I absolutely, categorically do not understand what everyone has against Escape From Monkey Island. While I admit I had been horribly wrong about The Curse Of Monkey Island, everyone else is entirely wrong about the fourth game in the series, and it's time for this mad prejudice to come to an end.
And there's no better time to do this than now, because this 11-year-old game is in fact currently incredibly topical. I know of no other game thats central motif is openly mocking Rupert Murdoch and his attempts to buy everything in the world. Well, I guess we can't say that for sure. Perhaps they were spoofing some other rich Australian grump who tries to take over everything he encounters.
It is unjust - simply awful - that this game is so weirdly dismissed, even hated, by fans of Monkey Island. Because despite (and even with) the 3D this is an absolutely stunning adventure game. It's one of the funniest, most involved, and downright strange in all of LucasArts' collection, and you - yes YOU - are a fool for the way you've been pretending you don't like it for all these years.
There's a reason why it's so funny. Escape is written, designed and project-led by Sean Clark and Mike Stemmle. Not the most famous names in game design, until someone points out to you that it was the same double-act that wrote and created Sam & Max: Hit The Road. Indeed - those behind an adventure game that you celebrate beyond reason also made the game you've claimed was an insult to the Monkey Island name, and now you're looking a bit silly, eh?
Everything is here. A story involving Guybrush travelling around the increasingly poorly titled Tri-Island district, solving elaborate chains of puzzles in order to move on to the next enormous location. Elaine needs your help, Le Chuck is causing trouble, there's Otis, Carla, Murray, the Voodoo Lady, insult fights, Stan (who even in 3D wears a shirt whose pattern doesn't move as he does), and the second highest number of monkeys I've ever seen. Yes, Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer had nothing to do with it, but you know what - it doesn't suffer for that at all.
The humour is just wonderful. It's certainly a damn sight funnier than the first and third games in the series, making me laugh out loud a remarkable number of times. It's a game that understands the basics, such as: ducks are funny animals. And the complicated, like... okay - there's nothing complicated. But there's a lot that's clever.
We may be a little far on from the O.J. trial over a decade since the game came out, but "If the nose fits, you must acquit," still gets a laugh out of me. And no one in the world could have written a better line in response to trying to pick up a skull from an underground chamber: "I've already got a skull."
Some of the references have dated, or perhaps more frequently been done too often by others since. So while Starbuccaneers is a funny name for a pirate coffee shop, a decade of Starbucks spoofs have tainted it slightly. (Although I'll defend "Cap'n-ccino" to the death. And I can't help but enjoy "Starbuccaneer's iced groggaccino".)
But the overall story entirely holds up. This mysterious rich Australian, by the name of Ozzy Mandrill, is buying up all the establishments on Melee and the surrounding islands, and converting them into tourist-friendly, pirate-themed but pirate-free modern monstrosities. Pirates are being rehabilitated, grog-selling venues are vanishing, and novelty gift shops are appearing everywhere. The very pirate way of life is being threatened in the face of capitalism and corporations.
Meanwhile, a new man in town by the name of Charles L. Charles is threatening to defeat Elaine as Governor of Melee Island. And this is handled brilliantly. The lack of an attempt to disguise that this will obviously turn out to be Le Chuck is so pleasingly delivered, without resorting to his pulling back his beard and winking at the camera. Instead his pitifully obvious name, along with Guybrush's remark that he smells like a rotting corpse when first meeting him, makes the eventual reveal a fantastically sarcastic moment. Supporting characters look pityingly at Guybrush and mention how heavy-handed the foreshadowing had been.
The puzzles range from interesting to ridiculously obscure, and I'm not ashamed to admit I resorted to a walkthrough here and there - I was eleven years younger the last time I played it, fitter of mind, and with fewer memories to try to store.
But the 3D, you cry. Well, I don't hear you endlessly whinging about it when you pretend Grim Fandango was a flawless masterpiece. You go back and try to play that one now. Heck, just try to walk through a doorway. While Monkey 4 has the most unforgivably awful camera nonsense, where running out of one scene sends you running right back into it from the next, at least it's possible to move at all. Funnily enough, it turns out it's much better to play on a 360 controller than anything else - they just accidentally made it a few too many years early.
The backgrounds remain gorgeous, the design in keeping with the series and only prettier. The character models don't hold up so well, but really aren't bad at all. Really, the only things that suck are that awful camera-flippery, and Guybrush's insane awkwardness about facing certain objects.
Oh, and Monkey Kombat. Yes. Fair enough. Monkey Kombat - the awful alternative to insult sword fighting, was a disastrous decision, and remains a tedious affair today. Having to learn not only which stances beat others, but also which combination of four monkey-sounds in which order changes from one stance to another, through repeated trial and error, is a mistake that defies explanation. And for me, just as I was making my way through its early stages, the game crashed and the thought of doing it all again was enough to have me download a save position and skip the lot.
LucasArts adventures were famous for running out of money and time toward the end, and while I've no evidence, I do wonder if the same happened here. The closing cinematic is absolutely fantastic, but the battle before it was not, and the lack of closure is frustrating. Is the SCUMM Bar rescued from becoming the hideous Caribbean-themed tourist trap? Are the pirates released from their subjugation on Lucre Island? And what happens to the rest of Murd... Mandrill's empire? I kind of wanted to find out.
But this does not deserve to end on a negative note. This is the first Monkey game that finally stopped Elaine from being a one-dimensional nagging harpie, and gave her not only a wonderful new voice by Charity James, but a softness for her husband Guybrush, and independent power.
And talking of the voice actors, I'm not sure LucasArts ever did a better job of it than here. Earl Boen is - as always - incredible as Le Chuck, and this is Dominic Armato's all-time best turn at Guybrush. Plus there's an extraordinary additional cast of talent, including the brilliant Tom "Spongebob" Kenny in a collection of roles.
Other notables include the hilarious Maria Bamford, veteran actor (and star of Space 1999!) Nick Tate as Mandrill, the incredible Pamela Adlon (currently stunning in Louie), and the legendary Rob Paulsen, as in Pinky of Pinky & The Brain as well as just about every other cartoon ever. Oh, and so many others! It's a vast cast and a genuine who's who of voice over work.
The music is wonderful, the sheer volume of jokes incredible (the game has over 10,000 recorded lines, to give you an idea of quite how much there is to look at or talk about), and it's funny until the last with a laugh-out-loud dig at George Lucas as the credits close.
Good grief, I find myself wanting to scream from mountaintops about how stupidly messed up it is that this game has been given such a bad name. It's a fantastic comedy adventure, and it deserves to be remembered among LucasArts' best.