Arguably the only adventure game that could be described as a true masterpiece.
What is the secret of Monkey Island? Well, it's the unique combination of great graphics, sounds, storyline, gameplay and fun. A story with pirates, monkeys, grog and silly jokes. C'mon, nobody really knows what the secret of Monkey Island is. It is the best-kept secret in Lucas Arts history and many people would say it doesn't exist. George Lucas' game company has released four amazing games and hasn't revealed the secret.
First of all, it has to be said that Monkey Island was a revolutionary adventure game. It didn't have the same fantastic medieval story of a kindgom which made King's Quest a classic and was incorporated by thousands of other adventures and RPGs. It didn't have the uncomfortable controls which made some games virtually impossible to play. It was also technically much better than all the other games at the time. Can you remember another 1990 game with perfect graphics and sound? And, of course, it was humorous. The fine, sophisticated sense of humor of the game was something really different and became a Lucas Arts trademark. To say the least, all the other game companies which tried to copy Lucas Arts humor failed miserably, with some few exceptions.
Ah, and your character cannot die in Monkey Island. Yes, don't worry. Monkey Island is very much like a cartoon - the character simply refuses to do something that could result in his death. So... just go ahead, try to jump off the cliff... you'll get a response such as "No, thanks". Why worry then? Do whatever you will... as in a good action movie, the happy ending is guaranteed.
And you don't have to worry if you forgot to do something first: you won't get stuck because of an action you should have done, the game doesn't allow it. You may ask: so, what's the point? Where's the fun? Monkey Island doesn't need that to be incredibly fun.
Any adventure gamer should be familiar to the great storyline behind Monkey Island series. Guybrush Threepwood is the good guy who wants to be a pirate. He is not tough and avoid fighting, but has brains. Yes, this guy may look naive and coward, but appearances are tricky: he is really smart and is capable of doing incredible things. To reach the status of pirate, he has to accomplish some tasks, and that's the point of the game. There's also a bad guy, LeChuck, a ghost pirate. Both fight for the love of Elaine Marley, governor of Melèe Island, which obviously happens to prefer Guybrush. Maybe because LeChuck is scary, green and rotten. And evil. Well, that's the background. The story is too complex and develops strangely (we could say it is unpredictable), something which is rare in an adventure game.
The gameplay is absolutely amazing and set new standards. Monkey Island was very easy to play and the mouse pointer was precise, something which was nearly impossible in a 1990 DOS game. The interface was really great and used the Lucas Arts SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) system. It was quite simple and intuitive: the player chooses a verb in a list of 12 possibilities (such as "pick up", "talk to", "use", "open", "close") to interact with other characters and objects. It became even better in 1991 when Lucas Arts made a Monkey Island remake and revised the SCUMM system to remove quite useless verbs (such as "fix") and remain with only 9. The interface became identical to that one featured in Monkey Island 2.
The atmosphere is outrageous. Lucas Arts managed to create one of the best pirate stories ever seen. When playing the game, you should remember of Stevenson's Treasure Island: it is creative and captivating, the true creation of a genius. And it has a plus: it's a comedy.
The puzzles were a real challenge. They were really clever and required lots of logical (or, maybe, illogical) thinking. Even if they were easy, they were something else. It may have been a pity that Monkey Island was released in 1990 because most of other adventure games (released before and after) became ridiculously obvious.
The original EGA graphics were very good for the time. But they became a little dated with the popularization of VGA and Lucas Arts released a new version to keep up with the top games in 1991, including Monkey Island 2 (which had fantastic graphics). The resolution was the same, but the game became much more colorful (while EGA graphics had 16 colors, VGA had 256). The EGA game is darker and may have a greater ambience because of that. But the VGA graphics are really beautiful (not as beautiful as Monkey 2 graphics, which was released roughly at the same time as the VGA version) and feature scenes which could have been paintings. Backgrounds were simply amazing: the player felt as if he was in the 17th or 18th century.
Monkey Island sound was impressive. It had a real soundtrack. The song was really very nice and well executed. Every classic has to have great music, and Monkey Island is no exception (well, George Lucas knows that as nobody does - what about Star Wars main theme? And the Imperial March?). Well, Monkey Island also had a great theme. The song has style and can be clearly identified. The sound effects were also nice.
Monkey Island is, in fact, a game which could have turned into a great Hollywood movie without much of effort. Instead of doing crap movies based on games (such as the pathetic Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Double Dragon, Tomb Raider and others), they could have made Monkey Island. The story seems like a movie script: it makes us laugh and cry, has subtle details, jokes and lots of adventure. In fact, Monkey Island is a cool mix of everything piracy meant to pop culture - it has elements from Stevenson's Treasure Island book, from the Peter Pan stories, from the Spielberg's Goonies movie and from Pirates of Caribbean Disney theme attraction.
Well, what else could be said? It is arguably THE BEST adventure game ever. It is perfect in every aspect - or, at least, in every aspect that really matters (c'mon, graphics and sounds always get dated, but the storyline resists to the inexorable passing of time). But that doesn't make a true classic. It has harmony, class and originality. It has something else, its own - weird - magic.
It would be unfair to say Monkey Island has no problems. But they are so small in comparison to its outrageous qualities we simply forget they exist.
OK, the game could be longer. We get addicted to it and we cannot accept it has finished. We cannot get enough of Monkey Island!
Another problem is that Lucas Arts has not done another Monkey Island remake. It would be amazing to play it with Super VGA graphics and surround sound. And it may get really hard to find this game to buy these days.
It may not have the hi-tech features of the newest adventures, but advanced technology is all most of them offer. Monkey Island was once the pinnacle of technological achievement. It's not anymore. But - just like wine - this game gets better with the age.
There's another thing. Someone can complain about Lucas Arts way of making adventure games. What's the point if the character can't die? Is this just a solving puzzle game? No one can deny that is a valid point of view...
The Bottom Line
TRUE CLASSIC. Brilliant. Unique. Indescribable. Legendary. Really catching. The Ferrari of adventure games. To sum it up, no adventure games can keep up with Monkey Island - not even its sequels.