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Looking Back to 1990 and The Secret of Monkey Island, When Point-and-Clicks Clicked


“You fight like a dairy farmer.” 

“How appropriate. You fight like a cow.”

Holy-moley, the insult-fighting in The Secret of Monkey Island deserves the praise it gets. Anyone who’s played it can probably recite an insult from memory. The Dairy Farmer line would be in danger of being worn out, but, like most of the lines in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, the purity of its genius will always be there. 

The Secret of Monkey Island

What I didn’t know, and what makes writing these articles so joyous (because you do research and find out miraculous things), is that this line, and so many of the other insults in Secret of Monkey Island, was written by Orson Scott Card, the writer of Ender’s Game. Ron Gilbert asked him to consult, as there were just too many insults to write, and he duly obliged. 

“I got this scar on my face during a mighty struggle!”

“I hope you’ve learned to stop picking your nose.”

For me, Secret of Monkey Island was like the opening of a dam. I’d been playing graphic adventures, point-and-clicks, adventure games – whatever you want to call them – for three years, and liked them. The King’s Quest series was my first, but I was a fresh-faced seven-year old, and it felt incredibly difficult. While it was graphical, the actions were typed in, and finding the right verb for the right actions was baffling. It was brutal too, killing you with every opportunity it had. 

So I moved onto Maniac Mansion, which was the first to really use the visualised verb system, clicking ‘Look at’ and then choosing the object. I wasn’t old enough to get the kitsch references, and it still dabbled in obscurity, but it was a definite step up. Then it was Zak McKraken, which felt like a true adventure, and just a touch less obscure. But it was 1989, and the graphic adventure anvil hadn’t fallen on me yet.

“You have the manners of a beggar.”

“I wanted to make sure you’d feel comfortable with me.”

The Secret of Monkey Island 1990

Having enjoyed Zak and Maniac Mansion, two LucasArts joints, I put Secret of Monkey Island on my Christmas list. It duly came, and it was just a hell of an artefact. I forget how many discs there were for my lowly Atari ST, but there were lots. Then there was the Dial-a-Pirate copy protection wheel, which was my first indication that I was getting something special. You just don’t get crazy crap like that in a game box nowadays, and you could argue that’s a very good thing.

But it’s when the game booted that everything changed. The game was undeniably beautiful, with a wonderful, twinkling map of Melee Island that a tiny Guybrush would skit around, and lovingly created areas that felt like they were discrete spaces, rather than just lazily copy-and-pasted to save a bit of budget. The characters all had their own jokes and wacky uniqueness, and Meathook, Stan the Used Boat Salesman, Guybrush and LeChuck would all stay with me. 

It was the writing, more than anything, that made Secret of Monkey Island so special. It didn’t occur to me that games could be funny, let alone consistently funny, and with such peaks as the insult-slinging. 

“You make me want to puke.”

“You make me think that someone already did.”

Monkey Island

Actually, at the time, it wasn’t the insult slinging that got me racing into the playground to tell everyone – it was the root beer. Monkey Island gets you jumping through hoops to make a voodoo root. This root is what you need to actually do damage to Ghost Pirate LeChuck, who, being a ghost, can’t be killed without it. You gatecrash LeChuck’s wedding and misplace the root. You’re doomed. But then you fight, tumble out by a vending machine, and pull out a root beer. It works instead of the voodoo root, and LeChuck explodes. Of course the root beer works.

I loved that the game got you jumping through so many hoops to make something, removed it from you, and then tossed the root beer solution into your lap. It was so playful, and that was thrilling for someone who was writing rubbish, mopey fantasy fiction at the time. 

“Have you stopped wearing diapers yet?”

“Why, did you want to borrow one?”

The Secret of Monkey Island was the game that made we want to make video games, in particular write for them. Monkey Island 2 only underlined the motivation. While the other Monkey Islands never hit the same highs, there were so many games that followed in its wake, learning from it, and combining to make me such a graphic adventure fan. Sam & Max, Grim Fandango, Lure of the Temptress, Discworld, Simon the Sorceror, Gobliiins – they all wouldn’t be here without the success of The Secret of Monkey Island. My favourite game of all time, Day of the Tentacle, basically just stood on the shoulders of Guybrush and chucked in some time-travelling toilets.

Secret of Monkey Island

You can see The Secret of Monkey Island’s influence here and there, from the quips of Lair of the Clockwork God, to the bawdy seafaring of Sea of Thieves, to the enduring Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I’d argue that we wouldn’t have a Jack Sparrow without Mr Threepwood, or a Barbosa without LeChuck. The irony is that Secret of Monkey Island was trying to capture the feel of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Strange how it all comes full circle.

“I once owned a dog that was smarter than you.”

“He must have taught you everything you know.”

Do you have fond memories of Secret of Monkey Island? Pop them in the comments below – we’d love to hear from you. If you haven’t played it, get over to the Xbox Store and grab The Secret of Monkey Island SE.

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1 year ago

I was a little older than you when I first played them on my Amiga 1200. Me and my mates would spend hours playing this, trying to solve absurd puzzles. The writing was fantastic and would make us genuinely laugh.
I replayed TSoMI on my Xbox a few years ago and recently replayed TSoMI2 on my PS5 (it’s on PSNow as a streamable game) and the comedy still holds up.
Can’t wait for Monkey Island 3

1 year ago

Best game ever period.
And now another sequel is coming out this year!! Can’t’ wait!!

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