Tag: monkey island

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…

Postscript: favourite video game music in 2018

The games I’ve played this year have introduced me to some great music. Here are my three favourite pieces, and why they stood out.

Maniac Mansion (DOS) – main theme (Chris Grigg and David Lawrence)

When I first heard this I was (aptly) blown away. It’s bold, exciting and pretty admirable for its time. The layering works brilliantly, building up from a basic signature tune to a really epic piece. Just when you think it’s done, that shrill refrain kicks in (0:41), perfectly timed with the chainsaw.

The rawness of the DOS version will always be my favourite rendition. The other versions are just over-produced for my liking (especially you, Nintendo).

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (SE) – Dinky Island jungle (Peter McConnell)

This is just so beautiful. I was fully engrossed in the game but when I entered the jungle area the music stopped me in my tracks. The gentle, zen-like notes breeze in softly, then some bird tweets are sprinkled over the top. So very subtly, the main theme creeps in just enough to remind you what game you’re playing, without breaking the mood.

It’s also so well placed. After the pelting action of LeChuck’s Fortress in the chapter before, the nice, calming return to nature is just perfect.

Unforeseen Incidents – hotel lobby (Tristan Berger)

In a similar way, the music in this scene takes a gentle, soulful turn. It’s very Twin Peaks, and likely a homage in keeping with other elements of the game (especially the setting). I’ve chosen a scene with the TV playing – while those sounds slightly overlap the music, I really like the neon glow it adds. The whole scene is beautifully low-lit and mysterious.

Similar to the jungle in Monkey Island, it serves as a bit of down time from the main action in the game, and the music really complements that.

What video game music have you enjoyed this year?

Can we talk about the monkey wrench puzzle?

I’m currently playing Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. It’s great – the humour is spot on and I love how the world completely opens up after the first few challenges. It’s even possible that I’m enjoying it more than the first one.

A few days ago I reached the infamous monkey wrench puzzle. I’ve long been aware of this part of the game and the controversy over its difficulty, but it’s only through playing it myself and seeing it first-hand that I’ve come to appreciate just how obscure it is.

Monkey Island 2 spoilers ahead!

The puzzle

On Phatt Island, our protagonist Guybrush reaches the top of a waterfall where there is a pump. Presumably, Guybrush needs to turn it off to stop the waterfall, so he can cross to other side.

However the pump doesn’t turn. Further interaction offers no clues. There is seemingly nothing else in the area that would help, nor does my inventory contain any relevant items.

The solution

Guybrush must go to the Bloody Lip bar on Scabb Island where he will find Jojo the monkey playing the piano. There is a metronome ticking. He must place the banana from his inventory onto the metronome in order to mesmerise Jojo and ‘freeze’ him in his current position. Jojo can then be picked up and added to the inventory.

Guybrush can now go back to the waterfall and use the monkey to turn the pump.

Monkey Island 2 Special Edition_ LeChuck's Revenge 08_10_2018 18_11_17

The joke

The reasoning behind this puzzle is that Jojo has been turned into – drum roll – a monkey wrench.

There are two reasons why this doesn’t work well.

It relies on the player knowing what a ‘monkey wrench’ is

n. An adjustable spanner with large jaws that has its adjusting screw located in the jaw that is fixed. (English Oxford Dictionary)

As a Brit, we don’t use this term a lot. I vaguely know what a ‘monkey wrench’ is, but unless you’re a tradesman who uses one all the time, we would just say ‘spanner’ or, at the most, ‘wrench’. I believe this is the case for most countries outside of the US (where the term was invented). Even if a wrench or spanner enters your mind, you’re unlikely to think, specifically, ‘monkey wrench’. And in some languages, ‘monkey wrench’ isn’t even a thing.

It relies on the player knowing the puzzle is a metaphor

If you relayed this puzzle to a group of people in the same way as you might tell a joke, they would likely find it clever and amusing. The idea itself is a great play on words.

The problem is, in the context of an adventure game where the player doesn’t have the benefit of knowing the answer, getting there is very difficult. If you think about the thought processes involved, most people would begin thinking, ‘I need to turn this pump. I probably need a tool to do that.’ But how many would then think, ‘I need a monkey wrench. There’s a monkey in the bar that I could turn into a wrench shape by placing this banana on the metronome!’

Okay, so some might, and I salute you. But back in the day, before internet walkthroughs, my guess is that most people finished this puzzle by trial and error. Or, they already had the monkey in their inventory and just thought to try it (great if that works, but it’s not a brilliant puzzle if you don’t know what the connection is).

Even now, there are numerous comments on Steam and other forums from people baffled by the logic even after they’ve solved it.

‘Nuff said

Being a big LucasArts fan I’m not having a dig at the developers here. I just thought it would be an interesting topic to explore given all I’ve heard about it, and having reached that part of the game myself for the first time.

I guess for the most part it comes down to language differences. Oh look – that means I stayed on topic!