‘The Secret Of Monkey Island’ Is Still Fantastically Funny 30 Years On
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The realisation that Lucasfilm Games' The Secret of Monkey Island is celebrating its 30th anniversary in October 2020 has made me feel old in a way that few gaming anniversaries have. It's not that I'm not already acutely aware of my own mortality, or that I need video games to remind me of it, or anything like that. It's more that most games of 1990 simply haven't aged as gracefully, and as amusingly, as this one.
And back when I was still glued to a Commodore Amiga most weekends, The Secret of Monkey Island was probably - nah, definitely - the game that made me realise there was more to these video game things than shooting down spaceships or leaping from platform to platform. It was far from the first successful point-and-click game, nor was it the first of Lucasfilm's titles to bring humour to the fore, against a backdrop of graphic-adventuring. But it was the first one I played and palpably connected with - and it's one that I still return to semi-regularly, finding it just as entertaining, rewarding, and as funny as it was in the early 1990s (albeit without so much disc-swapping).
I'm not here to provide a comprehensive history lesson on The Secret of Monkey Island - enough of those exist already. But it really does amaze me that something so completely of its time - the late 1980s and early '90s marking a real mainstream breakthrough of graphic adventure games - has also proved to be effortlessly transcending of it. Play the game today, in its Special Edition with (good!) voice-overs, and the jokes still land as precisely as they did. It doesn't quite play the same as modern point-and-click-styled releases, like Afterparty or Kentucky Route Zero, but it doesn't feel dated beside them, either.
The wittiness of the writing, as sharp and pointy as the end of a rapier, shines though as it was never rooted in its era in the first place. That's the joy, I suppose, of setting a game in what is ostensibly the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean - or is it, eh? (Little wink to those who've played this and its sequel, in full.) But because it never leans on slang, or real-world references (with the exception of the Loom in-joke, maybe - and just a little Indiana Jones, see below), Monkey Island's script can still feel as fresh when seen for the very first time in 2020.
The nonsensical strangeness of its weirdest twists feel like watching Reeves and Mortimer, or Monty Python at its best, several years on from their original commitment to videotape. Because it's so totally out of step with 'norms' of its period, it exists outside of it, and can be enjoyed free of the weight of wider social context. And its persistent breaking of the fourth wall works to exaggerate how gaming, as a storytelling medium, is so unique. But maybe I'm overthinking it. Maybe good jokes are just good jokes, whenever you hear them. And The Secret of Monkey Island has a lot of them.
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But what I think I love the most about this game, as small as it actually is, is the freedom it offers. The first act's setting, Mêlée Island, feels wonderfully open. The player is allowed to go anywhere they like, albeit subject to certain metroidvania conventions, before metroidvania was an accepted shorthand for needing item A to access area B. And it's all so easygoing, too - that freedom is supported by pressure-free gameplay where you cannot lose. Save for one bit where you can. But you'll have to wait a while to find out. Anyway.
Pointing the hapless Guybrush Threepwood, one of gaming's most fantastically monikered protagonists (whose name derives from the toolset used to create him, Deluxe Paint, but like I said, this isn't a history lesson), to his next destination and seeing the little dot scamper through the trees of Mêlée was never not a delight. Such little detail, but it didn't - and doesn't - matter, because the world of this game is so consistent, so convincingly realised. And the insult-swordfighting of his pirate encounters, as Guybrush is interrupted on the way from the harbourside to the Sword Master's hut? Well, they're the stuff of legend, aren't they.
It's these exchanges that represent the most memorable humour of The Secret of Monkey Island. The back-and-forth battles of puns-loaded put-downs actually represent only a small part of the game, but as a central component of the first act, they're something that every player experienced. This definitely is my age talking, alongside my gaming history, but whenever I'm in the dairy aisle of a supermarket, my brain automatically reminds me: "How appropriate, you fight like a cow." Feather dusters come to mind in kebab houses, and I can't watch a Simpsons episode starring Willie without wondering how much of the red stuff his handkerchief could wipe up.
Which is to say: this game is in my blood, a part of what makes me, me. Not just a favourite game, but an experience of my childhood - like a favourite movie, or book, from a lifetime ago - that always, without fail, puts a smile on my face. It still makes me laugh aloud, even when I can see the jokes coming - which the best TV and film can do, too. Not fall-around-the-place hysterics, as I grew out of that. But a chuckle, a titter, just the gentlest guffaw. It's enough to make me not feel my age, for a moment at least - and The Secret of Monkey Island is an experience that'll forever remind me why I love video games so much.
And if you haven't ever played this mighty example of its genre, please, do so. I guarantee you a great time (and there are countless guides online now, in case you get stuck - no calling tips lines!) Just be sure to never pay more than 20 bucks for a computer game, yeah? Yeah.
Featured Image Credit: Lucasfilm Games
Topics: Retro Gaming