The Mystery of Monkey Island

All right, so there wasn't really much to the plot. Something bad happens to your girlfriend/fiancé/governor upon whom you have this huge crush, and you have to defeat some pirate/skeleton/zombies in order to save her. Nothing we haven't seen before in countless other outlets of entertainment. So what makes the computer series known as "Monkey Island" so special? Why are the games so enthralling? And, perhaps most important of all, why was the last installment so danged terrible?

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The Mystery of Monkey Island: Why the Fourth Game Was Terrible

All right, so there wasn’t really much to the plot.  Something bad happens to your girlfriend/fiancé/governor upon whom you have this huge crush, and you have to defeat some pirate/skeleton/zombies in order to save her.  Nothing we haven’t seen before in countless other outlets of entertainment.  So what makes the computer series known as “Monkey Island” so special?  Why are the games so enthralling?  And, perhaps most important of all, why was the last installment so danged terrible?

In The Secret of Monkey Island, the series’ first installment, you control bumbling swashbuckler-wannabe Guybrush Threepwood as he commences his quest to become a full-blown pirate.  Before getting too far into his quest, he meets Elaine Marley, Governor of Melee Island.  Guybrush, being the leading man, falls madly in love with Elaine.  Elaine, being the leading lady, doesn’t care a thing about him.  Before you know what’s going on, Elaine is captured by the ghost-pirate LeChuck, and Guybrush must travel to the dangerous unknown that is Monkey Island in order to save her.

mi1The game was a success for many reasons, the chief of which being its sense of humor.  Whether you’re repelling from the home of a large tattooed man via a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle, trying to find the appropriate comeback to the jeers of bona-fide pirates, or putting attack poodles to sleep with tainted meat, the game never takes itself too seriously.  Additionally, the graphics are stylized in glorious Nintendo-quality pixels, which means it has that cozy home-cooked feel to it that we all love.  And as far as gameplay is concerned, both they and controls are akin to other LucasArts masterpieces, such as Sam and Max Hit the Road and Maniac Mansion; they all fit into time-proven genre of games known as the “graphical adventure”, which has seldom been successfully been replicated by any other company.

The second installment of the Monkey Island series came out a few years after the first, in 1991.  Virtually nothing was changed from the first as far as controls, graphical style, or gameplay are concerned, and this was a major plus for the game.  It’s called “Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge”, and follows the continuing saga of Guybrush Threepwood as he stumbles along the path to greatness.

The plot is tinkered around with a bit for this title.  Instead of you finding the girl, the game opens with the girl finding you hanging in the air down a hole which leads to LeChuck’s lair.  The majority of the game then plays like a flashback detailing the events leading up to your current circumstance.  LeChuck, now a zombie instead of a ghost, is out to get his revenge on you for defeating him in the last game, and you have to create a voodoo doll in his likeness in order to stop him.  To do so, you must collect various pieces of his hair, his clothing, and other bits of grossness from his body.  You eventually defeat him and get the girl again.

In Monkey Island 3: The Curse of Monkey Island, Guybrush starts the game adrift at sea in a bumper car, which is where he ended up due to complications at the end of the prior title.  He is taken prisoner by pirates, but by solving the puzzles which Monkey Island is famous for, he escapes their hook-handed grasp and ends up ashore on an island governed by Elaine.  One thing leads to another, and Guybrush is proposing to Elaine.  Unfortunately, he stole the engagement ring from the pirate ship’s treasure hold, and of all the rings to seal, he chose the one with the curse.  Mere seconds after placing the ring on his fair lady’s finger, she is turned into a statue of gold, and Guybrush spends most of the game trying to lift this curse.  He, of course, meets up with the still-zombie-pirate LeChuck, and must defeat this evil villain yet again.

The Curse of Monkey Island came out a number of years after the original two, as is clearly evidenced by the extreme graphical upheaval.  Instead of the classy pixels of yesteryear, LucasArts decided to give this game a cartoony look favored by the Dragon’s Lair series.  Not only that, but for the first time in the series, there’s voice acting; every single bit of dialogue in the game could be heard through your speakers, and it’s actually quite good.  Not that the graphics or sounds play a significant part in determining how fun a game is, but this was a welcome improvement.  The gameplay was thankfully left mostly unchanged.

And now, three years later, LucasArts has released the fourth (and possibly final) installment to the Monkey Island series:  Monkey Island 4: Escape from Monkey Island.  This time around, Guybrush has arrived at yet another new island following he and Elaine’s honeymoon.  They arrive to discover that everyone thinks Elaine is dead, and the island is holding elections for a new governor.  The top candidate is a suspicious character named Charles L. Charles, who turns out to be a villain from Guybrush’s past (one guess which villain that is).  Nothing spectacular there with the plot, but nothing spectacular was expected.

mi4Upon first glance, there’s a noticeable change in the graphical style.  This change is not for the better, as it was in the third game.  The Monkey Island series has always been known to have it’s own distinct visual appeal, and that visual appeal was lost in this title, which looks just like every subpar N64 platformer out there.  Except that it’s not a platformer; it’s a graphical adventure.

The game’s visual appeal wasn’t all that as lost, though.  Its humor is gone, too.  The game just isn’t funny; it relies on lame humor and cheap jokes that couldn’t provoke laughter in an especially happy clown.  So that there, what was once the chief appeal of the series, is totally gone.  And that’s not forgivable.

If that wasn’t enough, LucasArts completely dismantled the control scheme which had worked so wonderfully for the past three games.  Out are the point-and-click movement controls that are so totally sweet, and in are keyboard-controlled movements that make it less of a Graphical Adventure and more of a — you guessed it — platformer.  In fact, this entire extreme downgrade that Monkey Island 4 underwent seems to be the developer’s attempt to make the game less original and more like all the other games out there.  They seemingly wanted their series to no longer stand out among the crowded computer game shelves; they seemingly wanted it to blend in with all the other third-rate titles out there.  And in that regard, Monkey Island 4 was a major, major success — it succeeded in sucking.

Maybe LucasArts just wanted to put out a disappointing title.  They surely knew how popular their series was and how many people loved their unique formula, so the only reasonable explanation for why they so horribly altered it could be that they just wanted to piss off their fans and create a title that was more like Conker’s Bad Fur Day than it was Monkey Island.  The first three titles are masterpieces, games which are unanimously loved by all who play them — and the fourth one is just dribble that you could obtain from any two-bit publisher out there.  Hopefully I’m not alone when i send out a great big “fuck you!” to LucasArts for ruining one of the best game series out there, and hopefully I’m not the only one out there who yearns for when they put out quality graphical adventures.  It might just be the nostalgia in me, but I really miss this unique line of extraordinary titles, and it’s a damn shame that they had to absolutely ruin it with Monkey Island 4: Escape from Monkey Island.

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From 2002 to 2013

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