What is The Secret of Monkey Island anyway? Something you will not discover in this game, that’s for sure. But instead, you’ll find yourself immersed in a goofy but hearty pirate story, full of epic quests, (insult) sword fights, loot, and… undead navigator heads?
In the beginning of the nineties, The Secret’s release, the first in many to come, was still largely ignored. Adventure games didn’t sell well, even the later ones, and even if they were reviewed well, probably also leading up to the decision to do some housekeeping in Lucasfilm while it transformed into the more corporate LucasArts—up the point where Monkey Island’s father, Ron Gilbert, left, after creating LeChuck’s Revenge.
Back in the day, Monkey Island was a prime example of excellent dithering artwork, where you’d make the most of those graphical restrictions that came with EGA that, depending on the mode, only supported up to 16 colors at the same time. That’s also one of the reasons that the adventure on Melee Island took place during the night! Yet another clever way to hide its technical limitations, without any compromise to the atmosphere. Take a close look at the screenshots below, especially around the curb and into the sky:
Did you spot the checkerboard pattern? That’s a way to fool our eyes into thinking there’s more depth to the picture—working with the constraints of EGA. A later 256-color VGA version of course also improved Guybrush’s colors (the skin, the buttons on his trousers) and added more subtle shades on the lights of the houses.
If you were on a very tight budget in 1990, you might not even be able to afford an EGA graphics card and had to revert to merely four bit colors of the CGA mode—and perhaps also make due without a Sound Blaster. If you’re interested in these differences, this educational video compares all different modes between builds on DOS, the Atari ST, the Amiga, and including sound differences:
And then we were treated with 2010’s Special Edition: an edition that finally lifts Monkey Island out of ScummVM and into the modern Windows gaming era (hooray?). Compatibility wasn’t exactly what we were waiting for, but some quality-of-life enhancements were, most notably a “talkie” edition! As with the special edition of its successor LeChuck’s Revenge, here you can also toggle between new and old graphics modes on the fly. Unfortunately, playing the game in “classic mode” also does away with the high-quality and very welcome voice-overs.
Fortunately, the community came up with a Talkie Edition Builder for DOS that allows you to convert your (Steam) Special Edition to either a DOS-compatible talkie version or a ScummVM-compatible talkie version with slightly higher quality
.ogg sound effects. Sure, playing it that way will lock you out of other features of the new edition, such as:
- A dev commentary (wasn’t worth it in my opinion);
- The new streamlined inventory and action interface (a change for the worse—the second game’s overhaul’s ring menu is more streamlined);
- The enhanced graphics (arguably not that great compared to the superb original pixel art work—again better in the second Special Edition);
- A progressive hint system by pressing
H(useful if you’re new to the genre).
As a vintage computer enthusiast, the best way to experience The Secret of Monkey Island is still on an old DOS computer—the way it was envisioned to be played. I can appreciate some of the backgrounds of the new art, but most of the character art is ugly in comparison with the original.
Is there anything left to say about this classic adventure game? We replayed it in anticipation of the release of the new Return to Monkey Island, and we had just as much fun as we did back in the day. The visuals are still amazing, the voices give the game even more charm, and the puzzles and jokes are still very much on point. My complaint with the difficulty of the puzzles in LeChuck’s Revenge doesn’t stand here, as Monkey 1 is a lot more linear. I honestly can’t believe the game holds up that well, more than 32 years after its initial release!
If you are just as excited as I am about the new Monkey Island release, you should make sure you’ve played this version before Return To, as the latter leans heavily on the nostalgia factor of the original (memories, locations, color palette, characters, …) You’ll miss out on important puns and jokes if you didn’t. The Steam version of the Special Edition makes it easy to pick up and play.
Just be sure to check out the Talkie Edition Builder if you don’t like the new art but still want in on the voice work. ScummVM is your friend!