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Second Opinion: The Sequels of Monkey Island

Second Opinion takes on an entire series of games.

This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of.  This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of.  Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not.  Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad.  Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about.  Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

I adore point-and-click adventure games. Oh, sure, I’ve done previous Second Opinion features about why Day of the Tentacle has some serious flaws or why Grim Fandango is crazy overrated, but you have understand that those sorts of pieces can only come from a place of deep and abiding love, if not for those specific games (which I do like, by the way), then for the genre as a whole. The question, then, is that if I don’t think those are the best adventure games like everyone else does, then what is the best point-and-click of all time? Well, the game that really defines the genre for me – the shining gold yardstick by which all others must be measured – is Curse of Monkey Island.

But, hark! What’s this? A Disqus comment approaches, informing me that I have no idea what I’m talking about, because obviously I misspoke and said “Curse of” instead of “Secret of” or, more likely, “LeChuck’s revenge.” But nope! Curse is my favorite, and while I think it has some serious mechanical flaws, I think the best story of any of the games was Tales of Monkey Island. And actually, LeChuck’s Revenge is actually my least favorite of any of the games, by far. Now, to some of you, this whole discussion is gonna seem like a ridiculous exercise in minutae, which is a pretentious way of saying “who cares?” But the thing is, within the community of Monkey Island fans it’s widely accepted that the first two games are brilliant, stellar examples of the genre, the third game is okay at best, and the most recent games are garbage, and I couldn’t agree less with that assessment. In fact, this topic was the very first idea I wrote down for Second Opinion, and while I decided not to start with it because I realize that these games have a much smaller fanbase than, say, Overwatch, I’ve waited long enough. It’s time to finally give the Monkey Island sequels their due.

So let’s set up a realm of discourse. What, in general, makes a good Monkey Island game. Well, a lot of things, but I’d say there’s three main factors. One: story. Like any point-and-click adventure game, the gameplay really just serves to give you something to do – the story’s why you’re really there. The second is the puzzles, because even if they’re secondary, frustrating puzzles can ruin the whole experience for you. And the third is the comedy – Monkey Island bills itself as a comedy series, so if the jokes don’t make you laugh, it’s really not doing its job.

The great thing about Monkey Island at its best is that the three important elements are often woven together. For example, the famous insult swordfighting section in the first game. It’s obviously funny, as you and your opponent trade ridiculous insults like “you fight like a cow.” It’s also a really fun gameplay mechanic – a puzzle that requires thinking about dialogue and learning new phrases instead of collecting and combining items. And it actually serves the storytelling – initially we see that Guybrush is so dumb that he can’t think of obvious retorts to his opponents’ insults, but that he’s also so single-minded in his quest to become a pirate that he won’t let anything stop him, remaining unflappable even as you fail your quest a hundred times. It also establishes Carla the Swordmaster, who’s built up as this fierce warrior, and is this fierce warrior, but when you meet her you find that she is absolutely not the person you expected her to be. Far from a terrifying figure, she’ll later end up joining your crew.

To my mind, no game does this better than Curse of Monkey Island. Its story, while simple, is compelling, full of interesting and likable characters, and superbly written, taking place across a number of really cool locations. It’s the only game in the series where I can’t think of a single puzzle that was frustrating or unfair in some way. And as for the comedy, well. Throw in an even better version of insult swordfighting, a brilliant midgame musical number, some gorgeous hand-drawn graphics (that will always be the definitive Monkey Island “look” far more than 3D weirdness, bricky pixels in front of badly-scanned backgrounds, or whatever the hell the Special Editions thought they were doing), and the best sidekick character in gaming, and you’ve got a pretty obvious choice for best in the series.

The fourth and fifth games might not be quite as masterful, but in a lot of ways they’re better than their predecessors. I would argue that they all have better stories. The original Monkey Island (which I love, by the way) is almost pure comedy and doesn’t have more plot than “Guybrush Threepwood really wants to become a pirate, so he does, and also he falls in love with a girl whose ex is a ghost so that’s a whole thing.” And LeChuck’s Revenge…ugh. Right, I want this to be a more positive feature, ‘cause I feel like this series has been really negative lately, but man LeChuck’s Revenge is disappointing for me. It’s about 80 to 90 percent the best game in the series, but its plot favors shock value over good storytelling (a Tim Schafer trademark.) Like oh, you thought Guybrush and Elaine would be together at the end of the last game, but they’re not, because it’s way better to rehash the same plot of them falling in love a second time rather than see what it would be like if their relationship had actually gone forward, so they’re broken up for no reason.

Or, hey, what if we threw a curve ball at the end by having the worst ending in gaming? Yeah, that’s right – the worst ending in gaming. Because not only is it vague and comes completely out of nowhere, but if you take it at face value then it means LeChuck mind-controlled Guybrush and won. It’s an ending that means everything you’ve been working for in the last two games was for nothing, because LeChuck survives and gets to keep doing evil, and not in a way where you feel like it’s tragic, but in a way where it feels like the game has stolen from you. And I know there’s loads of theories about it, but listen to the developer’s commentary in the Special Edition – the creators didn’t want to tell some deeper story, they wanted a shock ending that would get talked about. The ending of LeChuck’s Revenge is so bad that it ruins the plots of not one, but two games, and I give the third game extra credit because it actually managed to salvage that overflowing toilet of a finale and build off it in a way that was actually good.

Right, sorry, back to the good games. While LeChuck’s Revenge fumbles as it tries to make its first steps into telling a deeper and more unique story with its characters, the sequels do a much better job. Like how Escape from Monkey Island is a story about rampant capitalism eroding traditional values, featuring an evil billionaire buying up the world at the expense of others’ rights in what was written as a parody of Rupert Murdoch but works remarkably well as a satirical take on certain other rich public figures I could think of. It even has an election where people are so sick of the status quo that they elect a woefully underqualified candidate who puts forward simple, short, memorable phrases over concrete policies. I’ll admit I’m pretty much just taking the piss at this point, but still – it’s a story that does dive into some deeper themes, and tells a rich story that in terms of scope and consequences for the Caribbean feels much bigger than anything that came before it, which was basically the story of these two guys constantly fighting over a girl who could kick both of their butts without blinking. Plus, Escape’s cast is a real who’s who of famous voice actors, all putting in amazing performances, and I’ll never understand why everyone hated Charity James as Elaine so much, ‘cause I think she does a fantastic job.

And then there’s Tales of Monkey Island, holy crap. At this point Telltale’s penchant for amazing storytelling is well-known, and they were at the top of their game in Tales. Since I know very few people actually played that one, I’ll try not to give away any spoilers, but it’s a story that subverts a lot of expectations the series has – Guybrush and Elaine’s relationship, LeChuck’s cycle of reincarnation, the Voodoo Lady as an uninvolved observer – but without changing what made those aspects what they are. For example, it looks at Guybrush and Elaine’s marriage from a different angle and tells a new story with that without just breaking them up and going back to square one. And speaking of things it did better than LeChuck’s Revenge, its ending goes to a really dark place, but it’s a darkness that’s earned and built up throughout the rest of the game, something that’s heartbreaking without coming completely tonally out of left field, in part because rather than it being a three-minute cutscene it takes place over the last episode and a half of the game. Tales of Monkey Island is a masterclass in storytelling, with one of the best narratives of any game, and it’s certainly better than anything else in this series.

Puzzles, too, are often better in the sequels, because they don’t come from the masochistic time where Sierra was still killing you for looking at an object funny. If you didn’t like a puzzle in an old LucasArts game, you could go get hosed, because you weren’t gonna be able to afford any other games this month and we didn’t have a huge back catalog of better experiences to enjoy. They really didn’t care how accessible the gameplay was, so you had stuff like the monkey wrench puzzle or the puzzle where you have to dump out a mug of poisoned grog but you can’t use grog on floor, or use grog with any of the other cups in your inventory, or use poisoned grog with the mug of unpoisoned grog to swap them – the only way to beat that puzzle is to dump it specifically into the plant, because Tim Schafer saw a movie once where that happened and wanted to make a reference to it.

Now, there are still bad puzzles, fair enough – as I said before, I think Curse is the only one that gets a free pass here. Escape from Monkey Island, for example, has a rock puzzle that relies on inhuman levels of expert timing, and the last episode of Tales of Monkey Island involves walking a ridiculously long path between two areas over and over again to perform menial tasks. But I’ll still stand by my claim that the sequels are less frustrating overall than the first two games, and if you think that’s not true it’s probably because you, like me, have played the original games so much that you’ve forgotten just how awfully unintuitive they actually are.

And for the record, Monkey Kombat really isn’t that bad. Sure, unlike insult swordfighting, it’s not that funny, but it’s really not hard if you take notes, which is something you used to have to do in games all the time. There’s four stances, each stance beats and is beaten by one other stance, switching between stances takes combinations of three monkey noises. It’s rock-paper-scissors with a little extra difficulty thrown in for flavor and everybody acts like it’s the worst thing to ever happen to videogames. At least they told you what you were supposed to be doing – that’s more than I can say for half the puzzles in LeChuck’s Revenge.

And yet, despite all this, people still criticize these games unfairly. Why? Well, there’s two main arguments. One: they’re not enough like the old Monkey Island games. Two: they’re too much like the old Monkey Island games and don’t innovate enough. Now, if you’re thinking very carefully, you might be able to spot a logical flaw there. A lot of the time these are two separate arguments, but in my research for this video I saw plenty of times where the same person made both statements with no self-awareness whatsoever. Just as an example, Zero Punctuation’s review of the first two episodes of Tales claims both that it’s too scared to do anything new with the series and that he’s disappointed because they changed Guybrush’s character too much. What this argument is really saying is: “This game isn’t exactly like the two games that came out when I was a kid, therefore I hate it, therefore it’s a bad sequel and I’m trying to find a way to justify it.” Still, we’ll treat these arguments as serious and address them in turn.

First of all: the games stick too closely to the original formula, the products of, depending on the story, fanboys who loved the original games too much to try changing them up or corporate committees scared of doing anything original that might cost them money. Really. Every game but Escape goes almost entirely to new locations with Tales of Monkey Island never even going to Monkey Island, Escape makes LeChuck the secondary antagonist and turns ridiculous one-joke hermit Herman Toothrot into the deus ex machina that saves the day, LeChuck becomes a firebreathing devil, a shapeshifting statue, a normal guy, and a creature of pure voodoo magic. And if these changes seem superficial, it’s only because I didn’t want to get into larger spoilers, so fair warning: Curse of Monkey Island is about Guybrush finally proving himself to be Elaine’s equal so that it makes sense when they finally get married, Escape is a Butch Cassidy-style story about fighting your own irrelevance and bringing the funny anachronisms that have always been part of the series’ setting to the forefront, and TalesTales is a dark exploration of what would happen if Guybrush actually failed for once, seeing what it would take to break the universe’s most affable idiot and maybe even get him to question his faithfulness to Elaine. Each one was designed not only with different stories but with very different feels and design sensibilities – Curse is a cartoon, Escape is a sweeping swashbuckling adventure that inserts modern elements in fantasy a la “The Adventure Zone”, and Tales is the sort of darker plot-based game you’d expect from the people who’d go on to do The Walking Dead.

Okay, so that argument’s ludicrous, but what about being too different, then? Surely that’s a reasonable argument considering everything I just said. Well, again, I think this is an argument mostly motivated by nostalgia, because if you think that Elaine breaking up with Guybrush over something we’ve never seen and a bizarre ending about a carnival and Guybrush suddenly having a beard and turning into a career criminal isn’t a big change but that the Giant Monkey Head turning out to have been built for a more significant purpose is, you’re blinded by nostalgia. Man, people are mad about that Giant Monkey Head thing, despite it being little more than a weird bit of set dressing in the original game. Hmm. Weird. Now I wonder why someone might ascribe enormous importance to a minor aspect of something that they loved as a child. Wonder if there’s a word for that.

Here’s my counterargument: everything that needs to stay the same in order for it to be a Monkey Island game stays the same. They all have those three elements of puzzles, comedy, and story, and all do all three pretty well. What’s more, all the important elements of said story are in place. Guybrush might get a little more competent throughout the series, because it would strain credulity if he’d saved the Caribbean four times and still had no idea how to handle LeChuck at the beginning of Tales, but he’s always in way over his head. In the first game he wanders into a conflict he didn’t even realize was happening and in the fifth game he wanders out of a situation he still barely understands. He and Elaine remain the perfect example of opposites attracting, often at odds but always caring for each other, just like a real relationship. Elaine herself is still the baddest bitch in the Caribbean (though admittedly the third game does make her more of a damsel in distress, its biggest flaw), and LeChuck will always be the slightly ridiculous, completely lovestruck monster and, even when it looks like he might be working for or with someone else, he always turns out to be the evilest villain in the Caribbean. These character traits have remained intact for decades now, and sure, the writers may have chosen to do different things with these same traits, but that’s just because nobody wants to hear the same story five different times.

Right?

Look, I know a lot of minds will probably remain unchanged at the end of this video. Sure, the Monkey Island sequels have their problems – in fact, I think I’ve done a fair job of pointing those out throughout the video – but so do the originals, come to that. And if you’re letting yourself be so blinded by nostalgia that you refuse to accept anything but the “perfect” originals, when the succeeding games have even had a lot of the same team working on them, you’re missing out on three really fantastic videogame experiences. So instead of getting mad at me in the comments, let’s all join hands, set aside our differences, and remember the lesson that’s really important:

Never pay more than 20 bucks for a computer game.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct GamerSyndrome.com with years of experience writing for and about games.

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