Like its predecessors, The Curse of Monkey Island has all the makings of a classic: good gameplay, lovely graphics and music, challenging puzzles, a piratey plot and hilarious dialogue. But with the departure of series creator Ron Gilbert, does this sequel live up to previous instalments?
Series creator Ron Gilbert parted ways with LucasArts after Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, leaving Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahem to pick up where he left off with The Curse of Monkey Island. Their previous experience as project leaders on Full Throttle is evident in the title’s updated interface and more cartoon-like graphic style. Gilbert may have recently stated that ‘all the games after Monkey Island 2 don’t exist in his Monkey Island universe’, but that didn’t stop the third instalment from being nominated twice in the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences’ first annual Interact Achievement Awards in 1998.
As I’ve in the previous reviews, this series has been one of my all-time favourites since I first played The Secret of Monkey Island on my Amiga as a kid back in 1990. I’ve still got the original discs and user manual for The Curse of Monkey Island (check out the photo below) and, thanks to a bit of tweaking from P-Diddy, it works today despite now being fifteen years old. I remember not being particularly enamoured with this episode when I played it all those years ago as I wasn’t fond of the cartoon visuals and plot’s ending; but would this be different now I’m all grown up?
After the unexplained ending in Monkey Island 2 at the Carnival of the Damned, Guybrush Threepwood isn’t entirely sure what happened: he now finds himself floating in the middle of the Caribbean sea in a bumper car with no idea of how he got there. It isn’t long before LeChuck is causing trouble again and, drifting in just in time to thwart the evil zombie pirate’s plans, Guybrush stumbles across a huge diamond engagement ring; but he doesn’t realise that it’s cursed and ends up turning Elaine Marley into a gold statue when he slips it onto her finger. Just when things can’t get any worse a band of smugglers make off with her, so our swashbuckling hero must now save the beautiful governess, discover a way to remove the curse and defeat his undead nemesis for a fourth time.
The Curse of Monkey Island plays much like its predecessors, except this time around LucasArts’ SCUMM engine has been updated. The verbs that players may expect to find at the bottom of the screen have now been replaced by a ‘verb coin’ which can be brought up by holding down the left mouse button. Three icons are displayed on a doubloon and these represent actions that will be performed with an object or person: selecting the hand will cause Guybrush to pick up or push, the skull will command him to examine, and the parrot will result in him to talking to a character. This has made the interface a lot cleaner and opened up the monitor’s real estate.
As with all LucasArts’ adventure games you can’t die, and this means unlimited exploration and experimentation without the fear of making a wrong decision. Also, if players feel like a challenge they can select to start their game on ‘Mega Monkey’ mode which increases the number and difficulty of puzzles; for example, you may have to complete a couple of extra steps in order to secure an item you need to proceed. I’d certainly recommend doing this to get the full The Curse of Monkey Island experience.
The title contains many inventive puzzles – the use of cooking oil to get a layer of peeled tattooed skin from the back of a sunbather is a particular classic – but as with the previous games there are a few that are illogical. The one that stumped me on my first playthrough was how to smuggle a gold tooth out of a chicken restaurant using chewing gum and a balloon, and fortunately I remembered the solution this time around! However, if you get yourself into that Monkey Island way of thinking and immerse yourself in its humour (and be prepared to combine all of your inventory items), you’ll soon find the way out of any situation.
Although overly ridiculous, it’s a lot of fun. The classic sword-fighting puzzle from The Secret of Monkey Island returns in an updated form and takes place aboard ships. Players must counter their opponent’s insults with slurs of their own in a contest of wits; even though the comebacks aren’t as good this time, they still manage to get you chuckling and also rhyme (see what I did there?). LucasArts obviously listened to feedback about the action sequences in Full Throttle so adventure gamers who don’t like them can relax: those included in The Curse of Monkey Island are easy and you can bypass most of the ship-to-ship combat by choosing the relevant option when asked. Take a look at the gameplay video below.
Fans will be delighted at the return of a number of familiar faces including Wally the cartographer (who’s now a fearsome pirate called Bloodnose) and Stan, and this smooths the transition from Monkey Island 2. Unfortunately however, most of them are really undeveloped; for example, the Voodoo Priestess plays an important role in the first and second instalments but here in the third it’s only necessary to speak to her once. It would have been nice if these characters had been a much more integral part of the story.
In a departure from the previous games where the graphics were as realistic as was possible for the time, The Curse of Monkey Island has more cartoon-like visuals; Bill Tiller’s art style went on to become the foundation for the future Monkey Island sequels and remakes. When I originally played the title in 1998 I remember not liking this very much but as an adult, I found that its refusal to take itself seriously just added to the game’s charm.
Maybe my initial dislike all those years ago had something to do with my ‘brush crush. After seeing the still dialogue scenes in The Secret of Monkey Island I had a huge fondness for Guybrush as a kid but then LucasArts shattered my childhood dreams by giving him a dodgy beard in Monkey Island 2. Although he’s now shaved off the bad facial hair, he’s still not the tousle-haired buccaneer of my fantasies; and he’s also incredibly slow, although fortunately you can often just double-click to skip the animation of him plodding along.
Michael Land provided the music for the first two titles and also composed the musical score for The Curse of Monkey Island. There are a number of non-MIDI remakes of old tunes here along with some new ones; characters have their own tracks which are variations on the main Caribbean themes and, although this is very subtle, it greatly adds to the atmosphere. The third instalment in the series is the first to feature lovely voice-acting and this can be turned off in favour of subtitles if you wish to go retro – but you don’t really want to miss Guybrush singing.
Many fans were worried about how the design team was going to pick up the story after the weird ending in Monkey Island 2 but The Curse of Monkey Island actually turns out to be quite a positive surprise. Sure, they decided to take liberties with the plot and treat players to a long speech at the end of the game in order to fill in the loopholes (some large enough to get a pirate ship through), but the monkey spirit remains and the title contains some of the greatest humour ever produced by LucasArts.
In conclusion, I have to say that I actually enjoyed The Curse of Monkey Island a lot more today than I did back in 1998. With its classic gameplay and timeless humour, I might even go so far as to say it could be my new favourite in the series and I’d highly recommend it to other adventure gamers. Unfortunately however, one thing I still can’t get over fifteen years on is the ending: it’s abrupt and comes out of the blue, and leaves fans like myself feeling as if they’ve been a little short-changed.
But it won’t stop me from playing the next game in the series again. Alongside my original discs for the third instalment, I’ve also still got those for the fourth – Escape from Monkey Island. So guess what I’m going to do now?
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