Technology

Return to Monkey Island Review (Switch eShop)

In 1990, Ron Gilbert created the groundbreaking point-and-click adventure The Secret of Monkey Island. It grabbed hearts and hasn’t let go for 32 years. In 1991, he closed Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge with a great cliffhanger. He left Lucasarts in 1992, and the secret third part of his trilogy went down like a sunken ship. Fan communities theorized and fantasized about where the story might go for a few decades, desperate for confirmation from Gilbert or his colleagues.

In 2013, Gilbert wrote, “I’ve always envisioned the game as a trilogy” – one that he could only create with “complete control over what [he] made and the only way to do that is to own it.” In 2015, he wrote, “Monkey Island is now owned by Disney and they have shown no desire to sell me the IP.” The last sigh of the fans what if? was snorted. He complained annually about April 1 on his blog and proudly remained “Fools’ day free” for 18 years. He once tweeted, “If I ever get to make another Monkey Island, I’ll announce it on April 1st.”

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On April 1, 2022, Ron Gilbert joked, “I’ve decided to make another Monkey Island.”

And here we are. To say that Return to Monkey Island is long awaited doesn’t sum up the mental and emotional pilgrimage of the aging gamers who were swept away as children to the shores of Booty Island by a pair of taunting demonic eyes. This is a event gameand arguably the only event game imaginable in what – despite some scattered bright lights over the decades – is a frustratingly staid genre.

But what is this “return”? A throwback to the past: retrograde fan service for the over 40s? A return to commercial interests: Was Monkey Island watered down to accommodate later sequels of dubious canonicity? Or could it be… could be… a return to form for the graphic adventure genre – to a time when you didn’t know what the point-and-click would do, and you were entranced by what it did?

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Terrible Toybox, led by Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, plans to deliver something new, but at the same time, the entire game is laced with musings on the question “What is the secret of Monkey Island?” – the battle cry of giant monkey heads around the world. We’re invited to join Guybrush on parallel expeditions for both the in-game Secret™ and a larger, transcendental secret about what we’ve longed for all these years, and whether either ever existed.

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It immediately becomes clear that Return is going to lean on its history. The title screen menu leads players to a scrapbook that provides an overview of the story so far. This politely includes any Monkey Island game, but it’s clear which ones are prioritized. Monkey Islands 1 and 2 get a glorious multi-page retelling through painted photos in Return’s new art style, with each buckle lovingly encased. The Curse of Monkey Island gets a neat spread of high-level plot points… and there were two other games.

The most hypersensitive Monkey Island fans will find a slightly selective respect for post-Gilbert works. Perhaps it was our imagination, but there have been tentative little digs in the directions the story was taken, with particular interest in how Elaine Marley was portrayed. When Guybrush looks back at the image of Elaine frozen in a statue in The Curse of Monkey Island, his comment that LeChuck “thinks of her as furniture” could easily be aimed at the writers of that third game. It is emphasized on each occasion that the Elaine from the first two games never needed to be rescued by Guybrush. It’s ironic that Gilbert and co-writer Dave Grossman have to struggle to save her here.

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Despite all this looking back at the series so far, Return to Monkey Island feels fantastically fresh. It possesses the nostalgia surrounding it and confidently spins that into the fabric of its story. New characters abound that immediately won our hearts – friends and foes alike – and the grand scale of the adventure offers room to bask in reimagined versions of familiar places, while also evoking tons of new locations full of mystery and fun. The jokes and pervasive silliness are fresher than they’ve ever been since 1991, picking the right moments to recall the classic lines but not making them the main attraction. The new art style speaks for itself and is beautifully moving – and, of course, is also harvested for metafictional jokes. The variety of perspectives on the action, the depth of the scenery, and the delightful complexity of the characters’ small worlds is outstanding.

But the biggest triumph is probably the new interface, which provides the framework for every aspect of the game to work together in a rich player experience. On Switch, this is with Guybrush’s direct joystick control, using ‘R’ and ‘L’ to highlight and scroll through interactive elements. This offers the exploratory experience of hovering the mouse to examine the landscape – the first joy of reaching new territory. In the sense of graphical adventure, there are no “verbs” – no selectable types of on-screen actions to apply to objects in the world. In a more general sense, however, the verbs are infinite. Where some modern graphical adventures have reduced all interactions to “do the thing with the thing”, Return to Monkey Island displays text to show what pressing a button will do. So instead of always “Walk to…”, “Pick up…”, “Talk to…”, “Look at…” etc., “Praise the excellent…” etc this is treated as another space for the writers to play – a place for more jokes, surprises, and rewards for progress.

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The combination through this interface of the graphics, the writing, the excellent voice work and the new ideas and cheerful arrangements in the music is sublime. There is a strong sense of authoritative control over the whole experience, everything flows together to deliver a coherent vision – a story of fun, adventure, redemption and sentimentality, executed through carefully designed and inspiring puzzles, laced with game rules and asides that kept us laughing.

Given the depth of the source of fan passion, it would have been absurd for Return to Monkey Island not to sign on it. Given the specific clamor for Ron Gilbert’s sequel to his first two games, it would have been absurd not to capitalize on that. Likewise, it would be absurd to hold back this game’s reliance on its roots. Yes, people who haven’t been fans of the first two games for a long time shall Have fun with Return to Monkey Island, but Terrible Toybox has harnessed the incredible story potential of fan fervor to deliver something rare and spectacular for those who hit the target’s bull’s eye. If that’s you, go ahead and add a point to the score below.

Maybe Return has finally found a way to exist thanks to the remake-as-a-genre multimedia craze, but if it did, it hasn’t impacted the game: it was made with total integrity and a infectious merriment that permeates every scene.

Conclusion

Return to Monkey Island reaches to your heart, rips out your desire to know THE SECRET and clamps it in front of your face. As hard as it would be to admit that The Secret of Monkey Island™ has always been a McGuffin, it’s painful to think that your 30-year-old yearning for the Monkey Island 3 may be exactly the same. Delightful as you tremble, Return presents to your fixated gaze a phenomenal point-and-click adventure, brimming with passion and fun. All the way through you hope, painfully, that the big reveal is coming – and then…

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