The Retro Chronicles…The Curse of Monkey Island

When you sit down and boot up a game, what is it you’re looking for? Is it a challenge to sink your teeth into? Or a funny, relaxing experience in which to indulge? Whatever your motivation for gaming, we do so for one simple reason – to make us happy at that moment in time.

The Curse of Monkey Island achieves this and more. It is the third instalment in an incredibly successful point and click adventure series chronicling the offbeat adventures of “mighty pirate” Guybrush Threepwood and his partner, Elaine, as they take on the evil pirate zombie LeChuck.

You could be forgiven for thinking on the surface that the above is a fairly flimsy and clichéd premise. However, you’d be 100% wrong. Generally, all the Monkey Island titles are fantastic, but Curse is a true masterpiece – a game-changing, cross-genre appealing title that will remain as playable 20 years from now as it is today.

It was released in 1997; a year that was an incredible age for gaming. A list of the titles released at the time reads as a who’s who in legendary gaming releases; Final Fantasy VII, Fallout, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, Goldeneye 007, Quake II, Gran Turismo, Theme Hospital, Broken Sword II, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night…that is a RIDICULOUS list, it really is. Yet The Curse of Monkey Island is comfortably the funniest, smartest, most enjoyable pick-me-up title of the lot.

And I do mean funny. This game oozes humour. The script is sensational, the voice acting absolutely fantastic (Murray the demonic skull is great… actually, it’s unfair to single anything out here, every character is voice acted wonderfully, and the dialogue throughout makes you laugh out loud all the time). The graphical style is what makes the game truly timeless, hand-drawn to perfection with crisp animation and seamless transitions throughout. The music is wonderful; an authentic yet quirkly pseudo-Caribbean jaunty soundtrack that you don’t bore of for a single moment.

Too many adventure games fall into the trap of having characters for the sake of characters. For example, although I love Deponia – a title which incidentally draws a lot of inspiration from Curse – it is very difficult to remember characters beyond the core half a dozen. Monkey Island has never had that problem, and with Curse it is astonishing how fleshed out pretty much every character is. I remember pretty much every line of dialogue from the pirates in the barbers, every animation and utterance from the Voodoo Lady. Everything. The best way to explain it is like how you watch the Star Wars original trilogy, and you immediately love and know the characters after one watch – it’s the same feeling here.

The game is from an age where hand-holding the gamer wasn’t really a thing – you have to rely on your intuitiveness to figure out puzzles and progress.

And what is an adventure game without a brilliant world to go adventuring in? Curse has got that covered too – Plunder Island and Blood Island are simply wonderful. Vivid graphics bring the island to life in a majestic way – it is akin to how vibrant and wondrous the Discworld series fleshes out its setting.

It’s easy to look at a masterpiece like this and call for a remaster, but unlike, say, Final Fantasy VII, which has dated horrendously in terms of visuals, or even Grim Fandango, which did generally benefit from the overhaul to an early-ish 3D game, this really doesn’t need an update. Indeed, a remaster may actually take a lot of the charm away from the title if not done extremely carefully.

What this title does badly need, however, is a re-release. I have been waiting for this game to appear on GOG or for a physical re-release that works on modern systems, because Curse simply refuses to work nowadays. This is due to the engine, SCUMM, which is very finicky and requires a special emulator to run called ScummVM. This adds a level of complexity to a casual gamer that makes it less accessible to the modern gamer.

The above may not look like it, but it is part of one of the funniest segments of gameplay you’ll ever experience.

In terms of gameplay, this title shines superbly. It mixes its unique brand of humour with puzzle mechanics and mini-games in a way no other title does. Insult sword fighting is, quite frankly, the greatest thing any adventure game has ever seen. Outright hilarious, it’s the one thing you’ll take away from this game years after you play it.

The game can also be incredibly challenging and will have you scratching your head at times, but it’s fair in its challenge, in that once the solution clicks, it made sense all along, albeit in a zany, often utterly crazy way. The puzzles do a good job of providing you with some plausible solutions that are, in fact, blind alleys, meaning that you think laterally all the time about the possibilities of all objects in the room towards achieving your goal – a mark of a fantastic adventure title.

The control scheme is simple and effective, which is critical in a game like this. Hold down the left mouse button to interact with an object in various ways as a coin pops up on the screen with options, or right click to open up your inventory. Without this system, I can imagine Curse to be a frustrating experience, as you experiment with various items all the time in this title, but thankfully, the controls are an asset rather than a burden.

Pretty much every character in this title is pure gold – completely memorable even years after playing.

And that’s the case with pretty much everything in this title. In many ways, it’s flawless, as you can’t criticise a single thing about it. It even has two difficulty modes for replayability, with the harder version including extra puzzles. I honestly believe you could have 100 people play this game and nobody would find a fault with it, it’s that good and it’s that wide in its appeal. Only the extremely impatient will not be roped in to this title, and even they would be forced to acknowledge it’s because of their own hang-ups, not because of the game.

If anything, the only criticism anyone could have of it is that it’s too short – but even then, it actually isn’t; the problem is that it’s so good you want more of it when it is finished.

In short, this title is a must own. LucasArts absolutely nailed PC gaming in the late 90s with this and Grim Fandango, and together they are not only two of the best adventure games ever made, they are two of the best games ever made full stop. Whilst some games are general recommendations that you could buy, these two are ones that you should buy at the earliest opportunity.

“BACK IN THE DAY” VERDICT: 95% – “This was LucasArts in their pomp. Everything here – writing, graphics, sound design… everything is stunning. As close to the perfect game for its genre that you can possibly get.”

“MODERN DAY” VERDICT: 90% – “It drops a few points nowadays for minor reasons – a few jagged edges graphically and pretty much has to be emulated to play. But it is still truly fantastic and tramples over modern attempts at the point and click adventure genre.”

Release Date: 1997/1998

Genre: Point & Click Adventure

Developer: LucasArts

Publisher: LucasArts

Available: PC (ScummVM required to emulate the game on modern systems, regardless of disc ownership