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Aye matey, beloved pirate games set sail again

One of the funniest games in video game history is getting a new lease on life. Nearly 20 years after its launch, "The Secret of Monkey Island" has been given a major makeover and a new sequel.
Image: Tales of Monkey Island
At long last, mighty pirate Guybrush Threepwood and his nemesis, the undead pirate LeChuck, have returned for more hilarious high seas adventures in the episodic game "Tales of Monkey Island."Telltale Games

“My name’s Guybrush Threepwood, and I want to be a pirate!"

“Guybrush Threepwood? Ha ha ha! That’s the stupidest name I’ve ever heard!”

“Well, what’s your name?”

“My name is Mancomb Seepgood.”

Ah yes, ask any seasoned gamer to name the funniest video games they’ve ever played, and you’ll almost always find “The Secret of Monkey Island” somewhere at the top of their list.

This beloved point-and-click adventure from LucasArts launched in 1990 and in doing so introduced the world to the misadventures of Guybrush Threepwood, a bumbling but endearing would-be pirate, along with Guybrush’s nemesis — the ghost pirate LeChuck — and his true love — Elaine.

The game also introduced the world to “insult sword fighting” — a kind of duel in which you must outwit your opponent with clever insults. (Jab: "You fight like a dairy farmer!" Parry: "How appropriate. You fight like a cow.") With its witty repartee, quirky story and clever puzzles, “The Secret of Monkey Island” spawned not only three sequels, but went down in history as one of the great adventure games of all time.

Alas, here we are almost two decades later and the once flourishing point-and-click adventure genre has long been pushed into near obscurity.

And yet, it’s starting to feel like 1990 all over again. That is, after almost 10 years without a “Monkey Island” game, players were greeted last week with “Tales of Monkey Island,” a brand new entry in the beloved series, available for both the PC and the Wii. And this week, LucasArts released a totally revamped version of the original “Secret of Monkey Island” game for the PC and Xbox 360.

Silly swashbuckling ahoy!
“It’s been a little strange,” says Dave Grossman, who’s not only one of the three masterminds behind the original “Secret of Monkey Island” game but the man spearheading the long-awaited new “Monkey Island” title.

“The last time I worked on a ‘Monkey Island’ game it was 1991," he says. "It’s been kind of like running into a stranger at the supermarket and then suddenly realizing that it’s an old friend of yours that you’ve kind of lost touch with. Things come flooding back like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember what I loved about these characters and why I liked writing in this style.’”

Image: The Secret of Monkey Island

Grossman, along with designer Tim Schafer, helped renowned game designer Ron Gilbert create “The Secret of Monkey Island” back when all three were working at LucasArts in the 80s and early ‘90s. Gilbert told his cohorts he was inspired, in part, by the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland.

“He said he had always wondered what it would be like to step off the ride and talk to the people who lived in that world,” Grossman says.

And so the three of them set about creating their pirate tale. But while their competition at the time was making adventure games that could be frustratingly difficult, they decided to design a friendlier game experience — one that made it rare for players to get themselves into a game-ending predicament.

And they packed “The Secret of Monkey Island” to the gills with hilarity, sprinkling zingy dialog and zany puzzles throughout.

“There was a unique kind of synergy of humor between the three of us,” Grossman says. “We were all funny in slightly different ways, and it worked well together.”

But he believes it wasn’t just the humor that made the game into a beloved classic, but the mix of both the funny and the serious.

“The moment-by-moment lines of dialog and scenes are quite funny, but the overarching story is to be taken fairly seriously,” Grossman says. “It’s a story about this young man who comes to an island in search of his life’s dream. He’s pursuing his career goals and he discovers love in the process and winds up thinking that was actually more important than what he was doing to begin with. You’re laughing, but there’s actually something deeper going on as well.”

Sadly, the laughter began to fade when “Doom” hit the market in 1993. The adrenaline rush of this first-person, demon-shooting thrill ride spawned countless immitators and wooed players and publishers away from other games, helping to usher the "Monkey Island" series and other point-and-click adventure games out the door.

Image: Tales of Monkey Island

Grossman eventually went to work at Telltale Games, a company founded by former LucasArts employees in 2004. Telltale has been helping to revive and modernize the adventure game genre by developing excellent titles like “Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People” and the new “Sam & Max” and “Wallace & Gromit” games — all of which they’ve released in downloadable and episodic format.

Grossman says it wasn’t until all of the Telltale and LucasArts business stars finally aligned last year that they could start work on a new “Monkey Island” game. But he says it’s not exactly easy revisiting a game with such an avid following.

“There’s tons of pressure actually,” Grossman says. “The fans are very vocal, and they’re vocal about all kinds of different details.”

Get your hot monkey vengeance here
With “Tales of Monkey Island,” he says they’ve tried to return to the series in a way that will please long-time fans. They brought in "Monkey" mastermind Gilbert (now busy developing a game called “DeathSpank”) to do some early brainstorming on the project and also put together a team that included writers, designers and artists who had worked on previous “Monkey Island” games.

But Grossman says they also tried to make “Tales of Monkey Island” welcoming to a new audience. To that end, they set it several years after the last game in the original series (“Escape from Monkey Island”) to give it room to take on its own life. And it will be doled out to players much like a TV series — with the story taking place over the course of five episodes, one delivered each month. The total package costs $35 and the first episode — “Launch of the Screaming Narwhal” — launched last week. It can be downloaded at and will soon appear for download via WiiWare.

Having played “Narwhal,” I can say that the beloved characters, though done in a thoroughly modern style, feel like their good ol’ selves. The game gets underway with Guybrush trying to rescue Elaine from that persistent pirate LeChuck only to have things go so horribly awry that he's left stranded on an island without Elaine and with one of his hands acting like it has an evil mind of its own.

“Tales” certainly retains the signature “Monkey” humor with funny lines flying faster than a flock of winged monkeys.

Image: The Secret of Monkey Island

“Watch out LeChuck, here comes Guybrush Threepwood’s glowing sword of hot monkey vengeance!” our hero warns his arch nemesis.

Meanwhile, the puzzles are authentically twisted and intriguing. The only (minor) negative is that, in the PC version, the controls can feel a bit wonky at times.

And the  “Monkey” love continues this week with LucasArts launching “The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition” — the original game with all new high-def graphics, a remastered score, a new hint system and a fully voice-acted story. (For $10 it can be downloaded through Steam or Xbox Live.)

Image: The Secret of Monkey Island

But before you decry their decision to tamper with the game’s old-school cool, note that LucasArts has done something downright brilliant: They’ve made it so you can seamlessly switch back and forth between the original game and the revamped game as you play. And comparing the two is a blast.

Ultimately, it’s great to see the imaginative, playful and delightfully twisted world of “Monkey Island” get a new life and hopefully a new audience. This is one treasure that should not be buried in the sand and forgotten.

And now, as Guybrush would say, “Look behind you! A three-headed monkey!”