Review: Tales of Monkey Island

He sails the seas of the Caribbean like he was born on a schooner. He romances beautiful women, scandalizing those in the Governor’s Mansion. Every time he makes port, it seems that a piratey bar brawl starts. And he is locked in a seemingly endless conflict of swordplay and sorcery against an undead ghost pirate.

What’s that? Captain Jack Sparrow, you say? Sorry, mate, never heard of him. I’m talking about the mightiest pirate of them all, Guybrush Threepwood!

[caption id=“attachment_1917” align=“alignright” width=“300” caption=“Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate”]Guybrush Threepwood[/caption]The Monkey Island games, to me, define an era in computer games. The original game, The Secret of Monkey Island, was released by LucasArts in 1990, and it was followed by three sequels of varying quality (Monkey Island 2, in particular, is arguably the best-written graphic adventure game of its era). When the 1990s ended, the geniuses who run computer game publishers decided that no one wanted to play so-called graphical adventures any longer. Several years followed, with adventure game fans drifting in a Sargasso Sea of first person shooters, only occasionally interrupted by a worthy independent effort.

This changed in 2006, when Telltale Games began releasing episodic graphic adventures based on somewhat obscure intellectual properties with cult followings. Sam and Max. Homestar Runner. I’ve never read Telltale’s business plan or operations handbook, but I’m reasonably certain it contains a chapter instructing its designers to fly to Pittsburgh and to follow me around until they find out the sorts of things I like, and then to make games based on those properties.

Fortunately for all of you, sometime in 2005, someone at Telltale must have been reading this weblog! Because, really, isn’t it all about the world revolving around me?

Telltale’s latest release, for which I hope they will all spend many, many days rolling around naked in huge piles of money, is an episodic series of adventure games called Tales of Monkey Island. The first episode, Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, is available now. I played and finished it last week, and wanted to share my impressions with you.

One of the themes on this weblog recently has been the rise of iPhone games as competitors for our marginal dollars. As far as I’m concerned, in the current Windows market, Telltale might be the only publisher making games that I’ll buy sight unseen. Their games compete by offering a more complete experience that is more accessible to more players, over a longer period of time, than your standard Windows game. The first episode of Monkey Island lives up to Telltale’s reputation, and anyone who isn’t dead should buy it.

[caption id=“attachment_1918” align=“alignright” width=“300” caption=“Guybrush and LeChuck”]LeChuck[/caption]The game begins (of course) with wannabe mighty pirate Guybrush Threepwood trying to save his wife, Governor Elaine Marley, from the clutches of the evil ghost pirate LeChuck. The early moments of the game act as a somewhat subtle tutorial, and in short order Guybrush will find himself in a sticky situation from which only you, through the careful use of your wits, can extricate him.

Each new Telltale release has a slightly different user interface. I found the UIs of Sam and Max and Strong Bad to be straightforward and simple, but that may be playing to my strengths as a longtime gamer. Their most recent release, the Wallace and Gromit games, I found somewhat frustrating, as I mentioned in my recent review. Monkey Island lives somewhere between the two extremes. You still use the keyboard to walk your character around (or, alternatively, use a slightly odd “click and drag” scheme), but since the game doesn’t try to maintain the “cinematic” feel of Wallace, you’re not as hamstrung by the need to maneuver tightly in small spaces. And, thank the gods, you can simply click on items to interact with them.

The puzzles are good. More than that, they’re clever. Telltale games tend to be a bit easier than the games of yore, but the puzzle design is spot-on here. Specifically, the biggest and best puzzles in the game can’t be solved just through random exploration and clicking. When you solve them, you don’t just feel the satisfaction of advancing the plot: you feel smart. And even the smaller puzzles make intuitive sense. The writing is perhaps not quite as unremittingly clever as in Monkey Island 2, but I’m willing to stand up in public and say that the actual puzzles are better than in any of those in the LucasArts games.

The writing is of a piece with the other Telltale games: the jokes are thick, the puns head-slappingly painful, and the game rewards you for trying the ridiculous. There are, as near as I can tell, no dead-ends or events which would force you to reload, so the game is appropriate for beginners (note to the rest of the industry: I hope you’re taking notes, so that when you declare Chapter 11 and you are sitting in a puddle of your own urine on Skid Row while the Telltale guys are driving past you in diamond cars with platinum wheels, you understand why it ended up that way.)

My only negative comment about the game is the one I have made about most of the Telltale games: there’s no Mac OS X version, and there should be. (For that matter, Telltale, why haven’t you ported any of your games to the iPhone yet? It would be like printing money.)

Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal, by Telltale Games for Windows. $34.95 for 5 episodes. A free demo of the game is available here. Disclosure: Telltale graciously provided Tea Leaves with a review copy of the game. But we’re going to buy it anyway.