GAMING GREATS: The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

Thar she blows! Rod has an old-school adventure of high piracy on the PC.

Who made it?: Lucasfilm Games (Developer), LucasArts (Publisher).

Genre: Point-And-Click/Adventure.

Platforms: PC (Original),  Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network.

Format: CD-ROM/Floppy Disk.

Released: October 1990.

My first time playing The Secret of Monkey Island was when I was about nine or ten years old. I never owned a computer of any kind until I was a teenager, but my friend’s family had an Apple Macintosh, and that’s the first version that I played. I even remember that the game came with a disc-shaped dial made out of cardboard, which had inner and outer parts that could be spun around independently of one another. This was called “Dial-A-Pirate,” and was actually created as an imaginative form of defence against piracy, which is definitely funny considering the game is about pirates! There were a series of pirate faces, with the inner part of the wheel being the lower-half of a scoundrel’s face, and the outer being the upper-half. In order to begin the game, you had to match the pirate face generated onscreen with the one on the wheel by rotating it until the corresponding elements matched, and this would reveal to you the year and location that is the answer to a question.

Playing Secret for the first time was a very memorable experience. For the first time ever, I felt as if I could go anywhere within the game’s world and that there were endless possibilities to discover. This is in spite of the fact I had played Legend of Zelda years before playing Monkey Island, and in that game, there’s a large (by the NES era’s standards) world to explore. My friend had completed the game before, so he knew that going to a certain part of the screen wouldn’t yield any secrets or items needed to progress through the game, and even though he would tell me not to bother going to a certain part, I was too interested in exploring it anyway, just to see for myself. This was also the first game I played where you could choose what to say to people, and it was also an aspect that I loved because I would choose every option, even if it wasn’t the correct one, just to see how the conversation would play out.

The basic story is that Guybrush Threepwood, a loveable idiot, wants to become a pirate. His journey to becoming one begins on Melee Island when he visits the SCUMM Bar. He is tasked with completing three trials assigned to him by the Three Pirate Leaders. Eventually, this all leads to the quest to find Monkey Island, and to discover its secret!

The game has a colourful cast of characters that Guybrush will meet and be able to interact with. Elaine Marley is the Governor of Melee Island. The woman that all pirates have a soft spot for, and she becomes Guybrush’s love interest. In her mansion is the Idol of Many Hands, which Guybrush needs to collect. Elaine is a strong-willed woman, and certainly not a damsel in distress, even though she plays that role in the second half of the game. The villain, on the other hand, is the ghost pirate LeChuck, who lives on his spectral ship docked underneath Monkey Island. Like many other pirates that had a soft spot for Elaine, LeChuck wanted her to marry him when he was human, and he still does in his undead form. He became one of the latter after he was told by Ms. Marley to drop dead… so he did!

Fester Shinetop is the Sheriff of Melee Island, who takes an instant dislike to Guybrush and warns him to stay out of trouble, and not to bother the Governor. There is something spooky going on with this guy on the surface.

Carla is the Swordmaster of Melee Island, and always gets challenges from pirates wanting to prove that they are better than her; they usually fail. Will Guybrush’s attempt be as much of a failure? Captain Smirk is friends with Carla; he regales you with an anecdote, that he doesn’t finish, about a fight he and Carla were involved in together once. He teaches Guybrush the art of Insult Swordfighting, well, the basics of it at least, before you have to set out and learn insults and comebacks from other pirates. But more on that later. He brings out this strange contraption to help you train.

Otis is a prisoner on Melee Island, having been put there by Fester Shinetop. His only possession is a cake that his Aunt Tilly made, but it’s too bad that he doesn’t like carrot cake, because it could come in handy for some reason.

Meathook has two hooks for hands. He lost his mitts when dealing with the most dangerous creature to ever walk the earth, which he still has with him at his place. He is also bald, and you can talk about this with him to initiate a conversation that I find hilarious:

Meathook: You’ve got a real attitude problem!
Guybrush: Well… you’ve got a real hair problem!
Meathook: You just don’t know when to quit, do you?
Guybrush: Neither did your barber.

Voodoo Lady is a woman Guybrush meets who can tell the future. What’s a nice touch is that when you choose what to say to her, no matter what it is, she will automatically answer without Guybrush having to say what you select.

Stan is the owner of Stan’s Previously Owned Vessels, and it is here where you must purchase a ship to go and rescue Elaine from LeChuck when he kidnaps her and hightails it to Monkey Island. You have to try and get him down to a reasonable price for one of the ships. He likes to wave his arms about furiously, and is one of my favourite side characters.

Herman Toothrot has been stranded on Monkey Island for quite some time now. He was part of a crew that discovered the place but became stranded, and he’s the sole survivor. At one point, he trained a group of monkeys to captain a ship and was even successful. However, they never returned from Melee Island to pick him up. Why didn’t he just go with them? Well, could you imagine being out at sea for weeks with monkeys?

The Monkey Island Cannibals are three, um, cannibals who are actually really health-conscious about what they eat. Each of them wears a different tribal mask associated with a certain fruit. They have in their possession a banana picker and an undead pirate head that acts as a compass, which Guybrush will eventually need to use.

The Lookout is a blind man, yes, a blind man who is the very first person Guybrush interacts with, and it’s his job to actually lookout for ships and other things approaching Monkey Island.

In the SCUMM bar, aside from the Three Pirate Leaders, you have the Chef, a Dog, and three other pirates you can communicate with, such as Estevan, who had an unfortunate accident whilst playing darts and lost an eye, Mancomb Seepgood who is very knowledgeable about certain events making him essentially an exposition-dumper (he also makes fun of Guybrush Threepwood’s name, like he can talk!), and Cobb, a pirate who always responds to anything you say with “Aye.” That is unless you choose to ask about LOOM, which then prompts him to sell you on what is actually another game created by LucasArts; another brilliant fourth wall-breaking moment.

Then you have a Citizen of Melee who looks very shady, wearing a jacket with a parrot perched on his shoulder, who sells you a map to the buried treasure on Melee Island, and Three Men of Low Moral Fibre, who will give you the minutes of their PTA meeting.

The Storekeeper is an old man with a walking stick who likes to call Guybrush Fancy Pants. In his store, you will find a sword, a shovel, and inside his locked safe, a letter of credit which Guybrush will need in order to purchase a ship from Stan. One of my favourite things he says to you is “And don’t put your lips on anything!” which always cracks me up because I just imagine someone going around kissing things inside a store and how absurd that would look.

The Fettucini Brothers are twin circus performers who like to argue with and insult one another. You can gain pieces of eight from them by testing out their cannon. You will need something to use as a helmet, though.

The Head of the Navigator, which is the aforementioned undead pirate head that Guyrbush needs to talk to convince it to show him the way to LeChuck’s ship, will direct you where you need to go by turning its head in the right direction.

And finally, there’s Bob the Ghost Pirate who was LeChuck’s first mate killed by him and forced to serve as part of his crew. He sarcastically says to Le Chuck at one point: “Oh yes sir. I feel so lucky that you happened to capture my ship, then murder me and everyone on board… yes sir… lucky.” This was after being asked if he’s glad to be dead.

Oh, and there’s even a cameo by George Lucas, see if you can spot him when you come across it!

This was the first point-and-click game I ever played. If you aren’t aware of this genre, here is a little bit of a rundown. Basically, you move the on-screen cursor to any part of the game screen where you want the character to move, and you click to make them move there. You also have commands that you can choose from, and in The Secret of Monkey Island, these are: Give, Pick Up, Use, Open, Look at, Push, Close, Talk to, and Pull. If you want the character to do something, you first click on the command and then on the person or object you wish the action to be performed with or on.

You need to collect items to advance further, and also workout what additions have to used when and where. Once you collect an item, it will appear in your inventory. There is a lot of backtracking to do, but it might be frustrating only on your first playthrough when figuring out what to do, where to go, and in which order. During the Three Trials portion, you can pretty much choose the order in which you complete them.

Early in the game, you must learn Insult Swordfighting. Once you receive your basic training from Captain Smirk, you will only have a couple of insults available to use when you encounter pirates on the map screen. But the more pirates you fight, the more insults and comebacks you will learn. This process is one of trial and error, so you won’t get all the snarky putdowns straight away. There is a point where pirates will eventually say, after being defeated, “Wow! You’re good enough to fight the Swordmaster!” but there are still a few left to learn even after that. You don’t have to keep going to get the rest, but it will give you just a slight advantage in defeating Carla. After you successfully defeat her, you will receive proof of your victory, and she will later be available as part of your crew when you need to find Monkey Island to rescue Elaine.

As far as challenges go, Monkey Island isn’t the most difficult game ever created, but there are plenty of moments that, if you’re playing it for the first time, will have you scratching your head and spending hours figuring out. But often the solution is directly in front of you, or is going to be discovered by thinking outside the box, so don’t think that trying something ridiculous or silly will be a waste of time because it might just be what you need to do. Also, the only way to die is through a process the player can choose at one particular point in the game, and at one point only!

There was a Special Edition of this game released on XboxLive Arcade and the PlayStation Network. It had HD graphics, with animations, backgrounds and character models all recreated from the ground up. The other great thing about this version is that all the characters have voices. Dominic Armato has been the voice of Guybrush ever since the third game, The Curse of Monkey Island, and he reprised the role once more to do vocal work here. It was awesome to hear him speak the words of Guybrush in a game where all you could do originally is read what the characters were saying, and he does an excellent job delivering Guybrush’s dialogue. The music and sound effects in this version are also excellent. The other cool thing about the Special Edition is that, at any point during the game, you can instantly switch back to the Classic Style!

Overall, The Secret of Monkey Island is a great, classic point-and-click adventure game, with lots of humour as well as interesting and funny characters. I would definitely recommend playing the game if you haven’t. The sound effects are simple and the graphics obviously aren’t as advanced now, but they are still nice to look at and the animations are done really well. Age certainly doesn’t reduce the effectiveness of the overall experience. The music is cool, too, and I especially like the main theme.

Oh, do you find out what the secret of Monkey Island actually is? Well, I guess you’ll have to play the game to see. Good luck!

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • The game was conceived in 1988 by Lucasfilm employee Ron Gilbert, who designed it with Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. Gilbert’s frustrations with contemporary adventure titles led him to make the player character’s death almost impossible, which meant that gameplay focused the game on exploration. The atmosphere was based on that of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride.
  • The game’s world and characters were designed primarily by Gilbert. After having read Tim Powers’ historical fantasy novel On Stranger Tides, he decided to add paranormal themes to the game’s plot. He also cited Powers’ book as an influence on the characters, particularly those of Guybrush and LeChuck.
  • The game’s “pirate reggae” music was composed by Lucasfilm Games’ in-house musician Michael Land in MIDI format. It was his first project at the company. The game was originally released for floppy disk in 1990, but a CD-ROM version with a high-quality CD soundtrack followed in 1992.

Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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