With all of the notoriety of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (ratings: 80, 58, and 62), it's easy to forget some of the other pop culture buccaneers who kept the lights of booty and plunder alive during the modern era. Frankly, few did it better than Guybrush Threepwood, protagonist of LucasArts's bizarre, hilarious point-and-click Monkey Island games. His first two adventures -- 1990's The Secret of Monkey Island and 1991's Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge -- tend to be wordy affairs, with frequent puns and gags based on dialogue choices that the player may pick.
The game is heavily jokey and self-referential; one of the first pirates Guybrush meets in the first game is wearing a big button that says "Ask Me About Loom," and if the player does, he launches into a long speech about Lucasarts's game Loom -- or, as the character calls it, "The latest masterpiece of fantasy storytelling from Lucasfilm's™ Brian Moriarty™" -- and as he speaks, the word "<ADVERTISEMENT>" appears just below him. When he's done speaking, the character is able to say "Geeze, what an obvious sales pitch." (Another of the game's running gags is to put ™ after a number of proper nouns, including "Monkey Island.") The second game includes an extended reference to the "Luke, I am your father" scene in Empire Strikes Back -- easy pickings for a game made by a company with "Lucas" in the name. The basic plot of both games is rather similar: Guybrush Threepwood, an inept wannabe pirate, must make use of dumb luck and voodoo magic to defeat the evil ghost pirate LeChuck and win the love of the beautiful Governor Elaine Marley. The jokes are rapid-fire, but the sense of humor is cracked: if the names "Guybrush Threepwood" and "LeChuck" aren't funny to you, it's likely that a lot of the rest of the games won't be either.
But the gameplay is quite enjoyable. If the games aren't remotely as serious as the King's Quest series, they're still fun and engaging, and decently long: certainly much longer than Loom, whose short length is probably its biggest drawback. They try to walk a delicate line between having a reasonably engaging storyline and furiously mocking everything in sight. ("How come you guys talk so funny?" Guybrush can ask a passerby. "Pirate Lingo!" is the answer. "It's how everybody talked back then.") They're relentlessly ironic about everything, as though Douglas Adams turned from outer space to the lawless Caribbean.
Point-and-click adventures gradually evolved out of text-based adventures like Zork, as a limited range of movement in the game's vocabulary ("go north," "look at dog") became intuited by clicking rather than patiently typing, but the engine was essentially the same. In these games it can be frustrating to figure out exacty where to click for what; sometimes the only solution is to drag your mouse slowly over every part of the screen until the identifying text changes to something promising, and then try out various commands -- "push," "pull," "open," and so on. (I got through the entire first game without using "Turn on" or "Turn off.")
Later sequels had much better graphics and cartoony animation, and Tales of Monkey Island are still being produced by Telltale Interactive, a company founded by former Lucasarts employees. The series has had such staying power that Secret of Monkey Island was recently re-mastered with improved graphics and voiceover acting for X-Box -- though the original is such a classic that the new version has a button that lets you play the game with the 1990 graphics. I haven't played the new version, but it's extraordinarily faithful; it's the old game, with virtually the same interface, just improved graphics.
The first two Monkey Island games are extremely similar in look and feel (though the second has slightly better graphics and more detail in sprite movement), and totally delightful. Lucasarts' house style always involved a lot of bizarre humor, but it was rarely better than in Monkey Island. The games aren't hard to find, and thanks to the Scumm VM emulator, which plays old Lucasarts games, they're very easy to run. If you have a similarly weird sense of humor, you may be surprised how much you like them. Just think twice before wearing an "Ask Me About Monkey Island™" button.
Rating for The Secret of Monkey Island: 85
Rating for Monkey Island 2: LeChucks' Revenge: 83
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.