Nostalgia: an ancient-Greek compound word derived from nostos and algos (pain). Nostos was used (and was etymologically derived) by sailors to denote the longing for their return home, the homesickness. A home that lies in the past, as it may have changed. Presently, the word has been defined as “excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition” (Merriam-Webster). In this context, the title of Return to Monkey Island is probably the most on-point meta-title one could ever think of. Nostalgia then. Disclaimer/review spoiler: the undersigned lacks any objectivity around any Monkey Island (even the theoretically weakest of the series) and by extension Return to Monkey Island. If you want some measured review, what you are currently reading may not be the best fit for you. You see, the Return Journey comes for everyone, sooner or later, in different ways, but it always comes. So, given the opportunity, I have to state that Return to Monkey Island (RtMI) was not just a simple return of a hero, but a special experience that I have had with very few titles in recent years.
Indeed, it's not that difficult when you are greeted from the very beginning of RtMI by the cute faces full of implied mischief above. Within the first twenty minutes I found myself smiling both at how the game was immersing me in a well-designed tutorial that no point-and-click adventure knew it needed, and at something obvious: the official explanation for Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (MI2)'s much-discussed finale. The tutorial is probably as helpful to someone new to the hobby like that amused kid who was trying to move his pirate character back and forth to collect the necessary piece-of-eight back in the yesteryear. The explanation was essential for the now bearded bearded middle-aged man who always wondered how and why MI2 ended the way it did. It was all predicted by series creators Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman whose extensive credentials are beyond the scope of this article.
RtMI, then, sort of starts where MI2 left off: two kids play the pirates on the hunt for the Big Whoop treasure. I have to emphasize the "sort of", because the masterful way in which Chuckie and Boybrush are introduced into the story doesn't invalidate, but instead incorporates, all previous Monkey Island installments. In other words, everything that has happened up to Tales of Monkey Island counts as canon in the eyes of the RtMI creators. This is in slight contrast to what Ron Gilbert had written on his personal blog in 2013, where he claimed it would be his own MI3 (judging by the end-result he certainly backtracked on several points he had set as "conditions"). However, one could argue that little does it matter how much he respects the lore, as the vast majority of the audience just wanted a "Monkey Island by Ron". After proper networking, Disney finally gave Gilbert the OK (and the necessary creative freedom) to tell the story he wanted and finally show us what that Monkey Island Secret is!
And that is none other than... it's not that simple, dear readers. Our lovable acquaintance, Guybrush Threepwood, has to get a new ship and crew to get back to Monkey Island. This time he will finally manage to find the lost treasure at all costs. Things aren't so easy since the Pirate Leaders have been displaced by the borderline millennials Pirate Leaders who have a slightly different take on how things are done. The solution is only one: commandeer the only ship that has a crew and is ready to depart for the coveted Monkey Island which is none other than LeChuck's ship! Thus we end up with another adventure that is filled with heavy doses of self-reference, slapstick humour, gags, wholesome enlightenment from the always down-to-earth Elaine Marley, and ultimately self-awareness. Could we ask for anything better?
From the very beginning, the vision of the creators of RtMI is quite obvious: using the game itself as a vehicle, they express their own concerns, existential or not, about their path in the industry, their return to one of their first and beloved "children" and even the very situation that prevails in the videogames industry as whole. In this light, Point 17 on Gilbert's blog perhaps resonates more strongly than all the others, he wanted to make a game the way he and only he wanted to make it. The truth is that there have been a lot of compromises in what RtMI wants to achieve. It's definitely an adventure game that doesn't have the distinction of being high difficulty, even in its "the way it meant to be played - hardcore" mode. Its puzzles don't even come close to the highly bizarre puzzles of e.g. MI2. Is that bad? I'd say no, and I'll explain why below after I've analysed the obvious.
The Monkey Island series has no art identity
Any discussion about the art before the game's release is automatically cancelled within the first few minutes of playing the game. The atmosphere, the innocent and good jokes, the borderline sardonic humor, Guybrush's well-meant (or not) gags are here as much as they were in the previous games in the series. Even considering the obvious, the Monkey Island series went through five different depictions (pixel, hand-drawn 2D, two 3D styles, and the remakes) so it's funny to hear anyone bitching about #notmymonkeyisland. As someone who identifies more with the Curse of Monkey Island (CMI) period, considering its art direction to be objectively evergreen (I will die on this hill), I think the current approach, under the art direction of Rex Crowle, works like a charm and adds a sense of familiarity to the game while making it unique. The asymmetrical - marginally surreal - touches of each screen bring a bit of the past and the biographies of its creators: a bit of The Cave, a bit of Double Fine, but at the same time familiar and tasteful without being alienating, beyond the first impression. Add to this whole package the flawless voice-acting (once again Dominic Armato delivers the goods exceptionally, and although I was initially put off by Jess Harnell as the new voice of LeChuck his performance is stellar) and artistically Monkey Island is as polished as it could and should be.
Beyond the art, the overall design and scaling approach of the game is executed to perfection. RtMI follows a one-way corridor narrative structure for the first three Acts, while the classic inter-island navigation and by extension the interdependent puzzles open up in Act Four. The challenge remains fairly low and doesn't reach the standards set by either old or relatively recent representatives of the genre (the awkward moment when you realize that Primordia came out ten years ago, while Thimbleweek Park came out five...). In that sense, RtMI is probably the most accessible of the series in terms of difficulty. Its puzzles range from observation puzzles to some "swap/substitution" of an item with one of similar effectiveness, I will admit that I missed some sort of sword-fighting, though there is a similar process where we aim to tell a story with as much prose as possible, puzzle-processing that is in the same ballpark, but doesn't reach the insult sword-fighting of MI1 and CMI.
As we already said, this review will not be objective, although we have mentioned several flaws that potentially place RtMI as a point-and-click adventure a step below e.g. the modern The Excavation of Hob's Barrow. However, all of this is negated by the fact that RtMI speaks to a wide audience at the same time, with a greater focus on the 35+ who were fortunate enough to engage with the early parts of the series in their day. RtMI is an ode to the lost youth of both the players and its creators. It's a study in the cycles we make, the old ports that we want to drop anchor in if only for a moment to see how much they have changed as much as we have. Repetition is the mother of all learning: Already from the first minutes the game acts as a time capsule with which the player is transported to his memories, to encounters with an old, childhood friend who used to dig up mischief together to get past Largo LaGrande, wanting to save the girl (who never needed or wanted to be saved - let's talk about how far ahead of the curve Monkey Island was in emancipating dynamic female characters in its narrative), wanting to win over the Big Bad with charming ignorance of the consequences of their actions.
Return to Monkey Island did all of the above while captivating a young audience who had no idea about her father's "adventures" and memories. Suddenly, its narrative, its heavy puzzles, its apparently tasteful art direction were so accessible that a curiosity of a pre-teen girl whose only knowledge of the hobby is what's popular in school was piqued. No, not only does RtMI intrigue her but it engages her without discouraging. If she so wishes there is a hint system to help her without resorting to easy internet solutions and missing the whole game. At the same time a more seasoned middle-aged gamer never ceases to enjoy every minute, every subtle reference (which may as well be the answer to that odd question in the trivia card game).
With RtMI I felt like I met a high school friend with whom we interrupted a conversation mid-way and lost all communication for years, met on the street by chance, and picked up the same conversation where right from we left off. He told me about the new acquaintances he had made in the time in-between, the need and obligation to accept the new and bring it together with one's old legacies. We laughed when we remembered that he wore a fake beard to make himself look old so that he would be taken seriously by those he wanted to impress. He smiled awkwardly when I told him that he now grows his own beard, and his sun-blond hair has a big white highlight. Those he sought validation from eventually opened a fishmonger's shop and they too reminisce about past glories. Now, the only thing that matters is a kid who looks at him with wide-open eyes full of surprise and awe upon hearing about our mischiefs. As young a kid as we were when we first met. He insisted that it's only this kid that matters, that no matter where or how far we travel, there will always come a time when they look up to and to us to pass them the torch so that they can climb high up on the ship's crow nest to gaze into their own adventures after we share ours with them. A good friend always tells you what you need to hear. One season ends, another begins.
Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, Terrible Toybox. Thank you.