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atari adventure
Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181442)
Written on  :  Aug 20, 2003
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars

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I would become a pirate just to be able to play this game

The Good

The path between Maniac Mansion and Secret of Monkey Island was not entirely thorn-free for LucasArts. They designed interesting and influential games, but were sometimes struggling to find their own tone. Eventually, their hard work and talent crystallized in what some fans consider their most important creation. Indeed, while Maniac Mansion was the one that put the company on the map, LucasArts' design philosophy and everything they stood for is firmly associated with the adventure that takes place deep in the Caribbean.

There is not so much in Secret of Monkey Island that is different, but rather a lot that is more polished and complete. All the tendencies, all the sparks of brilliance from their past titles united in this game like never before. The perfect amalgamation of puzzles, plot, visuals, and atmosphere made this happen. Secret of Monkey Island is much less revolutionary than Maniac Mansion and much less unique than Loom, but it is undeniably a more exciting game.

LucasArts was always trying to compete with Sierra, but only in this work they managed to put everything together to beat the archrival at their own game. Realizing that text descriptions and interactivity were not exactly their forte, they concentrated on what they did best: branching dialogue. In Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, that gameplay device had the function of talking your way out of a fight and achieving your goal in a different way. Taking a cue from its humorous potential ("I forgot it in my other pants"), Ron Gilbert et alii expanded that seemingly harmless feature to gigantic proportions, turning it into a primary tool both for gameplay and comedic effects. Diving into excellently written, often brilliantly nonsensical and hilarious conversations became one of the chief sources of pleasure in this game. And how would anyone ever forget the delightful "insult swordfighting", during which you learn new humorously offending phrases from each opponent and then figure out how to apply them in the proper context?..

Death-free gameplay is another feature Secret of Monkey Island borrowed from an earlier game (in this case Loom) and built a whole new concept on it. One may question this decision and argue about the validity and the long-range consequences of this gameplay mechanics, but there is no doubt it became hugely popular thanks to this very game. People were getting tired of the annoying deaths in Sierra games, and were grateful to LucasArts for letting them try out crazy item combinations and select the rudest dialogue choices purely for comedic purposes without any penalty. This new design approach took the genre by storm: only a fear years later, Sierra would obediently comply to it in most of their games. Of course, this policy eventually froze adventure game design, depriving those games of the much-needed inner tension in the age of first-person shooters, but that's a whole different story.

The game's puzzles are not overly tough, and the fact you cannot get irrevocably stuck no matter what you do further reduces the difficulty level. That said, the puzzles of Secret of Monkey Island are so elegantly entertaining that you won't mind the relatively low challenge, which is anyway heaps above the obtuse ease of Last Crusade or the elementary simplicity of Loom. Beautifully balancing amusing inventory concoctions with dialogue-based tasks, the game remains unsurpassed in its natural flow, in the way it keeps track of the bigger picture while making you busy with smaller objectives at any moment. Later acts may be slightly below this quality, but the entire Melee Island is one of the best examples of puzzle-solving, exploration, and discovery coming just in the right doses.

Earlier LucasArts games had their funny moments, but it wasn't until Secret of Monkey Island that they were able to declare themselves the comedy leaders for generations to come. Until now, this game remains one of the most endearingly humorous products ever to grace our computer monitors. Between the aggressive wit of Steve Meretzky and Sierra's harmless charm on one side, and the impending visual comedy with its cartoony gags on the other, Secret of Monkey Island stands on the golden middle ground, having just enough different types of humor for everyone without being too biased for any category. Witty dialogues, cleverly placed pop culture references, hilarious breaking of the fourth wall and unforgettable jabs at game design and software in general (the "insert disk #..." stumps in the forest are priceless) decorate what is decidedly one of the most tasteful, ironically presented, yet warm and sweet comedy in the history of video games.

Indeed, with all its merry and oft nonsensical attitude, Secret of Monkey Island remains a genuinely atmospheric, romantically flavored Caribbean adventure. Such is the genius of its designers that this game can be enjoyed on multiple levels: even if you don't understand the jokes, you'll love the tale of a simple young boy pursuing an unlikely romance and overcoming all obstacles with his cunning rather than the sword. From the very first screen, you are being gently enveloped by the warmth of tropical islands and the sea breeze, drawn to the ever-youthful stories of pirates, treasure, and grand journeys. And it's not at all overly cute and cuddly, either: there is place for darkness in this game, with spooky undead pirates, voodoo, and cozy exploration of an island perpetually submerged into the night.

To top it all, Secret of Monkey Island comes with stellar production values. The graphics are the perfect manifestation of the old realistic style enhanced by the then-revolutionary 256 colors. Almost every area breathes life and oozes atmosphere. The full-screen portraits are marvelous - talking to the least important pirate in the SCUMM bar is a visual experience hitherto unmatched in adventure games. And who could ever forget the delightful reggae-ish music and not wish there were more of it? By the way, the ultimate version of the game is either the FM Towns one or the later CD re-release, with audio tracks and a nicer-looking interface.

The Bad

Finding flaws in legendary games is not always an easy task - particularly when they are designed as well as Secret of Monkey Island. I don't think there was ever another LucasArts adventure I enjoyed as much as this one, but that doesn't mean everyone are bound to love it unconditionally. Those who like nitpicking may point out minor balance issues - the "meat" of the gameplay is concentrated mostly in the first act, which is also by far the longest. The second act, for example, is a somewhat disappointing convoluted puzzle confined to a tiny location.

The real argument against Secret of Monkey Island, however, is the safe trend it started. It popularized a controversial design move, eliminating death from an adventure game - paradoxically, all while dealing itself with the dead (and the undead) quite a bit. Making death less frequent and random, but still present, would have contributed to the sense of wonder and danger when exploring, for example, the mysterious titular island in the third act. A bigger gripe of mine is the verb interface: much more responsive and flexible than the stiff and awkward thing we had in Last Crusade, it is less intuitive than Sierra icons, and the highlighted objects associated with it reduce interaction possibilities and the amount of unique text feedback.

The Bottom Line

A classic is not always one who creates a new path, but more often one who reaches perfection on a path someone else first stepped on, the one who dominates without being a pioneer, through the sheer power of design excellence and personality. Secret of Monkey Island is a classic for those reasons. It is the purest, most perfectly crafted manifestation of LucasArts philosophy, rightfully hailed as the king of comedy adventure.

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