Return to Monkey Island - Thar Be Adventuring To Be Had
It’s been a lot longer than ten minutes since we’ve gone back to Monkey Island with Ron Gilbert at the helm. For a long time it seemed a frivolous wish, a sour note positioned somewhere between an alternate history that never was and a nerdy teen’s self-indulgent wish for what could’ve been, with the man himself being quite vocal about it being the embodiment of unlikelihood, all until it wasn’t. Until it was real. Until it would be here. You can finally stop holding your breath. It’s here, and on Talk like a Pirate Day, no less.
The whole Monkey Island series is the absolute biggest name in Adventure Games (as they used to be called), and many still have fond memories of different moments from each of the games, though most of all with the first game of the series, The Secret of Monkey Island. From the humour surrounding the adventures of the hapless Pirate wannabe Guybrush Threepwood to the evocative majesty of a filmic score, to the cozy candy-coated cast of Caribbean cutthroats and cadavers, it was an experience, a journey, and a moment in time all at once. It had as the central antagonist the ineffably charming Ghost-Zombie-Demon-Voodoo Pirate of LeChuck, with an aura of infamy rivalled only by a monkey wrench. He was the villain you loved to hate, yet also loved. He bordered on the bluster of a bombastic Barbossa, years before we had an inkling of the latter.
It was all these elements combined, with spectacular writing and memorably intricate puzzles that gave the games a following that would be inspired to create all sorts of fan tributes, or in a fashion closer to the misguided dreamer of Guybrush himself, plans of tributes that would stay stuck in a greater threat than piracy – the dreaded spectre of procrastination. Ah, but a tangential acknowledgement of a writer’s long-lost teenage plans to put the lore into a play is not what you’re here for, and neither is it the author’s waning waxes. It’s all about the return.
The collective We have been waiting for this, even hoping for this, and over the preceding years, before its development was revealed, it was considered with an ethereal presence as ghostly as any ghastly in LeChuck’s crew. It seemed unlikely, even impossible – a fan’s self-serving wish, and even an old tale of woe shared whenever a newer game didn’t meet the expectations in its ending. Like a near toothless old man lambasting their youngers as they so vocally pined for the days of walking uphill through the snow both ways to school, they’d raise it as an old gamer’s folktale- you didn’t get the answers you wanted in the finale of Mass Effect? Well, we suffered through a lack of closure in the final phase of Monkey Island 2 and we loved every minute of suffering.
Gosh, I’m doing it again. Nyaaaah. Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!
What you really want to know, and here it is plainly, a big resounding yes. It’s everything you could’ve hoped for.
Without a doubt, it feels like a return to the franchise, in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s been all that much time since it was last around. The characters throughout are wonderfully acted, and each is iconic in their presentation. Voice acting is great across the board. As already said, Guybrush sounds like the same Guybrush as ever, LeChuck has the best blustering pirate voice this side of a Johnny Depp vehicle, and Elaine Marley’s voice is like a cozy hug for your ears, carrying all the love and patience for Guybrush, tested as they are by his escapades. The mains and fan favourites aren’t the only ones who make their mark, and so many of the new characters have such a presence in their voice and style that some new favourites are sure to emerge.
While there was some level of doubt from the internet at large on the new style, it really works. Every character from the past games that shows up in Return (and as you might expect, there are a few) are instantly recognisable. The same is true of the locales you’ll visit, and while there are some obvious appearances, even the new spots to explore slot into the rest of the setting like they’d always been there.
The same can be said for the music, which also carries the familiar feel for each character’s leitmotif, but then forges new core memories for each of the strange and different places you visit.
There isn’t much to be gained by revealing the frame of the narrative or the cues called upon, but there are some moments where it is like returning to an old home. It never feels forced or artificial, and is not so much a pursuit of fan service, but a frame and progression that feels organic to the story and the stories before it. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there is a prologue and subsequent acts, as Monkey Island games have always called explicit attention to the delineation between their acts.
It doesn’t seem like something too spoilery to put out there, but the moment when the prologue ends and the first act begins, it’s at once a callback, an announcement and a celebration that will drive fuzzy, tingly chills through your very bone. Not in a fan service way, but in a manner that just feels right.
Return to Monkey Island really represents the evolution of what adventure games should be, and it wants all to come on the journey. The game has a wonderful hint system embedded within it, which doesn’t hold your hand too much, giving just enough that you still feel like an unmitigated genius for pointing and clicking and clicking again. Where that’s really good is in reminding you to try things you tried before, as they might be successful for a subsequent puzzle where they hadn’t been originally. This approach is reminiscent of playing the game with an audience, and many past players will have fond memories of playing alongside siblings, parents and other relatives.
To assist in the journey, it has a mix of difficulties as some of its predecessors had, and also has within the starting menu a scrapbook feature designed to introduce new players to a setting some come to with incalculable familiarity. The scrapbook was the perfect way to recount adventures past, and as someone that poured so many hours growing up, it felt like a special nostalgia-filled recap of everything that came before. Hearing Dominic Armato’s voice as Guybrush once again, with his sing-song speech and a lightness where you could hear the twinkle in the ever-hopeful Guybrush’s eye, really nailed it.
For the diehards, there are also a bunch of trivia cards littered throughout the world, which challenges you to know all sorts of obscure facts about the games. Presumably, so you can tell tall tales to others about how well you know the games.
This is the definite swansong of the setting and was already expected to be such. Thimbleweed Park, the last game from Terrible Toybox, had a lot of expectation put on it, and while it was a good game with its moments, it didn’t stick the landing well enough to put it on the same pedestal as many of the past Lucasian games for which its creators had been held in high esteem. Thimbleweed was in many ways a game for adventure game makers, delving deeper into the meta instead of rising to the challenge of the expectation, yet its greatest flaw, the most pressing criticism, the most insidious sin of all… was… it wasn’t Monkey Island. Return to Monkey Island is unequivocally Monkey Island. In name, but also in everything else. And it’s an answer.
In a lot of ways, that’s what the Return to Monkey Island represents. Closure, or at least closure enough that it breeds contentment. Thimbleweed Park may have shot for airs of Twin Peaks, but it’s Return that captures the psyche-changing impact of Twin Peaks: The Return. Maybe it adds questions. Maybe you don’t get your favourite character. Maybe you weep all bitter-sweet that there may be no equivalent experience in your future and that even this farewell tour is over before you’ve had a chance to process your own goodbye. That’s okay. No goodbye is all sun, but it can still nourish you all the same.
With the momentous interruption in the narrative caused by the very open and very ambiguous ending of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, there can be no doubt there was an ambition that this would be everything it could be, and would satisfy the hopes and dreams of players and yes, the characters. Return to Monkey Island had so much to live up to, and it had to be the capital-E Everything.
And honestly, it is. It’s perfect. It’s everything it could have been. Whether the final cap on Guybrush, Elaine and all the rest or the first of a new continuation, it doesn’t matter. Return to Monkey Island is impeccable, and it’s an amazing twist of fate that it can exist for real.
Return to Monkey Island was reviewed on the PC with code kindly supplied by Devolver Digital.