Version tested: Xbox 360
Before we get started, those who have never played Monkey Island should probably just skip to the score at the end, dash over to Xbox Live Arcade and hit the download button. Unless you're a joypad-mangling mouthbreather, incapable of seeing past the next big shiny shooty game, you'll discover something that comes awfully close to being the perfect adventure game.
For those uninitiated, Monkey Island introduces us to Guybrush Threepwood, an ambitious young fellow newly arrived on Melee Island to seek his fortune as a pirate. First released back in 1990, he points and clicks his way through a series of puzzles, learning the art of insult sword-fighting and discovering the supernatural properties of root beer. Along the way he falls for Elaine, the island's feisty governor, and falls foul of the ghost pirate LeChuck, who has plans of his own for the lovely lass. If any of this sounds familiar then, yes, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies did borrow rather liberally - and rather cheekily - from this game in order to transform a Disney theme park ride into a rousing blockbuster success.
To say any more of the plot would surely spoil a wonderful experience best enjoyed fresh, so everyone who has yet to make Guybrush's acquaintance should do as they're told and go and play the bloody thing already. Go on. We'll still be here when you get back.
For those who already harbour fond memories of this beloved LucasArts adventure, more troublesome questions remain. First and foremost, have they mucked it up? The words "special edition" have taken on a less than enticing air when applied to projects connected with George Lucas, and the prospect of Star Wars-style tampering must surely cause concern to long-serving fans. Thankfully, this makeover is purely technical in nature. The whole game has been redrawn and reanimated in HD, and the soundtrack re-recorded with real actors and musicians, but the game itself remains mercifully untouched. It's the same script, the same puzzles, the same brilliant gags. Even Mr Lucas' fish-munching cameo remains unaltered.
Personally, I found the visual makeover a little hard to accept at first. The original game is so deeply ingrained in my mind that the change took some time to feel right, a bit like seeing a colourised version of a classic black-and-white film. It doesn't help that they've redesigned Guybrush to fit in better with the cartoony makeover the series received after the somewhat controversial third entry, the first to be produced with no input from creator Ron Gilbert.
The shift from scrappy young hero to gangly blond fop still feels awkward, although almost every other character and location benefits from the fresh lick of paint. Some puzzle sequences - such as the cave search with the navigator's head - work much better with the crisp new definition, while many jokes are much funnier when spoken aloud. Purists like me will almost certainly find something to grumble about over the span of the game, but the overall impact of the redesign is undeniably for the better.
For those unable to let the past go, a prod of the back button switches instantaneously between the new version and the original, a feature that is both welcome and technically impressive. It's a complex real-time dissolve between a pixellated square play area with static speech captions and an HD widescreen display with full voice acting, but it's pulled off seamlessly. In fact, I often found myself switching back and forth between the two just to see how it had been done. The improvement is most obvious during the static dialogue scenes, where the rather corny Mills & Boon-style still images of the original are thankfully replaced. Those chintzy pictures never sat right with the game's irreverent tone, so while still I mourn the loss of the original Guybrush, in all his pugnacious tousle-haired glory, I'm happy to see him replaced with the chinless blond do-over for these moments at least.
The change in control has been less successful. The classic mode still uses the old LucasArts on-screen menu of actions and inventory items, but the special edition version uses a rather less intuitive combination of pop-up radial menus. The A and B buttons act as left and right mouse-clicks, making movement and basic interaction simple enough, but the d-pad doubles as a quick select for actions and its problematic diagonals means that finding essential commands such as "Use" becomes a bit of a fiddle. Chaining a sequence of actions together with inventory items is just clumsy enough to be annoying, especially when faced with a timed challenge such as the melting grog mugs, and I actually found myself switching back to the 1990 point-and-click menu for these moments. Sometimes the old ways really are the best.
All such nitpicks pale, though, when you consider just what a truly great game Monkey Island is. Returning to it after almost two decades, it's a thrilling vindication to discover that it really hasn't aged in any of the areas that matter. It's still a brilliant juggling act between gameplay and gags, with neither element overpowering the other. Indeed, in many cases the puzzles are the jokes and vice versa, forming a perfectly paced adventure romp that lets the player get their teeth into the puzzles without slowing down its rattling good yarn with needless gameplay flab.
Some parts are slightly less successful than others - collecting all the sword-fight insults feels more of a grind than I remembered, while the deliberately confusing maze sections aren't much fun - but on the whole it's a game that never allows your smile to droop. Even when you're stumped by a puzzle, there's always some surreal background detail, deadpan wordplay or wry observation from Guybrush to make you laugh.
Of course, if you've played the game before, it's unlikely that you'll be stumped by much. In this regard, it's a victim of its own success. Despite not having played the game for years, I still found it all came back to me as I played through, with solutions that were once arcane now unexpectedly popping up fully formed, subconsciously summoned from some warm fuzzy pit of memories. Should you get horribly stuck there is a new hint system - called up by holding X - which prompts you onto the right path, yet it says a lot for Ron Gilbert's mastery of game design that even this diminished challenge didn't stop me from absolutely loving my belated return to Monkey Island. Like re-reading a favourite book, or watching a cherished movie for the umpteenth time, there are simply too many pleasures to be found in the construction of the thing for a lack of surprise to spoil the party.
The scene in Elaine's mansion, for instance, as Guybrush undergoes a bizarre series of off-screen battles, presented to the player only through non-interactive action prompts, is perhaps one of the most audaciously staged comedy moments in gaming, certainly in the stuffy environs of the adventure game. The fact that we never see the tremendous yak, wax lips, heavily armed clown or army of gophers makes them far funnier than any sprites could ever be, and yet the Python-esque skit also leaves you with an array of useful - if inexplicable - items essential to the upcoming puzzles. It's a joyous example of the game-maker's art at its peak; gags and gameplay working in symbiotic harmony for no loftier purpose than your entertainment.
So too for the moments where the game breaks through the fourth wall, calling attention to itself as a game, making sly references to other LucasArts projects or poking fun at the standard clichés of adventure gaming. Saving Guybrush from a watery grave, for example, flies in the face of gaming lore, requiring an action so simple yet so logical that you get the dual satisfaction of an expertly delivered punchline and a puzzle overcome in the same click. It's the game's genius in microcosm; constantly operating on multiple levels as an enjoyable adventure game and wickedly witty post-modern comedy, a double-decker sandwich of chewy, nourishing fun.
If there's one major complaint with this special edition, it's that it doesn't really offer much to justify the "special" part of that title. The game itself is special enough, of course, and the makeover is more than enough to make the re-release an occasion to cherish, but once the game is beaten there's nothing to mark its place in gaming history. I'm usually the first to complain when a game offers concept art as a reward, but for something as influential as Monkey Island such artefacts would actually have value. Maybe even a short video documentary on the game's original production, or how it was remade? A commentary from Ron Gilbert? Something from Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman? Any extra material would have made the return of Monkey Island more of an occasion, a celebration even, but in their absence you're left with a rather slim bare bones experience.
These bare bones form the skeleton of a truly marvellous game, however, and one that everyone should play. While it would be nice to have a more robust package, simply having such an unmistakable classic back in active circulation where new players can discover its dazzling inventiveness and giddy humour is victory enough. With any luck, they're already working on a similar reinvention for the sequel, LeChuck's Revenge.
Few games can stand the test of time with such confidence, and whether your interest stems from its genre-defining significance or its reputation as an unforgettable game, you won't be disappointed by time spent on Monkey Island. Anyone who disagrees probably fights like a cow.
9 / 10