Ben reviews “The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition”

July 16, 2009 Ben Games & Technology

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Whenever a company decides to revisit one of its beloved creations, there is always a risk that they’re going to tamper with something fundemental to what makes it work. Star Wars fans around the world are still having debates over who shot first. Red Dwarf: Remastered left fans of the show complaining about the new, elongated ship. E.T: The Extra Terrestrial Anniversary Edition replaced guns with Walkie Talkies, and consequently looked stupid. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while not a remastering, did attempt to recreate the formula of earlier titles in the series and failed horribly.

It can’t have escaped your notice that two of the four examples I mentioned above are from the George Lucas stable, which is slightly worrying when you consider that the Secret of Monkey Island was released back in 1990 by a little company called LucasFilm Games. Ninteen years later the company, now known as LucasArts (or “that company who has developed virtually nothing but Star Wars games for the last decade”), have revisited their seminal graphic adventure game, giving it a new coat of paint, improved sound and audio, and bringing in voice actors to read that wonderfully sharp dialogue. But is it another Star Wars: Special Edition? Or are we looking at the gaming equivalent of Blade Runner: The Final Cut?

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The answer is, “Yes.” What does that mean? Well, it’s sort-of a halfway house. The change in the art direction is unavoidably noticable – everything has been completely and utterly reanimated from the ground up. Backgrounds have been repainted, inventory images have been redrawn (although in some cases it’s pretty obvious that the inventory art hasn’t so much been redrawn as it has taken directly from the original and smoothed over), and characters have been redesigned and reanimated frame-by-frame. This has, for the most part, been done wonderfully: The majority of the backgrounds look utterly stunning, and I won’t mind having some high-res prints to frame and hang on my way.

The character redesign is mostly hit-and-miss, though. Fans seem to be split over whether or not the redesign given to protagonist Guybrush Threepwood (seen on the far left of the above screenshot sporting a fetching white shirt and black pantaloon ensemble) is really any good, with most fans focusing on his haircut. Personally I don’t mind Guybrush’s new look, even if I do miss the boyish curly hair of the original, but a lot of the other characters really didn’t mesh for me. The shopkeeper in the centre of Mêlée Island is perhaps one of the better examples – from the original pixel art I got the image of a scruffy, hairy, slightly round-faced old man. In this redesign, though, the guy looks fairly rugged if still remarkably hairy. Stan, the second-hand boat salesman, is another such example. He has far too much chin for my liking, and his arm flailing somehow loses much of the comedic value it had in the original artwork.

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Another problem I had with the art design was the close-up headshots you get of some of the characters during dialogue. The original art, which seems to have been based on actual photography rather than having been hand-drawn, gives each character two facial expressions in the headshots. For a couple of these characters the difference between the two is subtle – Mancomb Seepgood has a wry smile, Carla the Swordmaster of Mêlée Island ha sa disapproving frown, Governor Marley has a smile which is subtle but cute. In the revised artwork, wherein everyone has been given a cartoony makeover, the difference between the two shots is far from subtle. Seepgood’s smile is rather in-your-face, Carla’s frown has turned into a rather fierce scowl, and Marley’s smile simply isn’t cute anymore (perhaps because she has ridiculous cat’s eyes now).

The voice acting, then. For the most part, it’s pretty damned good. The cast from The Curse of Monkey Island and Escape From Monkey Island return to voice their characters, with the recognizable voices of Dominic Armato and Earl Boen returning to fill the vocal chords of Threepwood and LeChuck respectively, and British actor Alexandra Boyd lending her voice once again to Elaine Marley, Threepwood’s love interest. Boyd was the first of two actors to voice the role (Marley was voiced by Charity James in Escape From Monkey Island and came across as far too aggressive and hen-pecky for my tastes) and she is, in my opinion, the better of the two, but here her voice just seems to stick out. She seems to have approached Secret as she would a children’s television show, and she sounds rather sing-song and Pantomimesque at times. She was brilliant in Curse, where the approach suited the hand-animated cartoon style, but here it just doesn’t quite work for me.

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And that’s a problem I have with a lot of the voice acting in this game. It doesn’t seem to fit. It’s much the same problem fans of novels or book series have when Hollywood decides to adapt them – what comes across on the screen simply cannot match what one envisions inside of one’s own mind, and a lot of the voices in this game simply didn’t seem right to me. Where it works, it works remarkably well – the aforementioned shopkeeper sounds more or less as I’d imagined him to, as did Herman Toothrot and Meathook – but a lot of the voices… Hm. You have to understand, I’ve been playing this game since I was five. The characters’ voices have had eighteen years to develop in my head. When my little sister was old enough to play the game but not old enough to be able to read it, I would sit with her and read the dialogue, doing the voices as I went. It’s a very personal thing for me, and to hear what sounds like a very poorly-matched voice coming from the mouth of a character I’ve been hearing perfectly for nearly two decades… well, it’s jarring.

I feel I’m focusing far too much on the aesthetic negatives here – for all its faults, the Special Edition builds and improves upon much that was laid down in the original. The musical score in particular is absolutely magnificent – hearing the theme tune swell up for the first time made my heart skip a beat, and it was all I could do to stop myself from crying. I’m serious. The themes to Doctor Who, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), Red Dwarf and Futurama all elicit that same response from me,  because I’m a ruddy great big softie. Right now, I feel like I need to have that theme as the ringtone on my iPhone. In fact I wouldn’t mind having the entire soundtrack. It was beautifully, wonderfully, spectacularly scored, managing to somehow both be the original soundtrack and also be a seperate thing entirely.

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Perhaps the smartest decision that LucasArts made during the development process was to build the code for this new game on top of the original game, allowing you to switch between the spangly new Special Edition and the original game at any point with the press of a button. It’s a wonderful addition, one that you wish George Lucas would have instated on the original Star Wars trilogy DVDs. I had intended to play through the entire game in the new Special Edition mode but I found my curiosity getting the better of me, occasionally pressing the hotswap button to compare the old with the new. Indeed, in one instance this was actually necessary – there is a puzzle that occurs towards the end of the game’s first part where you have to take a tankard of grog from Mêlée Island’s only bar to the jail cell to corrode the lock and help a prisoner escape, and you have to pour the grog from one tankard to another as you go since it also eats away at the pewter tankard. The new interface, which hides the inventory and verb menus off-screen, simply doesn’t allow you to switch from one tankard to another as hastily as you’d like.

I had this problem again at the game’s finale. Without wanting to give away the final puzzle for potential newcomers to the series, it’s a time-sensitive puzzle that I can usually execute it quickly – Pick up x, use x on y. Five clicks. Easy. With the new interface, however, I had to press Ctrl to bring up the verb menu, click Pick up, click on x, press Ctrl and Alt to bring up the Verb and Inventory menus, click Use, click x, then click on y. I didn’t do this in time on my first try and had to wait for the second chance to execute it. I swear baby, that never happens.

A thought occurs – I’m playing on a PC, and I have a pretty quick mouse hand (and you can stop that snickering at the back). I can’t imagine the frustration someone playing on the Xbox 360 with a controller might experience on that puzzle…*

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And therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the problem with The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. For all the love that went into it, for all the painstaking effort that went into reanimating each sprite, repainting each background, re-recording each piece of music, it has perhaps been over-thought. It would have been nice to at least have the option of shrinking the game window a little and keeping the verb and inventory menus at the bottom of the screen, as per the tradition. It might maybe have been interesting to be able to mix-and-match elements, allowing us to play with the original graphics but keep, say, the re-scored music or the voice acting.

But mostly it’s nice to see Monkey Island at the forefront of gaming news and chatter once again. It’s fantastic to see a generation of new fans experiencing what I have experienced over the last two decades. It’s remarkable that LucasArts have given players the option of playing the original, untouched version of the game as well as the spiffy new special edition. Despite my chief complaints, this is still The Secret of Monkey Island. This is still one of the most seminal, groundbreaking, important games of all time. It’s still challenging, humorous, entertaining and, above all else, fun. You’ll have a hard time finding a more complete, enjoyable gaming experience for $10.

Final Scores

Substance – 8.5
Style – 7
Slant – 9.5

Overall
8 out of 10

(For comparison, the original gets a full 10.)

* Update on July 16th: Andrew Ellard, who I suppose could be described as a friend, has been playing Monkey Island SE on his Xbox 360 and had this to say concerning the fiddly controls on the grog tankard puzzle:

Here I am, posting at 4am having downloaded TSOMI today and literally just completed this part of the game…and it was fine. By the time I got the the tankards, I’d already dropped using the pop-up command menu almost entirely. The 360 version allocates a command each to the eight directions of the D-pad, and that’s how I’m doing 90% of my selections.

Though it’s not ideal compared to the mouse-pointing I did on the Amiga way back when (where, in fact, I don’t think I fully played this game, but skipped straight on to Monkey Island 2), it didn’t cause any mayor problem. And it’s preferable, just, to moving the pointer to the options in the Classic mode when using a controller.

Pfft. 360 gamers catch all the breaks.

Lucas, Monkey Island,

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