick smack of the ‘F10’ key, reverting smoothly back to the original for comparison. Sadly, while the artwork is flawless, the animation is less so, since it is a frame-by-frame recreation of the original. Fine when the pixels are fist-sized, not so much when beautifully-painted characters are jerkily flicking across the screen. In addition, when walking around Guybrush floats across the screen unconvincingly, as if he’s concealing hover-jets in those fancy new pants of his. The updated artwork misses another stroke in the close-up portraiture used on several of the characters, since they entirely fail to move their mouths while speaking, or indeed, animate at all. In 1990 this was par for the course, but in 2009 it’s extremely jarring, especially now that everything’s been fully voiced.

And by golly does it sound good. With the marked exception of a certain Cam Clarke who shall remain nameless, the voice acting is of an exceptional high quality. Guybrush is once again the lovely Dominic Armato, while wonderfully English Alexandra Boyd reprises Governor Elaine Marley after having been sidelined for Escape from Monkey Island previously. The only fault (other than Cam Clarke) in the voiceover work is that it helps highlight the number of interactions which never received unique dialogue in the original. A surprising amount of objects, when looked at, receive nothing more than “I don’t see anything special about it” from a nonplussed Guybrush.

The biggest worry that anyone had prior to playing SOMISE (a particularly unpleasant acronym there) was that the game would not be up to the high standards they remembered. Thankfully this has proved to be entirely unfounded. While the game has more than a couple of faults, they stem from the remake, not the original. Don’t take this as a writer trying to protect a 19-year emotional investment; there are a few old gags that fall flat, and one or two nonsensical puzzles that perhaps could have been excised, but the islands of Mêlée and Monkey remain utterly charming and absorbing places to set a silly story about ghosts and pirates.

It’s also worthwhile to note that the best version of the game is now the HD Special Edition, even if only for the voiceovers and music (having the blocky, silent-era original a mere key press away becomes a novelty rather than a necessity). Had Lucasarts decided to take just a little longer to smooth over the animation issues and tighten up the interface, this would have achieved something close to perfection, rather than falling short.

Before Guybrush was a mighty pirate, he was this. True story.

Score: I’m selling these fine leather jackets.