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.