Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Have an Episode? Don't Mind if I Do!

I just finished playing through Tales of Monkey Island, Chapter 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, released on WiiWare this week, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The puzzles, characters, humor, and sensibility feel right -- having recently replayed the original, there's nothing jarring about Telltale's new game, produced under license from LucasArts. It feels like an extension of the series, an homage for the fans, and a very playable adventure in its own right.

There are differences, of course -- the 3-D look is quite different from any of the earlier games, even the 3-D Escape From Monkey Island, and the character designs and some of the voice cast are also different from those in the Special Edition version of the original Secret of Monkey Island recently released by LucasArts. The sense of humor is a bit more "adult" than the LucasArts games, too -- there are a few subtly risque references which surprised me, though nothing beyond a PG rating. And there are times when the game nods a little too much to its predecessors -- although, as a fan, I appreciate most of those moments, especially a certain reference to the original game's designer, Ron Gilbert.

There are some technical compromises born of the game's PC and WiiWare target -- the graphics are a little too complex for the Wii at times, leading to jerky frame rates and audio stutter when there's a lot happening, and space constraints lead to reuse of some concepts and lines a bit more than I'd like. But considering that the original 1990 game shipped on a handful of floppy disks, the 40 MB WiiWare limit is comparably luxurious, and even with full voice acting the copious dialogue never seems trimmed for the sake of space; the graphics seem to suffer more, with some seriously low-resolution textures in closeups. But this is an adventure game; there are no moments where the technical hiccups interfere with play, and while I wish the game ran more smoothly, it runs well enough. (And I found no major bugs as was the case with the first episode of Telltale's earlier WiiWare series, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, which would lock up in widescreen mode at one specific point in the game.)

Telltale's approach to this series' story takes a different tack from their earlier episodic releases. While Sam & Max Season 1 has some recurring elements and a bit of a plot throughline, the episodes are meant to be playable in any order, and Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures are structured the same way. Tales of Monkey Island takes a cue from the original games' structure -- this first chapter is just the first part of a larger story, with a cliffhanger ending. It's an interesting experiment, and it works very well for storytelling. But the serial focus makes it less likely that people will buy a random episode, or jump in later on if they haven't picked up the first game. The all-or-nothing implications may affect sales, and I'll be interested to see how it plays out. Still, it's Monkey Island, a series with many, many fans, so I suspect Telltale has nothing to worry about.

The whole episodic approach to adventure gaming has really grown on me, courtesy of Telltale Games' dedication to it and ability to maintain a regular release schedule. I like this model a lot - ten bucks for an episode that I can play and enjoy over a few pleasant evenings, then look forward to the next chapter in a month or so. I used to pay 50 dollars a pop for the latest adventure from LucasArts and Sierra back in the day, which would run maybe 10-15 hours; I generally felt the investment was worth it, but when I was finished it was always a wait of a year or more for a sequel. Adventure games are not very replayable in the short term; while it's always nice to go back and revisit a favorite title later on, the experience is story-driven and therefore finite. And I have less free time now than I did in my high school and college days. So bite-sized chunks that can be savored in under a week work very well for me.

I am currently very much looking forward to the further adventures of Wallace & Gromit and more Tales of Monkey Island. W&G are currently running a bit late on XBLA, as their first adventure was released on May 27th and it's now been two months of waiting, but the games have been on schedule for the PC so I'm sure they're just hung up in Microsoft's release queue for the moment. And I look forward to seeing what Telltale tackles next -- they're in the enviable position of competing with themselves for my adventuring attention, and they deserve the success. They've taken a chance and revived a genre long considered moribund, simply by rebalancing development budgets and content pricing for the Internet age, and other companies are taking notice. Even LucasArts, who exited the market in 2000, is getting back into the act. Woo-hoo!

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