When you ask anyone about classic adventure games, I'd bet good money that one of if not the first game mentioned is LucasArts classic The Secret of Monkey Island. It might not look like much nowadays, but this clunky pixelated pirate adventure is one of the most charming games ever made, and when it launched, it looked sharper than a pointy cutlass. It was funny, too.
Of course, there's an updated version of the game now, so you don't have to suffer through those outdated graphics if you don't want to, but it's a great example to show the kids how far we've come in the last three decades, and in the Special Edition you can switch between the old and "new" visuals with a simple press of a button. They won't care, I mean, kids these days don't understand the struggle of having to watch TV on just four channels at prescribed times, and my boys just give me a bored stare whenever I try and tell them just how good they've got things, but as a video game case study, it's an interesting one to dive into.
Of course, looking at a game as a case study isn't as much fun as simply playing it for pleasure, and The Secret of Monkey Island is still excellent fun to play, even after all these years. Sure, some of the mechanics feel antiquated, and yes the pacing is glacial compared to more modern adventures, and you are going to spend a lot of time watching the game's charismatic hero, Guybrush Threepwood ponderously wander around the screen, but behind the archaic design and old-school visuals is an enchanting adventure filled to the brim with charm and characterful writing.
The Special Edition is certainly more accessible than the original, which was built using the SCUMM engine, which was originally developed for Maniac Mansion. This verb-based interface might look quaint by today's standards, but it was cutting edge game design at the time, and LucasArts had been iterating on it since 1987's Maniac Mansion. This game engine gave players unprecedented freedom, letting them interact with the world around them by talking with characters and picking up objects. In fact, designers Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer, and Dave Grossman had been experimenting with game structure, contrasting the work of another powerhouse of the genre, Sierra, with more innovative outcomes rather than a series of "game over" screens whenever the player made a mistake.
But we're heading off-topic. Let's instead remember one of my favourite video game characters, Guybrush Threepwood. Poor old Guybrush wants to be a pirate, and he spends a lot of the game exploring Mêlée Island and completing the tasks set him. Along the way, he falls in love and fights an undead pirate, but the whole thing is delivered in such a playful way and it came at a time when games were not really known for having a sense of humour. I still remember being delighted by all the terrible jokes, and the quality writing helped make the characters that you encountered during your adventure feel all the more intriguing.
The animations looked great, but it was the background art that really brought the whole thing to life. The developers had some serious limitations to work with, but the team at LucasArts made use of every colour and pixel, creating an island adventure that captured the imagination like no other game that I can think of beforehand. Adventure games are a relatively niche genre these days, but it's important to remember how fundamentally important they were to the overall advancement of gaming as a whole, especially PC gaming.
I came to the game a few years after it first launched, so I had it CD-ROM which had an enhanced soundtrack. I was also lucky enough to play the VGA version, which looked significantly better than the 1990 original. Still, it doesn't matter where you first encountered Monkey Island nor how basic the graphics were, this was an adventure with enough charm and personality to capture hearts on a grand scale. Even going back and replaying the 2009 Special Edition, which delivered updated graphics and voice-over, is a satisfying and entertaining experience.
The Secret of Monkey Island might be 30 years old now, but it remains one of the most important games ever made. If you're a fan of pirates and puns, it's still worth taking a look even after all these years.
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