By John Walker on June 9th, 2009 at 10:00 am.
Even a week after the announcement, the news that there’s to be more Monkey Island still seems hard to believe. LucasArts, once an adored development house, has become known in recent years for little other than churning out Star Wars themed products of varying quality. Attempts at new licences during president Jim Ward’s realm failed (possibly in no small part because they very were attempts to create new IP, rather than just damned fine solo games), seeing the company once more fall back into the space flick’s safety net. Last year saw Ward step down, and in April he was replaced by Darrell Rodriguez. A man who, if the murmurs I heard at E3 are true, is genuinely trying to see the company rediscover its roots. Then there’s the news that Telltale are to be making brand new episodic Monkey Island games, with original LucasArts developers on the project. Reimagining the original Monkey Island is an important act for a number of reasons.
It’s an experiment. LucasArts have clearly been far too terrified to touch an adventure game in almost a decade, with occasional rumoured projects getting shitcanned before anything concrete can prove itself. Taking the original Secret Of Monkey Island, updating its interface and graphics (while keeping them hand-painted and 2D), and releasing it digitally (this will be the first game LucasArts have released that won’t have any boxed presence) is a cautious toe in the water. Should it prove successful, my sniffing around suggests there are many within the company who are dying to leap into action.
That’s the other reason it’s important. LucasArts is currently employing a generation of developers who grew up playing LucasArts games. Of course these included X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter and Dark Forces, but they were alongside games like Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones & The Fate Of Atlantis, and of course, Monkey Island. Three LucasArts employees I spoke to, including web producer Brooks Brown, cite the adventure as the reason they fell in love with games, let alone why they got jobs at the studio. There’s people with passion wanting this to work.
The new look is obviously going to be a matter of personal taste, and die-hard fans of the original may well be upset at the changes. But there’s little cause for complaint, since one of the more splendid features I was shown was the ability to switch back and forth between the modern and classic version at any point, at the press of a button. The fullscreen presentation of the new design pulls back into the windowed old style, with the verb options appearing at the bottom of the screen.
Being developed for PC and Xbox Live, the controls have received an overhaul such that they’ll work naturally on a 360 controller. This does, horror of horrors, mean the SCUMM verb table isn’t on screen. It can be pulled up, as mentioned, and gamepad buttons default to the more obvious options.
Also new is the recorded dialogue. Obviously getting anyone to deliver Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert’s well known words was going to be a risky business, but once again the was a task given to lifelong fans of the game, who hired as many of the Curse Of Monkey Island’s cast as they could to ensure consistency. This means Dominic Armato will once again be Guybrush. And they all sound damned good to my ears.
The overriding philosophy seems to have been a desire to preserve the original in a way that’s approachable and playable for a new audience, without falling into any of the traps that have hindered modern adventuring – clumsy 3D interfaces, over-simplified controls, and a lack of minute detail. In fact, all the original jokes are in place, including a couple of restored close-ups that were lost from the original version due to a lack of space. While the new hint system is designed to help the wary, those in the know will still be able to delight at jokes like the pirate wearing the LOOM badge that will only mystify the sickeningly young.
Then perhaps even more surprising is the news that Telltale are making the brand new Tales Of Monkey Island games. Following their episodic tradition, five episodes released monthly, the new games are in 3D, but it’s the familiar style they’ve used in all their games so far, sort of a 2.5D. Again, the new look will piss off as many as it pleases, but to my eyes it seemed a reasonable compromise between the classic look and a modern world. Unfortunately it will be using Telltale’s woefully poor cursor system, meaning you’ll have the elaborate choice between clicking on something, or not clicking on it. It’s unfathomable to me why they won’t upgrade to the rotating cursors that proved far more effective, involving, and entertaining during the late ’90s. The potential for jokes, puzzles, and challenge for the player that removing this loses makes my soul sad.
However, the splendid news is that former LucasArts adventure veteran Dave Grossman is overseeing the project (he worked on the original MI in 1990), and the first episode is being written by the best adventure writer in the business, Mike Stemmle. Rather than stand-alone episodes, Tales Of Monkey Island will be one story broken into five parts, potentially allowing for a bit more depth in the narrative.
Following tradition, Guybrush will begin the games as a successful mighty pirate, awash in wealth and power. Which he of course immediately loses, along with Elaine, in a failed attempt to defeat a once more resurrected ghost pirate LeChuck. Along the way his hand becomes infected by a voodoo curse (Evil Dead 2?), and he’s stranded on Flotsam Island, a place which despite a strong pirate population has grown to fear and loathe piracy. Guybrush is trying to bring the noble tradition back to the island, while working out how to once more defeat his arch nemesis.
Not much was shown beyond a short gameplay video, but we saw glimpses of traditional jokes appearing. A building was named “Blowmedown Glassworks”, which sounds like a joke bad enough to have appeared in the earlier games. And despite the crappy cursor, the regular Telltale inventory has been improved, finally offering the ability to combine objects, and thus improving the potential for depth for puzzles. (In a couple more years they may have caught up with 1998 completely!) With Stemmle writing the opening episode’s puzzles, there’s good cause for hope in a risky project.
Edit: For those explaining how Guybrush “should” look, I’ve put together this handy guide: