I feel pretty comfortable in stating that most of us at some point in our youth had a fascination with pirates. I don’t mean web surfing digital downloaders, I mean the real, historical wave-riding pillagers. Romanticized, of course, so that they’re less smelly and more noble.
My interest started around the time of the release of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. I entered the cinema unwilling and uninterested and left with a mission to (legally) shove all pirate-related media into my eyes and mind. Naturally, this included games, and that meant The Curse of Monkey Island.
A cursed monkey island and a cursed black pearl... you can see where my mind was making connections.
A pirate's life for me
Looking back, it seems ridiculous that before 2003 I hadn’t ever come across The Curse of Monkey Island considering by this time of my life I already enjoyed gaming, especially point-and-click games, and it was the third game in an extremely successful series.
Still, the hours I spent curled up in the uncomfortable plastic chair in front of the family computer playing through the third adventure of Guybrush Threepwood are some of my fondest memories.
It was when considering whether or not I should buy tickets to go and see the fifth and latest Pirates of the Caribbean film that I decided a more pleasant and more affordable use of my weekend would be to revisit The Curse of Monkey Island and see whether it stands up as well as I remember, or whether its peg leg has rotted from underneath it.
Largely, my memory did not fail me. Those steel drums still sound as good as they did the first time.
In 2017, 20 years after it was first released, The Curse of Monkey Island is still a very good game. In fact, I think I actually enjoyed it more this time around now that I’ve played the first two games in the series and could understand the numerous character and scenario throwbacks.
This time, for example, I wasn’t utterly bemused as to why the first time we see Guybrush in the game he’s sitting in a busted up dodgem. How I managed to just skim over that the first time I played I don’t know. Talk about a lack of critical engagement.
A time of change
The Curse of Monkey Island came around at a kind of funny time for games animation – we weren’t quite at the days of full-blockish 3D but we were long past the lovely but relatively basic pixel graphics of The Secret of Monkey Island.
Curse treads a kind of awkward middle ground, making use of cartoon-like visuals and interesting perspectives to create busy environments with more depth and interactivity than we’d seen in either of the previous Monkey Island games.
Oddly enough, as simplistic as they are, the cartoon visuals of Curse make me inclined to say it’s actually aged the best out of all of the Monkey Island games. It’s very clearly the product of a very specific period of graphical transition when you look at it in the context of the the releases before and after it. But taken on their own, the colorful visuals are still gorgeous and they suit the silly sense of humor and puzzles whose logic often actually veered into cartoon territory anyway.
Seriously, those puzzles. Many of them were clever and well thought out but there were more than a few that could drive you to a elicit a piratical “arrrggghhhh.”
That’s in a large part because The Curse of Monkey Island is not willing to hold your hand or even give you a guiding prod, particularly if you elect to play in hard mode.
This game was made long before the days of in-game prompts and though it’s one of the best things about it, it’s also the worst. On my first play through I can only assume I was used to that point-and-click mindset of attempting to pair everything and talk to everyone repeatedly in the hopes that it was a possible solution.
This time, though, I was out of that habit and I genuinely worried that I’d grown more dense over the last 14 years. I spent way too long conversing with a barber called Haggis McMutton, and considering I grew up in Glasgow I feel my perspective on what constitutes 'too long' for this is more skewed than most.
Pass the grog
It turns out my problem solving has just become more reality-based, which is actually kind of sad in its own way. I think it’s safe to say video games like The Curse of Monkey Island encourage us to be creative in our thinking if nothing else.
That said, despite the many extremely clever puzzles such as crossing the roasting hot sand using towels dipped in ice water that just required some considered and creative thought to solve, there are still those like the gold tooth hidden in a bubble gum balloon to balance it out.
What demented person thought this was a reasonable solution to a problem, LucasArts? Who wrote this puzzle? You thought your way out of the box and then violently destroyed it.
No matter how frustrating a puzzle becomes in The Curse of Monkey Island, however, it’s still a game that will coax you to the end of the plank using its relentless charm. You have to get through that puzzle you’re stuck on because if you don’t you won’t get to hear the next excellent joke or terribly excellent pun.
The Curse of Monkey Island is by far the funniest game in the series and though this has a lot to do with the writing, it’s undoubtedly helped by Dominic Armato’s voice acting. He just is Guybrush and he makes the character relentlessly likable by making even the most obvious gags feel fresh.
Lately it feels like the games industry has an inventory capacity similar to Guybrush when it comes to pulling out remastered classics. We’ve seen remasters of Full Throttle, Grim Fandango and even the first two titles in the Monkey Island series; I firmly believe the time is right for a remaster of The Curse of Monkey Island. At the very least I’d like to see it on GOG (opens in new tab).
I did end up going to see the new Pirates of the Caribbean, by the way. Suffice it to say time has been less kind there.