As with my discussion of Recettear, playing The Secret of Monkey Island involved revisiting a gaming genre from my past. Unlike Recettear, TSoMI is not a parodic look back at an old genre, it is an original game from that time period. TSoMI is an adventure game, a genre that is pretty much only kept alive through the
LucasArts Telltale Games (edit: thanks for the fix, Dan) who is re-releasing old games like the Monkey Island series, publishing new takes on old games like Monkey Island, Sam and Max, and publishing completely new games like Back to the Future.
In the Recettear review I mentioned losing track of the Final Fantasy series because we were a Nintendo house. In the same way, we were a Sierra On-Line house back in the early 1990s. We played the King’s Quest games. It was a complete random change that we ended up with King’s Quest VI because it came with our multimedia kit. See kids, back in the day, it wasn’t standard for computers to come with sound cards or CD-ROMs! So we had to get one for something north of $100. (The same equipment would probably cost about $30 now and net you a DVD burner) King’s Quest holds a special place in my memories for two reasons. First of all, like Civ, it was one of the first games I spent hours on. It was also one of my first examples of subversive humor in games. Like Monkey Island, there was a lot of self-referential humor – I think a lot of that has been lost as games have become more professionally done.
The other reason KQVI is special to me is that it’s one of the few games I played together with my dad. I thought I’d written about it here before, but maybe it was in a blog comment on Dan’s blog. Anyway, we’d all play together (at least my dad, Daniel, and I) and try and solve the puzzles together. My dad even took to going to CompUSA or OfficeMax or one of those places to look at the strategy guide on his lunch break. Eventually I played all of them either through buying them or borrowing them from friends. We never got around to the LucasArts games.
At some point a few years ago, Dan got his hands on The Secret of Monkey Island. I don’t know if this was back in his old pirate-y days (1. no pun intended 2. don’t worry, he’s made up for it by buying them all in the recent past) and he loved it. Its humor was similar to the type of humor we’ve always loved – similar in style to Monty Python and other comedians we find in common. It must have been while I was in college because any time before then, I would have seen him playing it and snapped it up in a second. In college I was generally too busy on my breaks and there was a time period where he was really bad at describing stuff. I only say this because it didn’t only happen with Monkey Island. He also tried to share the Ali G movie with me. And at least one other thing I can’t recall right now. I ended up deciding that everything he told me sucked and didn’t experience any of it.
It turned out a few years later when I finally got to see Ali G, I thought it was hilarious (for a stupid-funny movie as opposed to clever-funny). So I kept that in mind nearly five or six years later when I finally got into buying games on Steam. Especially with these old games that sold for $20 or less, I figured that if it all exploded in my face because of DRM issues, it wouldn’t be too big of a loss. Dan was talking up how LucasArts had found their mojo again in their new episodic Monkey Island game. (Which turned out to be a winning recipe for releasing their new adventure games without taking too much of a risk on a 20 year old game niche) I figured I’d get the most out of the inside jokes if I played through the original games first. Dan was disappointed because, at the time, I didn’t have the money for the first two games and he thought it would once again be a lost cause. But, no. The next time there was a sale which, I think, let to me acquiring both games for $10 or $20, I did. But then they mostly sat there because Civ V game out the following week and I was way more excited about that.
But, eventually, after finishing up all of Assassni’s Creed, I looked around to see which game I’d bought and not yet played or finished. (in an attempt not to waste money on new games when I had unplayed games – a sentiment my parents had cemented in me) And so, nearly a decade after Daniel discovered The Secret of Monkey Island, I finally started to play.
I’m going to assume that going forward you are OK with spoilers because this game is getting old enough to have a 25th edition released soon. And, as the cliche goes, at some point you can’t be expected to keep Rosebud a secret. That said, if you haven’t gotten around to it yet, you might want to skip to the last 2 paragraphs or read carefully.
First off, I kept saving compulsively. One thing that Sierra On-Line had taught me was to save often and save well. Their games wouldn’t think twice about letting you die and if you didn’t have a save in the right spot, you could be left in an unwinnable state. It was a really weird and cruel stance to take. As I mentioned last week, games in the 80s had a reason to make you die – because they were often based on arcade ports. But these games were original stories – why were they so evil? Was it to balance out the karma of being so funny? While it’s annoying that you can’t just save wherever you want in Assassin’s Creed – at least it keeps you from saving in an unwinnable state. But it’s not like that’s unavoidable. You can just say that the player can only save at an Inn or in certain spots where you’re sure they won’t be locking themselves into having to start from scratch.
However, this is not the case in The Secret of Monkey Island. I didn’t find this out until after finishing the game, but except for one easter egg, there’s no dange of being put into a spot where you can’t get out – and it doesn’t let you leave Melee Island until you have everything you need for Monkey Island. Eventually, however, I realized that you can’t die from insult sword-fighting and nothing else seemed dangerous. So I’d just keep two saves active and alternate between them.
So you start off as Guybrush Threepwood, this guy who wants to become a pirate. I actually had a gap of like 4 or 5 months between starting the game and finishing it, so I forgot if he just had that as a life ambition or just did it to get with Governor Marley. Anyway, you end up at the SCUMM Bar where the game just plunges you into a barrage of crazy humor from no one being able to remember your name to ads for other LucasArts games to an insane beer drink similar to The Hitchhiker’s Guide’s Pangalactic Gargleblaster. These three pirates give you 3 tasks to complete to become a pirate. You have to do a great theft, learn sword fighting, and treasure hunting. Well, I know how these games go. I’ve played King’s Quest and the original Sam and Max.
So I start wandering around Melee Island. I find a troll guarding a bridge that wants something unusual, some circus folk with a canon, and an unreachable island. I go back into town and buy some PTA notes and find a voodoo house. There I get a rubber chicken (lesson from King’s Quest – grab everything that isn’t nailed down). And somewhere I get a pulley. I explore some more and find a store keeper. He knows where the Sword Master is so I ask him to ask her what’s up. While he’s gone I try and steal stuff because I have no idea how to get enough money for the stuff. Apparently that’s not what the game wants you to do because he yells at me. He also tells me that the Sword Master has told me off.
Let me pause here and state that I’m NOT going to go through my entire playthrough of the game. There’s a purpose to my narration of my playthrough of the beginning.
I keep going and find a jail with some dude in there with bad breath. I know I have some money so I buy some breath mints from the store keeper. (KQVI also had a a key part involving mints and a store. One of them parodying the other?) Finally I can talk to him. Nothing useful there so I keep heading west. I get to the governor’s mansion. Piranha dogs. So I need to pacify them somehow. Hmm… where to get food?
I head back to the bar and can’t get into the kitchen. Then the cook leaves and I’m able to enter. Ah, there’s meat there. Sweet! Surely I can use with with the dogs. I go outside and there’s a red herring. Ah, cute joke. I can’t get it, but it doesn’t matter because it’s a red herring. So I go back to the mansion. The only tedious thing about this game (and it got more annoying as it progressed) is how slow it is to go from screen to screen. I save and give them the meat. They eat and then try to quickly get past them. Nope, they finish eating it too quickly. Reload my save. Try to go quickly a few times and no luck. Reload my save.
Look through my inventory and try the rubber chicken – maybe it’s funny because it’s not real food? Nothing works on the dogs. Oh well, with these types of games you often end up with prizes from people when you solve their problems. The rubber chicken is certainly something weird. Maybe I can use it to get past the troll. Nope, he doesn’t care for it. I go back to the island I couldn’t reach. Unintuitively, I can’t use the pulley to get across the rope bridge. Somehow I accidentally click the pulley on the chicken and it combines. I can use this to get across but the guy there is less than useless. Although his tattoo trick is funny. (edit: Dan tells me the chicken already had the pulley on it – guess I forgot in the months between playthroughs)
I go back to the circus. I know it’s against the “rules” of adventure games for items to be usable in more than one context, but I try to tell them I’ll use the chicken or the meat as a helmet. No dice. I’m officially stuck. I try and talk to everyone on the island, but they go into repeat mode. I try to get the red herring, no dice.
Well, it had to happen sooner or later, I have to turn to a strategy guide. While KQVI had puzzles that made sense and were intuitive 98% of the time, that other 2% where the developers tried to be too clever could really get you. Turns out, because I wasn’t paying proper attention to the verbs on the bottom left-hand side of the screen, I hadn’t noticed that there was a pot I could grab in the kitchen. I didn’t figure out right away that it was supposed to be my helmet, but that’s my lack of imagination there – nothing unintuitive about that. I’m able to use it to go in the canon which gets me some money so I can buy the shovel for the treasure hunting and the sword for sword fighting.
I try asking for sword lessons again, but get rejected again. Stumped again. Once again, the solution was obvious and my fault – if he’s going to ask her, I should follow – duh! But it’s at that point that the game stops being intuitive at all. At some point I had to wonder if these games were made to be played with a strategy guide (and before there was a Gamestop to hawk them!)
For example, while you’re following the guy around the forest, you’re supposed to pick some yellow flowers. Why would you think to do that while you’re following someone? But, OK, maybe you’re curious and did. WHY IN THE WORLD would anyone combine it with the meat to make something to give the dogs? At some point they’re expecting you to try every item with every other item in your inventory and the combinatorics behind that show that it would be quite an annoyingly long list of items to try with other items. There are a few other times that are like this – for example – how are you supposed to understand how haggling with Stan works? (also the voodoo stew for Monkey Island and what goes in there and how it doesn’t correspond at all with what you put in) And some other interactions require you to be quick, but how can you be quick when you had no idea what you’re supposed to be using?
One other thing that turned out to be a little annoying is that essentially the first half of the game is pointless. Why? Because you’re spending your time trying to become a pirate so you can end up getting three people to be on your crew. But once they’ve on your crew they mutiny and don’t do anything for the rest of the game. (Esp if you destroy the ship with the rock catapult) The most direct game would be to win the money from the circus, get credit from the store, buy a boat, and go to Monkey Island. It’s all you end up doing anyway. Instead I had to spend like 2 or 3 hours fighting pirates to learn the insults for insult swordfighting.
Once you get to Monkey Island (because you went to save the governor from the evil ghost-pirate Le Chuck), you find a great bit of humor. There are passive-aggressive notes lying all over the island from the cannibals, Le Chuck, and some guy who got stranded on there years ago. The cannibals were my favorite part of Monkey Island and probably my favorite part of the whole game. They’ve gone vegetarian for health reasons. The special edition of the game has splendid voice acting and the cannibals sound either like they’re metro/gay or country club (“Hello Muffy”) with the hilarious voices they’re given.
In the end, the game is what it is. It’s a product of its time. Of a genre where you mostly need to use your brain in weird ways like those stupid ice breaker puzzles they make you do when you go to a new class in college or work. And sometimes that’s not enough and you need a strategy guide or gamefaqs.com because some developer tried to be too clever. A genre where the games were funny and tropes and having characters be genre savvy was the rule, not the exception. It’s funny because I can’t think back far enough to remember if anyone ever spoke of how long games took to finish. Nowadays, everyone’s all, “That game costs $60 and only has 8 hours of content?” It’s a dangerous discussion to be having because it will result in developers taking the wrong lesson. Games don’t need to be long to justify their price – they need to be good. Anyway, The Secret of Monkey Island seems at times as though it was the product of such a discussion. Raptr.com claims I took 23 hours to finish the game. That’s not right at all. In fact, I noticed the second day that I was playing the game, raptr wouldn’t recognize that I had stopped playing it. So that’s a glitch. I didn’t spend more than about seven hours total on that game (according to Steam). In fact, if I followed the strategy guide from the beginning it probably would have been 3 hours tops. And I still would have been able to experience all the story and jokes and stuff. But sometimes it seems like they’re really stretching the solutions to the puzzles because they don’t want you to be done in three hours or you’ll complain. And, perhaps, this can be fixed by the fact that their new games are being sold in small chunks so you are less likely to notice it is so short. Or maybe they’re still exactly the same. What I know is that I used a strategy guide for the last ¾ of the game and it took me just as much time to finish that as the first quarter did.
Anyway, I ended up really liking the game a lot despite having some unsolvable puzzles. (or maybe unsolvable if you don’t have the infinite patience to try everything with everything) For me it’s worth playing just for the crazy sense of humor of the writers. I don’t know if the young kids will find it funny, but it really hits all the right notes for me given where I’ve been with computer gaming and where I’m at in my life. If I were pressed for a score, I’d give it 7/10. Part of the score loss is from the fact that it’s not the best game ever so it doesn’t deserve a 10 no matter what my issues were with the puzzles. But with the special edition there are also some very small bugs. They aren’t game breakers or a reason not to buy The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. But, for example, I found clicking on text to select it to be a lot less reliable than just using the arrow keys and enter. Which is fine, but don’t allow mouse presses if they’re not going to work right. Also, don’t take my score too harshly anyway. I’m intrigued enough to check out the sequel. I’ll probably be getting to it later in the quarter after I play some Greed Corp and Civ V. But I definitely don’t want to wait too long. I have a leg up on the original customers. I don’t have to wait for the sequel so some of the inside jokes will be even funnier for me.