Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Aaarrrr, Matey!

When my parents bought the first home PC for me and my sister, I doubt they could have predicted quite how profound an effect it would have on me for years to come. Way back in what I want to say was the Christmas of '90 or '91, the first PC was ideal for of course working on our homework or checking out websites on it's state-of-the-art 56K modem (I'll hopefully never have to be without a cable modem from now on) but one of the coolest things about the new PC was that my parents had gotten a couple of games from a friend of the family loaded up for us to enjoy. One of them was Lucasarts' The Secret of Monkey Island. The irreverent, hilarious game from the mind of Ron Gilbert introduced me to the geeky but enthusiastic Guybrush Threepwood as he ventured to become a pirate, seduce the Governor of Melee Island, and defeat the evil Ghost Pirate LeChuck, in an adventure as cool and whimsical as it was challenging and hilarious. It's one of the games that influenced my gamer development, and certainly made me into one of the few dedicated adventure gamers out there, a medium that sadly few game companies take a serious stab at.

Not long after completing SMI, I was delighted to discover that a second game had been released in the series. Monkey Island 2, LeChuck's Revenge had been released a year after the first game. It would be the last Monkey Island game penned by Gilbert before he left Lucasarts (Though I wouldn't know that until years later) and it's still held today as not only the best Lucasarts adventure game, but one of the best adventure games EVER (and having played through pretty much the entire Lucasarts adventure game library, I can pretty much justify those assertions). So it was with great delight when I discovered that last month, about nineteen years after it was first released, Monkey Island 2 was getting the "Special Edition" treatment that SMI had gotten last summer when the latest addition to the series Tales of Monkey Island had been released. The game was completely remastered, with new graphics, new audio and voice-over work (voice technology for games didn't even exist when the game was first released) and a host of new features to attract new fans while pleasing those who had played long ago.

The game take place an unspecified amount of time after the end of the first game, with Guybrush landing himself on Scabb Island, home to pirates, sailors and rebels. Having amassed a large amount of wealth to his name, Guybrush is on a quest to find the legendary treasure of Big Whoop, located on some unnamed island in this fictional Caribbean. However, soon disaster strikes. The island's local thug, one pint-sized Largo Lagrande, robs Guybrush of all his money and riches. That's bad enough, but when Guybrush manages to build a voodoo doll of Largo to get back at the diminutive terror, he inadvertently sets plans in motion to resurrect the dread pirate LeChuck, who's reign of terror Guybrush had thought to have stopped for good in the last game. Apparently, the only thing Guybrush can do to stop it is to do what he had already been doing, find Big Whoop before LeChuck.

The game was well received at the time for a number of reasons, not the least of which were excellent artwork, streaming music that would alter to fit the specific scene seamlessly without pauses or breaks, and sharp, individual characters that don't feel like copy/paste jobs. A lot of work was put into the creation of this game, and it showed. Even now, though the graphics would look seriously pixellated on current machines, the art and music still feel cozy and attractive, all these years later.

Dialogue is funny and fresh, and it helps that the characters are well thought out, with motivations and reasons for the things they do. Interacting with characters using the dialogue trees was a delight, especially since there are no "wrong" answers that would prematurely end the game for you, so you can say the snarky thing just to be fun and still get the job done. Puzzles are also unique, with many of them involving you cheat (like in the game's spitting and drinking contests), others involving recipes (the voodoo doll), or sabotage (dumping a rat in a cold vichyssoise), meaning you don't have to do the same puzzle over and over again like you do in some games.

The Special Edition also comes with some great features, along with it's enhanced visuals and sound. The voice work is excellently done by the same team that voices the other games in the series, and the head trio of Dominic Armato (Guybrush), Alexandra Boyd (Elaine, the Governor) and Earn Boen (LeChuck) are all fantastic in their roles, and Phil Lamarr is also well cast in the small role of Captain Dread. The only disappointment in the voice casting was that of James Arnold Taylor as Largo, as instead of the vague piraty voice I was expecting, Largo sounded like he was hailing straight from Brooklyn, completely destroying the mood of the game when he was in the scene. It's a shame because Largo is a great character and to have him voiced so lessened that. He's not the only problem on audio, either. In a scene where Guybrush's parents come back from the dead to tell him an important message in song (yes, there was blunt force trauma involved, why do you ask?) the lyrics are sung off-tempo from the background music, the results of which are simply cringe-inducing.

These few gaffes are forgivable, though, compared to the wonder that is the rest of the game. The enhanced visuals are spectacular, and unlike the Special Edition for Secret, the character sprites actually look realistically within their environment, instead of looking like they were pasted in. The return of many favorite characters (Stan the Used Coffin salesman, the enigmatic Voodoo Lady) is supplemented by many new, cool ones (cartographer Wally B. Feed, Captain Kat Capsize), and one doesn't feel like any of these characters don't belong. The "Lite" mode that the original game shipped with, an easy mode for younger players, has been removed but has been replaced with a hint system to help stuck players along, and one of the coolest features that had been released in last year's special edition was being able to press one button to replace the new visuals and audio with the original 1991 graphics and music, for those nostalgic for the good old days.

Finally, the game has new features specifically for those of us who LOVE special features. Besides the unlockable concept art that can be opened up by solving puzzles and advancing through the game, there's also a "Commentary" mode, in which original creators Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer run commentary on the game as you play it (optionally, of course, in case you don't want to miss your favorite part of the game) in MST3K style, with their silhouettes watching the action on screen. As far as I can tell, it's the first time all three have collaborated on anything having to do with the Monkey Island universe together since MI2's release way back in 1991, so it's a landmark event to say the least.

Having played the game on-and-off over and over since it's release so many moons ago, it was a no-brainer for me to pick the game up in S.E. form, but even if you haven't played the games before, I heartily recommend grabbing these Special Editions while they're available. At only $9.99 each, there's no reason not to give it a shot and see why so many people think Guybrush Threepwood is among the best video game characters of all time.

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