Monkey Island has played a large part in my life. I remember sneaking into the Virgin Superstore in Brighton, and slicing open the seal on The Secret of Monkey Island strategy guide, just so I could find hints for getting through the game. I dressed up as Guybrush Threepwood at a university party, and only one person knew who I was (although we struck up a friendship that lasts to the day). And I got an interview for my first career job by submitting a review of Curse of Monkey Island.
We are, in short, fans. We’re one of those starry-eyed people that Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert give the side-eye at conventions. But we were also cynical and world-weary enough to contain our hopes for Return to Monkey Island. Returning to the classic point-and-click universe after all this time can only be a bad thing. While the band is back together, it’s not the whole band (Tim Schafer is off doing his Double Fine thing), and that’s without mentioning the famously contentious art style (which is absolutely fine, you rotters).
We dodged the PC launch of Return to Monkey Island in the hopes that it would swing over to the Xbox, and so it has indeed swung. It arrived, day-one on Game Pass no less, and we elbowed our way to the front of the review queue like a rabid Black Friday shopper. We could hear our inner Murray mumbling “please be good, please be good”.
In the larger sense, we needn’t have worried. Return to Monkey Island feels every bit the continuation of the series. This isn’t a change of tack or a wacky digression: this is constructed with a stupendous amount of love for the characters and series. The voice actors are all the same or near-as-dammit. The tone is as irreverent and self-deprecating as we remember, and the interactions between familiar characters – Threepwood and Elaine, Threepwood and LeChuck – have the intense warmth of correctness and believability. It’s like being in the reading-room for a long-cancelled sitcom, yet the chemistry between the actors is still bubbling away.
The story begins in a distinctly Princess Bride style, which feels about right for a series that has already pilfered plenty from it. So, the story begins with Threepwood Jnr, sitting on a bench with Threepwood Snr, talking over the time that Guybrush really, actually, definitely DID uncover the secret of Monkey Island.
Events begin soon after Escape and Tales from Monkey Island, with Threepwood and Elaine in a loving relationship (perfectly executed: they love each other’s foibles, and you genuinely wish them all the best as the story develops), and Threepwood living rent-free in LeChuck’s mind (there’s a lovely section where you steal LeChuck’s diary, and find out just how much the ghost-pirate thinks about Threepwood. A clue: it’s a lot). Threepwood arrives on Melee Island, his tail up with the possibilities of finding Monkey Island again. But LeChuck is in port too, and he’s forming a crew to find the Secret before Guybrush can. What’s worse is that the Pirate Leaders have disbanded, only to be reformed into a nefarious and more profit-driven group, and they’re after the Secret too.
Without a crew or ship, your betting money probably wouldn’t be on Guybrush. But he’s a resourceful chap with friends, and – with the help of some weirdo items that have been MacGuyvered together – manages to stow aboard LeChuck’s ship. Then it’s the usual rollercoaster of faintly believable events, as pirates triple-cross each other, secrets are found under people’s noses, and mop-trees are cut down. And we promise, one-hundred percent this time, that the Secret of Monkey Island will be revealed. Pinky-swear.
Graphic adventures on console are a strange old bunch. They never feel right on the sticks, as you drag cursors over to the stuff you want to enquire about. Return to Monkey Island dodges most of the usual issues by getting out of the way: rather than a cursor, you’re moving Guybrush yourself and tabbing through areas-of-interest with the shoulder buttons. There’s an argument that it makes things too simple – PC master-racers will complain about the auto-aim that it effectively offers – but it lets you focus on the good stuff, and that’s fine by us. The alternative would have been far finickier.
It leaves you to immerse in the characters, dialogue and storytelling, and it’s a good thing too, as they are all of the highest order. You spend a prolonged period with LeChuck’s crew, and we almost wished we could enroll permanently. They’re a well-wrought bunch, and you can see why Ron Gilbert kept finding himself gravitating back to them. We didn’t laugh out loud as much as we had in some previous iterations – things don’t get as surreal or abstract as sword-fight insults – but while the peaks aren’t as high, the consistency is strong. It’s safe seas throughout, and we felt comfortable knowing that we were in respectful, capable hands.
We’d argue that they can be a mite too respectful. If Return to Monkey Island was a Star Wars film, it would be Force Awakens. It’s a big fan of the callback, using characters, jokes and setups that are liberally robbed from all the previous games, particularly Secret of Monkey Island the First. Heaven knows what the experience must be like for someone unaware of the series – there are so many in-jokes that it’s verging on the cliquey. And it does occasionally fall into the trap of thinking a reference to an older game is enough, in joke terms. It works on occasion, but not always. And the re-use of Melee Island’s map, almost in its entirety, feels like a nostalgic reach too far.
But perhaps we’re guilty of donning the rose-tinted spectacles ourselves. Because virtually every Monkey Island has pulled the same tricks. They do call back and reference each other with abandon. They are a little hit-and-miss with the laughs. We’re just inured to them, thanks to replaying them pretty much every year since 2003. So, when an internal criticism starts bubbling up that Return to Monkey Island is actually quite slight and easy, completely possible to finish in a couple of hours (don’t worry, your first runthrough will be more like eight), then we have to point to the other games and remember that they were exactly the same.
Most of all, we can breathe a sigh of relief. Because while it’s safe, and it tugs on the nostalgia rigging a little too often, it’s also completely of a piece with the rest of the series. It’s Guybrush, LeChuck, Elaine and all the others, cracking wise as they have always done, with a luminous cast of characters, some fantastically abstract item combinations, and the odd three-headed monkey. If Return to Monkey Island is the rebirth of the series, we’ll put in an order for seven or eight.
You can buy Return to Monkey Island from the Xbox Store