Throwback 20: The Curse of Monkey Island

20 years old today, we revisit The Curse of Monkey Island...

The long lingering introductory paragraph that you expect when you start reading an article about the history of a franchise is expected when you are wanting to read about the third game in said franchise. Dear reader, let us forgo the formalities and assume you know all about the Monkey Island franchise and what it means to the point ‘n’ click adventure genre. Let us assume you know about The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge as the mainstream hit examples of the series. Let us assume you know of Guybrush Threepwood and his quest to be a pirate, romance the governor Elaine Marley and defeat the ghost/zombie pirate LeChuck. Caught up? Good.

Creative genius of the series, Ron Gilbert, had left LucasArts to form his own company in 1992. The company decided to greenlight a new game in the series, this time under the stewardship of Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern. It was their first project-lead on a game after being involved in several games of the LucasArts back catalogue; most prominently Full Throttle.

The Curse of Monkey Island was released in October 1997, and fans of the franchise were caught between two sides: loving it or not recognising it as part of the series. In fact, to them, the series finished with Ron Gilbert (he has said he would love to make the real MI3 one day). Whilst you can argue it’s not a true Monkey Island game (like the other games that appeared after it), to write it off is a crime. It’s a great game and a marvellous achievement. Not without some small faults, it helps move the characters we know and love to the next stage of adventure gaming, whilst giving the famous SCUMM system a final hurrah.

In the game, the player helps the main character of Guybrush Threepwood locate a diamond ring to remove a curse he unwittingly placed on his beloved Elaine. To do this, the player uses the mouse to interact with the environment by picking up objects and using them to interact with other objects in order to solve puzzles to continue the narrative. There are also several characters to talk to with the aid of selectable dialogue choices. But whereas the previous games had verbs at the bottom – this game saw the ‘Verb Coin’ interface being used to streamline the interaction. A holdover from the aforementioned Full Throttle.

This meant that the game world of Plunder and Blood Island is now in full 4:3 resolution with some lovely high quality animation. The games have never looked better and Guybrush and LeChuck especially have their best designs in the whole series. The backgrounds are detailed, and even the dated animation is still passable.

Curse has had an impact on games both after and before it. The character design of Guybrush reinvents him as a tall, gangly blonde weakling – a character look that gets carried across to 3D in Escape From Monkey Island and Tales of Monkey Island later but becomes the foundation of his design in the remakes of the first two games. He’s more cartoonish than previous games, but it gives him a unique look that’s now consistent in canon. It offers the opportunity for the character to shine through. In the opening segment, Guybrush picks up a long rod and there’s an animation of him opening his pants and dropping it in. The previous games would’ve just had him reach out and it appear in his inventory. It’s very impressive and continues the thought in trying to make the character express himself as much as possible.

Another aspect in which this has had a lasting impact is in terms of the voice of Guybrush. It’s here that Curse truly shines. Dominic Armato is perfectly cast as Guybrush, portraying the right mix of wit but that geeky element remaining. The fact he went back and worked on the special editions is a testament to how perfectly cast he is. He makes dialogue funnier and the characterisation just shines throughout.

There’s some great work done in the supporting cast of characters. You’ve got your returning staples: Elaine, LeChuck, the Voodoo Lady and salesman Stan, but there’s some great new characters that work extremely well. Gary Coleman plays Kenny – a small boy who scams Lemonade and then turns to running guns, and a demonic skull called Murray. Without turning this whole article into a Murray love-in, it’s safe to say that he steals every scene he’s in. A skull in search of a body to take over the world, his every dialogue interaction is golden. His role was increased after his initial appearance and he’s a great recurring character who just gets better and better.

The puzzles are generally pretty good and logical with a few exceptions of what is commonly known as ‘moon logic’. But as with most LucasArts games it’s not possible to put the game in an unwinnable state and there’s usually the odd hint or clue to guide you in the right direction. There’s also a stage in the game that involves arcade shooting and insult sword fighting. It breaks up the game, but admittedly the game is borrowing a game mechanic from an earlier game instead of trying something original.

Aside from that, Curse of Monkey Island still looks great. It’s a game that could easily do with a slight polish to work in HD – as it’s the hidden gem of the Monkey Island series. If you haven’t played any of the games, then it’s a good way of getting into the series.

In fact, I may go and play it again now….

Are you a fan of The Curse of Monkey Island or the Monkey Island series? Do you fight like a cow? Are you rubber or are you glue? Let us know!

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