The Curse of Monkey Island: Guybrush Departs From Pixels With Mixed Success
Six years after the highlight of LucasFilm Games, Monkey Island: LeChuck’s Revenge, LucasFilm turned LucasArts finally takes another stab at Guybrush’s piratey adventures in the Caribbean Sea. It took a while because the big corsairs by then had set sail and left the safe harbor of the Lucas Ranch. After Monkey 2, Ron Gilbert started working on kids adventure games (Freddy Fish, Putt Putt, Pajama Sam), Tim Schafer started his own company, and most notable artists (Winnick, Ferrari) by then also moved on.
The tension was on. Everybody wanted a sequel, but nobody expected to receive a decent one. I’ve replayed Curse and can safely say that we’ve got a more than decent one, but cleanly shaven Guybrush somehow fails to match his beardy predecessor.
Seeing is believing
The first thing that the player is greeted with, is a lovely cut-scene, where Elaine declines LeChuck’s proposal (again) because… she has to wash her hair tonight? It’s all done in a lighthearted way, as if you’re watching a funny animated movie—which, basically, you are. This is LucasArts, remember? From what I’ve read, they had to consult another team, experts at crafting animated cut-scenes. In any case, the tone for these is right, which is lovely, although the abrupt ending could have been much improved by another long one. Oh well, can’t have it all.
Is that Guybrush? Wrapped in a floating donkey device? Yes and yes. He sure looks a lot different compared to Monkey 1 & 2, and that’s something that I couldn’t get used to. Outside of the cut-scenes, Guybrush’s cartoony-long legs and odd head just doesn’t feel right either. All the characters could do with a bit more bold outlines. Try differentiating Guybrush and the owner of the fine Chicken Soup establishment below: it all sort of blends into each other. And sure, it could do with a bite more liveliness, but even Daedalic’s 2012 Deponia is very static. I didn’t mind.
That said, the art style, while a radical departure from 1991’s pixels, is still lovingly detailed. Each scene is filled to the brim with funny little details, and it felt like experiencing an interactive cartoon. William Tiller did a wonderful job as a lead background artist. Before that, he worked on The Dig, and after Cruse, another notable game is A Vampyre Story. Maria Bowen and Kathy Hsieh joined as background artists and also worked on Outlaws, one of my favorite 1997 western shooters, as featured in the retro shooters article. Outlaws also contains cut-scenes that are indeed reminiscent of Curse’s color palette!
I can’t use the skeleton arm with that
Where Curse fails to hit the mark is both its clumsiness and some puzzles. The latter being the core of a point and click adventure game, which is a bit of a letdown. First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Gone is the eponymous “VERB” bar, clogging up one third of the screen, together with the inventory scrolling thing.
The problem is, I liked that. It was CLEAR as how to control the game and what kind of garbage Guybrush was carrying around in his pockets. Instead, it’s replaced by a click-and-drag pirate coin, where the options “USE”, “LOOK AT”, and “TALK” are dynamically replaced depending on the situation. Sounds like a good plan, while in practice, it doesn’t always pan out. A few examples:
- I wanted to USE a packet of gum. You know, eat it. I kept on pressing USE, and Guybrush kept on noting “the gum feels warm”. I don’t care dude, put it in your mouth! Go on! Turned out I had to use the parrot button, which is usually TALK, but somehow turned into EAT. What the?
- Later, I wanted to blow out a candle. US-no wait, blowing, that’s with the mouth, right, so TALK to candle as to BLOW OUT candle? Ding-ding, jackpot! Sheesh.
Another problem: the inventory bar is also scrapped. Right-clicking opens a treasure chest, somehow taking up the entire screen. After rummaging through, you can go back to the scene and try out a few things. She wouldn’t like that. That doesn’t need loitering up. Hmmm, no. I can’t use the skeleton arm with that. I can’t use the skeleton arm with that. I can’t u…
Does this sound like I’m brute-forcing my way through a puzzle? ‘Cause I am. I know Monkey games are (in)famous four their inclusion of red herrings, but some of these items… I dragged along from chapter 1 all the way to the end, chapter 6. Really? Some puzzles didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
- I had no idea what an augur was. I ended up never using it?
- To chase the cabana boy away and get the oil, I had to do something I would never have guessed on my own, without looking at a guide. The same is true for a few other puzzles.
- After ticking all the boxes (map, crew, ship), I had no idea where to go to next. It turns out that I completely forgot about my wife-turned-golden-statue, but the game didn’t hint at that at all.
I don’t mind crazy puzzles—Hey, I like Gobliins 2—but when patience runs out, and you can visit a lot of different scenes (or carry items from previous chapters with you), things are starting to feel like a drag instead of a joyful experience.
Action action action?
The year is 1997: the year of Quake. The reign of The Duke (1996). Shooters are winning over quiet and introvert puzzle lovers, and point & click makers had to figure out a way to lure them back. LucasArts figured a bit of “action” wouldn’t hurt. In the introduction, you shoot a cannon to solve a simple puzzle—which is harmless and funny, but felt a bit out of place. But then…
Then you find yourself in the midst of piratey battles at sea: an uncontrollable ship, very repetitive gameplay that, after you figure out what to do, is needlessly lengthy. Fortunately, you’re given the option to plow through using the “easy battle” option. Does that mean the developers also felt it wasn’t really needed?
The final showdown with LeChuck takes place in a similar way as the ending of Monkey 2: it’s time-based, and you have to gather things to put an end to it “once and for all”—or at least until the next sequel. It also means quickly clicking and fiddling with the giant chest, before LeChuck chases you off and you have to do it all over again. Not a great way to end the game, but at least there the added tension was part of the story line.
A pirate I was meant to be…
Music then. A few things stand out, of which obviously Guybrush’s singing pirate crew is the best. The rest that sticks are admittedly rehashes of the main theme (excellent as usual) and a few atmospheric background tunes. They’re cool and fitting—just not memorable. No SCUMM Bar tunes (hear it already? Tu dududu tutududutuuu), and although the Voodoo lady and Stan make an entrance, their music wasn’t given the same attention as the Adlib tunes from the early nineties.
But perhaps that’s just my nostalgia judging.
All in all, The Curse of Monkey Island is still a great point & click game. I genuinely had a lot of fun, and Blood Island is excellent on all parts. But the inevitable comparison between its predecessors makes it a bit harder to recommend—unless you’re in love with Dominic Armato’s superb voice work. The recent Special Editions add that to the classics as well. Monkey 3 aged exceptionally well.
Just promise me not to ever talk about the painfully bad fourth installment, Escape…