Thursday, July 16, 2009

Return to Monkey Island

Yesterday, LucasArts did what many hoped for but few expected at this late date -- they have re-released Ron Gilbert's classic graphic adventure, The Secret of Monkey Island, as a Special Edition for downloadable play on the PC and XBox 360. It's a large game for a download -- over 500 MB, entirely CD-worthy -- but LucasArts feels digital distribution is the best channel for reviving the adventure genre, and my instant-gratification-seeking self heartily agrees.

I have played the original game through several times since its release in 1990, and I am thoroughly enjoying yet another pass on the XBox (with achievements!) The new version features HD artwork and full voice acting -- the original game came out just before CD-ROM and sound cards blossomed, and a "talkie" version was never produced back in the day. (A CD version did come out, with updated 256-color VGA graphics, but it only used Redbook audio for music -- without reliable sound card standards, there was no way to fit the game's copious dialogue onto a CD-ROM.)

I'm not in love with the new HD artwork -- the backgrounds are very faithful to the original, with some nice new graphical flourishes, but the character designs are a little odd. I wish they had gotten Steve Purcell to update the original designs, as they have lost some of the appealing cartoonishness they had before. The 16-color 320x200 EGA original was, of course, an approximation of the intended look -- the new game allows revisiting of the old style at will, which is a nice feature for comparison -- but the new, lushly hi-res graphics don't really feel like lost detail has been restored. Instead, the graphics feel painted-over by someone with a visibly different sensibility; Guybrush has an odd high forehead and strange hair, LeChuck is a little too grounded in reality, and Elaine seems slimmer and less capable-looking than she used to. The animation isn't bad, but it's not as expressively rubbery as it used to be, even though in most cases, the new art is a direct overlay on the old. Same limited frame rate, but with less personality, somehow. I loved Purcell's cover painting for the original game, and I am disappointed that the remake didn't bring that style into the game itself.

Fortunately, the new voice acting is solid all around. When I first played the game with a college buddy, we found ourselves voicing all of the characters aloud as we played. The game's dialogue is so funny and well written that it's impossible to resist getting one's pirate on. And for the most part, the new soundtrack works really, really well. New, different inflections have been added where appropriate -- for example, in the game's famous insult swordfighting sequences, Guybrush delivers his responses with verve when correct, and with hopeful insecurity when they are not. So far, I have only been disappointed to hear that "I'm shakin', I'm shakin!'" lacks the Welcome Back, Kotter overtones of my own interpretation. And the soundtrack has been enhanced in other ways -- the music has been freshly re-recorded, sounding even better than the old CD release, and new ambient sound effects keep the world audibly alive.

The game itself? Golly, Cap'n, it's The Secret of Monkey Island! It's a classic point-and-click adventure, funny and smart and silly in the best LucasArts tradition. There's only one way to die, and you have to be deliberate about it (there's an XBLA achievement tied to it, actually) and there are no dead ends -- the design is fair and forgiving and never too obtuse. And it remains one of the funniest games I have ever played. It's a pleasure to be experiencing it again; I plan to finish before TellTale's completely new Tales of Monkey Island episodic series hits the Wii and gives me five more monthly jolts of Threepwood goodness.

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