Month: March 2020

Does ‘The Curse of Monkey Island’ let the franchise down?

The Curse of Monkey Island opening screen

I’ve had a lot of people ask me if it’s worth playing the third instalment of the Monkey Island series, and it’s a question I asked myself, too.

When I played The Secret of Monkey Island for the first time a few years ago, I loved it. The humour was really something else, the puzzles were challenging but well-designed, and the story captivating. I was even more blown away by Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. It made such an impression on me that I sat gazing at the end credits in sheer elation. There aren’t many games that do that for me.

While it was natural to continue my swashbuckling in The Curse of Monkey Island, I was reluctant. Released six years after MI2, it’s something of a departure from the first two games; the art style is more cartoonish, there’s a coin interface in place of the verbs; and most importantly, it was developed under a different team. No Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman or Tim Schafer.

The Curse of Monkey Island cartoon graphics

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not that much of a snob that I turn my nose up because my heroes are absent from the taskforce, but the perfectly balanced writing and design from that trio is hard to beat.

And don’t forget I’m coming to this 22 years later. By now Gilbert is an established veteran of the genre, and there’s a bit of a community coldness towards ‘non-canon’ Monkey Island – fuelled more so by the loss of the Monkey Island rights and Disney’s refusal to give them back. (No petitions please, we’ve been over this.) I imagine Curse wasn’t so tainted back in 1998.

Anyway, I went in with an open mind.

Cartoon vs pixel art

At first I was like, eugh, this is so ‘Disneyed up’ (even before they got their hands on the IP). Facial expressions are dreamy and goggle-eyed, there are giant swirls of colour in the backgrounds, and everything looks like it’s made out of rubber. It made me miss the dark, moody hues of the first Monkey Island.

The Curse of Monkey Island Elaine
Oh hey, Belle.
Secret of Monkey Island lookout
That’s better.

LeChuck’s Revenge is a bit brighter, and perhaps closer to the colour palette of Curse, but still, the latter feels flat and lacking depth. But it’s a more modern time, and it makes sense to update graphics from the pixel-heavy artwork of the earlier games – and while I didn’t play them until adulthood, there’s probably still a bit of ‘faux nostalgia’ factoring into my critique.

And that’s not to say I didn’t warm to the artwork as I got further through it. While my least favourite are the close-ups character profiles, there are some really beautiful wide shots.

The Curse of Monkey Island town

Coin interface vs verbs

Again, these kinds of changes are necessary to move forward. In the Space Quest games I hated the transition from the (supposed) freedom of the text parser to a coin setup, but here it works quite well. It’s much less intrusive, only appearing when I want to investigate something, and it’s more mouse-friendly.

One thing I found is that it’s not always obvious when an action changes (such as when  ‘talk’ becomes ‘taste’), but hey, that’s all part of the puzzle. I actually grew to really appreciate little subtleties in the game like this.

In this example, the object I was looking at changed its label after Guybrush inspects it more thoroughly. Genius.

The Curse of Monkey Island - authentic native maskThe Curse of Monkey Island - product of LuxembourgThe Curse of Monkey Island - semi-authentic native mask

Nice touches

There are other nice touches throughout, such as the town clock that keeps real time. It took me a little while to notice, but again that’s the beauty.

Something I didn’t expect to match the earlier games is the humour, but there are some really smart moments where the game pokes fun at itself and the genre, continuing the sharp satire from MI1 and 2. There are some stellar moments of pointed realism.

Curse of Monkey Island - cryptCurse of Monkey Island - crypt 2

Curse of Monkey Island - crypt 3
MIC DROP.

Unintuitive puzzles

Unfortunately, the puzzle construction is where the game really fell down for me, and perhaps is what makes it less popular among LucasArts fans than its predecessors.

A memorable example is the gold tooth puzzle. I won’t go into too much detail and risk spoilers, but if you’ve played it already you know what I’m talking about.

I knew I needed the gold tooth from Blondebeard’s mouth, and that I had a jawbreaker in my inventory. So far, so good. The next bit with the gum made sense, and off we go. Until–

Curse of Monkey Island - gold tooth Blondebeard

The next bit took me ages to figure out. I tried using everything in my inventory, in all sorts of imaginative ways, ultimately brute forcing each item and combination and still didn’t get anywhere. In the end I think I consulted the Universal Hint System to solve it.

I appreciate puzzles are a bit subjective; your approach will likely depend on an array of things, from your native language and vocabulary, capacity for remembering seemingly unimportant bits of dialogue, random events and of course your general puzzle-solving experience. It’s always a gamble for game designers to put themselves in the mind of the player given that not everyone thinks the same way about a problem.

I should note that I was playing on ‘Mega Monkey’ difficulty. In the easier mode, Guybrush can walk out of the shop with the tooth without being summoned back by Blondebeard, and the second part of the solution isn’t necessary. This makes me wonder if the convoluted second part was just bolted on to satisfy the Mega Monkey contingent; it might’ve been better to rethink the puzzle as a whole.

There are other puzzles like this (getting out of the snake; getting the map; accessing the crypt), and it was only once I got to part three that they seemed to be better thought out and more logical (without being ‘easy’). Having played the first two games the puzzles here just feel awkward and cobbled together.

Lack of polish

This awkwardness extends to the plot, too. The story development in Curse feels more disjointed than the first two games. It’s all a bit piecemeal, and just not as well held together. There’s a long stretch between most of the chapters and scenery changes, which gets a bit dull and frustrating, and I just didn’t get the same sense of fulfilment and completeness that I did with Secret and LeChuck’s Revenge.

As for the ending, I found it weak and anticlimactic, especially compared to MI2. Sure, the ending of LeChuck’s Revenge is controversial, but at least that means it’s interesting!

So should I play it?

Despite my whinging, I’d say yes, if you’ve played the first two then it’s worth it. Even if you end up agreeing with the cons I’ve drawn on above, there’s some great humour to be had, some of the puzzles are fun and challenging in the right ways, and it goes some way to tickling those nostalgia sensors.

As for Escape and Tales, that’s for another time…