Escape from Monkey Island was released in 2000, fourth in the series and an attempt to marry the fancy-dancey 3D engine from previous combine-things-with-other-things smash hit Grim Fandango with the juggernaut-like momentum and humour that the Monkey Island games were still known for. It was swish, stylish and a very big deal on its release into the eager maws of the ravenous gaming public, who were dying for one last chomp on the delicious marrow of adventure gaming.
It was also the one of the biggest gaming cock-ups since Beth the Bashing Battery Hen took on ‘Ravisher’ Reggie the Raping Rooster in the cockfighting summer slam-down of 1184. Bear that image in mind, dear reader – keep thinking back to chicken-on-chicken non-consensual sex as you read on. It’ll help keep this whole matter in perspective. Despite being initially warmly received, fans quickly began to voice their botheration at the rather sharp downturn in quality that the game had taken. Complaints ranged from weak humour to awkward controls and a nonsensical plot. But, with nine years distance on this pain and brains fired up on a revitalised love of all things Monkey Island, we owe it to our modern brains to sort the good from the bad, and give Escape the treatment it really deserves. Strap in.
Escape from Monkey Island sees titular pirate wannabe Guybrush Threepwood return from the his honeymoon with some American woman who seems to be standing in for Elaine Marley. In their absence Elaine has apparently been declared dead, and due to the real, British-accented Elaine being nowhere in sight it’s hard to dispute this. Still, the plot (such as it is) is kicked into gear – Guybrush is told to wander off to another flimsily-named island to sort out the mess with the lawyers. So begins Act 1.
This is easily the strongest part of the game, being the most Monkey Island-ish portion. In fact, returning to it with rather grimy memories of the game as a whole, your humble correspondent was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t nearly so awful as he remembered. There were gags – good ones too. There was old Mêlée Island, revisited for the first time in a decade. Okay, there were a few warning signs: the relationship between Guybrush and not-Elaine having descended to antagonistic cliché, the relegation of insult sword fighting to other pastimes, but in general it all holds up well as a Monkey Island game.
There are some pretty great puzzles, decent dialogue which never outstays its welcome and lines that actually raise a proper chuckle. In particular, the Mysts O’ Tyme marsh is a standout moment, a familiar map-that-doesn’t-look-like-a-map-but-actually-is-a-map-after-all puzzle combined with the potential to create temporal paradoxes by shooting a future version of yourself. Fun times!
Act 2 is where it all starts to go downhill. Now on the hunt for a magical macguffin called The Ultimate Insult, Guybrush finds himself on a former pirate island which has since been transformed by villainous property developer Ozzie Mandrill into a tourist trap. Gone are the usual piratey staples of grog and wenches to be replaced by chain restaurants and cafes, thinly-veiled parodies of real-world franchises. Starbuccaneers. Planet Threepwood. It’s a prominently-fanged satire of American consumer culture around the turn of the century. It’s still funny… sort of… but it’s so un-Monkey Island it begins to really hurt. Despite some hefty foreshadowing in Act 1 it can’t help but feel out of place, and almost insulting. The designers intentionally tore out the thematic heart of Monkey Island and replaced it with something else entirely. It’s like you’ve stepped into another game entirel-
Sam and Max. It’s a Sam and Max game. With this piece of context it all begins to make a lot more sense. The hateful fakeness of the holiday island, the twisted caricatures of its inhabitants, the cheerful descent Guybrush takes in becoming one with the grim reality rather than tearing it down… squint, and you’ll see a detective dog and rabbit duo smiling wryly down from above.
It’s very much as if the designers were intent on making the fabled Lucasarts sequel to Sam and Max Hit the Road, but were executively meddled to the point of slapping a distinctly un-fresh coat of Monkey Island paint on it so that people would actually bother to buy it. We’ll probably never know the true circumstances for this nightmarish Frankensteinian mash-up, but the lead designers Mike Stemmle and Sean Clark were also responsible for Sam and Max Hit the Road – draw what conclusions you will.
A word, before we continue, on the controls. If you’re upset by the fiddliness of the Tales of Monkey Island episodes, know that Escape is far, far worse. Entirely bereft of any mouse-clicking, a wooden mannequin of Guybrush (the graphics have not aged gracefully – everyone looks like a sinister puppet) floats around like an drunk bumblebee, frequently changing direction on colliding with an invisible wall and charging off away from whatever it was you wanted to do. Frustrating throughout, it becomes an amplifier for everything bad in the game.
Anyway, with Act 3 we are at last on the home stretch. Guybrush has been stranded on – and now must Escape from – Monkey Island itself. Like Mêlée in the first Act, this is a conscious nod to the original game. It starts off in decent enough fashion, though unspectacular, but soon enough this all comes crashing down to the disappointing and somewhat horrifying finale akin to Beth vs Reg (1184). It’s called ‘Monkey Kombat’. Oh, spot the cleverly-disguised reference.
Apparently insult sword-fighting wasn’t interesting enough anymore, so the last quarter of the game has you learning, and then unleashing the ‘ancient art’ of Monkey Kombat. Or as it’s better known: contrived rock-paper-scissors. Against a load of monkeys. Oh yes, this game has LOTS OF MONKEYS! So many MONKEYS! Because if there’s one HILARIOUS gag guarrenteed to mask the hasty repackaging of one product into another, it’s by filling it with MONKEYS. Anyway, Monkey Kombat is tedious, repetitive and pointless, and only succeeds in elongating the last portion of the game unnecessarily. Already put into a bad mood, your humble correspondent is reduced to fits over the next foul twists that Escape wriggles its way through.
First Herman Toothrot is retconned into Grandpa Marley (what Elaine thinks about this is not revealed, since she’s not in the game, just some American imposter). Next, the famous giant monkey head of Monkey Island is retconned from a passageway to hell itself into the head of a giant monkey robot. Powered by monkeys and lava. I am not kidding.
So the finale consists of Grandpa Marley, Guybrush and a talking monkey piloting this robot across the Caribbean to face LeChuck (oh, I forgot to mention, LeChuck is in it, a poor Darth Vader to Ozzie Mandrill’s Emperor) as a giant statue so that… er… you win. And once again, the day is saved thanks to a giant monkey robot. Classic Monkey Island, eh?
The thing is, we remember Escape from Monkey Island so badly because the ending leaves us in such a foul mood. It’s not an awful game. It’s funny, it’s well-paced, well-acted, there are some extremely good puzzles. But it’s not Monkey Island, or at least not Monkey Island enough. Despite everything, the game feels uneven and uncomfortable. It’s clear that not everyone working on Escape wanted to work on Monkey Island, and this can help to account for different chapters pulling the game in every direction at once.
It also exists uncomfortably as the final nail in the coffin of Lucasarts adventure games for a good nine years, which was already on a particularly buttery knife-edge thanks to the lacklustre sales of Grim Fandango some years previously. More tellingly, Lucasarts’ next attempt to revitalise the Sam and Max franchise met with cancellation before it could get out of the door, along with Full Throttle II. Why? Adventure games stopped selling right about the time when RPGs had their fabled Bioware-fuelled rennaissance (pure coincidence, guv). Escape was that last gasp at making a viable product, dressed up in the mightiest franchise clothes Lucasarts had at their disposal (apart from Star Wars, natch).
It’s worth another play, though. If you have an elderly copy desiccating away in the bottom of your collection, you could do far worse than giving it another go. Easily the weakest Monkey Island game by virtue of barely being a Monkey Island game in parts, there’s plenty of enjoyment still to be had. Just don’t judge the whole on the last hour or so.
Oh, and you can stop thinking about the chickens now.