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The Backseat Game Designer: Curse of Monkey Island

This is the addendum to my Curse of Monkey Island Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Curse of Monkey Island yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe some LucasArts game designer'll be Googling around, happen onto this page, and get struck with a bolt of inspiration for a really cool Monkey Island V. Ah, a girl can dream, right? Here's all the news about Curse of Monkey Island that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

It seems like most of the time I play a computer game, especially an adventuring game, I end up thinking to myself "Hey, this is a pretty good game, if you can overlook this crappy interface long enough to notice." I think Curse of Monkey Island is the only game I've ever played where I've actually thought to myself "You know, this is really a pretty bad game, if you ever stopped being entertained by it long enough to notice." Everything about it seems like it OUGHT to be boring as hell. It's got a corny, cliched plot that is an exact rehash of previous Monkey Island titles (down to the details of what three things you need to rescue Elaine again: a ship, a map and a crew!) The characters are all two-dimensional caricatures. The puzzles are mostly mindless try-everything-in-your-inventory exercises, and many of them are ridiculously illogical (the writers don't appear to know the difference between 'grog' and 'gunpowder.') The game is linear and you can't change anything about it. The whole thing is clogged with injokes and has the overall feel of a cheesy kid's cartoon.

And yet, I really had a good time playing it. Go figure. The puzzles were all essentially the same and could have been solved by a second-grader using trial and error, yet figuring the answer out yourself was still satisfying somehow. Gameplay was mundane, but so free of tedium, hassle, or any of the usual distractions that it never had the chance to grate. There's not even the smallest spark of interactivity--no choice you can make, no lateral thinking you can use, no way to affect Guybrush's reaction to anything in any way--but his dialogue is so well-written and well-acted that I didn't much mind how obviously pre-scripted everything that came out of his mouth was. Some of the game was so juvenile it was almost insulting (the rhyming game was literally something I've seen politer versions of in Blues Clues and Reader Rabbit CDs.) But it made me laugh sometimes, too.

I came away with the suspicion that my enjoyment of Curse of Monkey Island is somehow more of a sad reflection on how many things the adventure-game genre has been doing collectively wrong for the past ten years. There's no reason I can put my finger on why better-written, better-drawn, more challenging, and much more evocative games couldn't all be as much fun to play as this one was. But for whatever reason, most of them just aren't. Curse of Monkey Island has je ne sais quoi. It's hard for me to find things to lavish praise on in this game, but it wouldn't be honest of me not to recommend it, either.

Curse of Monkey Island Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) It was a refreshing change from most graphic adventures to be able to immediately shortcut from ANY screen to ANY screen adjoining it, just by double-clicking on the exit (all of which were carefully designed to be reachable from any vantage point.) This wound up completely neutralizing the annoyance of the repetitive inventory puzzles, because scooting ten screens back to scan the beach for some tiny object you didn't notice earlier is trivial. More games should learn from this.

2) You would think this would be a given, but sadly it is not: LucasArts obviously playtested the hell out of this thing. There are no gameplay bugs. There are no corners you can paint yourself into. There is nothing that can be done in this game that the program can not anticipate you trying. There is, in fact, nothing in this game that does not make sense. I get the impression that some of their playtesters actually played the entire game twice.

3) Graphic adventures in general struggle with an appropriate level of feedback to the player--too many games will either tell you exactly what to do next whenever you click on a hotspot, like "I need to find something to pry that off with," or else give you a flatly uninformative comment like "I can't do that now," when what's wanted is really just a simple "It's a loose board." You can't always tell what a discolored spot on a back wall is even if you squint at it, and clicking on it randomly with everything in your inventory until something works is dull. The Curse of Monkey Island does an unusually good job of giving you enough information about your surroundings to let you choose the right inventory object for the job yourself, while rarely resorting to Guybrush giving you directions himself.

4) There's no extra crap in this game. It's short--15 hours tops--but the game designers completely resisted the urge to shovel in five extra hours of pointless red herrings and ten of watching Guybrush walk just to have a 30-hour game on the shelf. As a result, 90% or more of Curse of Monkey Island is spent actually playing the game... which is what ended up distracting me from the game's shallowness and limitations. If this had been a 30-hour game with the same lack of depth, I probably would have resented the hell out of it. But you can't resent a game that is this respectful of your time. I only wish more games presented you with a shorter runtime and a higher ratio of fun gameplay to mundane tedium.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Curse of Monkey Island a 6 out of 10 (rating: pretty good). So, what would have taken this game to the next level? Interactivity would have been a biggie. It is very frustrating to constantly be informed how your character feels about various minor characters, rather than being able to make up your own mind and choose a sarcastic or a friendly response. I was really annoyed at the stupid ways in which the game forbade you from bringing Murray along (I happened to find him very funny) or rescuing Wally at the end. Being forced to leave Wally to his fate for no in-game reason whatsoever really pissed me off, and it served no purpose but an utterly pointless desire to place all the characters back in the exact same circumstances they were in at the beginning of this game, so as to be ready for the next. This is singularly boring. Good games of any genre are flexible enough to let individual players pursue the things in them that catch their own attention. Letting us make a few decisions in this game would have deepened the playing experience tremendously.

There were other fronts on which this game could have been significantly improved. The characters could have been more interesting. Some of the puzzles could have required lateral thinking, or any thinking at all really. The difficulty level was way too easy--my six-year-old son was able to play large chunks of this game on his own, without me even in the room. The humor could have been more varied, with a little bit of more sophisticated wit mixed into the kiddie yuks and oblique references to other LucasArts games (yes, I played Loom too, and reminding me of that is not in and of itself funny.) Grim Fandango was an excellent example of a game that offered creative puzzles, unique characters, a touch of interactivity, and a nice mix of humor types. Curse of Monkey Island could have done those things, and it would have turned a fun but unmemorable game into a really good game.

To be a great game, though, something would have had to be done about the plot, which is just about the corniest damn thing I've ever played. Why bother, really, with EVER defeating LeChuck? You know it's useless; there'll immediately be some stupid way of retconning him back to life. This is the third game in a series every one of which revolves around rescuing Elaine from something and defeating LeChuck, in pretty much the same way. There's a fourth game, and guess what, LeChuck is back and menacing Elaine again--and the end of it leaves us with no reason to assume that LeChuck wouldn't be quite ready for a fifth round, should the producers ever feel like making another sequel. How stale can it all get? Couldn't there ever be some OTHER menace to Guybrush or the world? Please?

LucasArts could make a really slammin' Monkey Island V if they put their minds to it. They clearly have all the weapons in their arsenal. They have great voice talent on this series, they know how to do terrific graphics, make an intuitive interface, be innovative rather than hackneyed, challenge your brain, and make you laugh. They could do it all at once.

It would require a new plot though. Because though I had a lot of fun playing this game, I didn't have too much fun with Monkey Island 4. There's only so many times you can play through the same boring plot before your fun center shuts off, after all--no matter how much je ne sais quois it has.

Best Puzzle: Smuggling Blondebeard's tooth out of the store. That was about as clever as a straight inventory puzzles can get; I really had to wrestle with it for a while.
Lamest Puzzle: The duelling banjos, though funny, was exceptionally stupid as a puzzle. You don't have to recognize notes, or do anything in rhythm, much less solve a basic math puzzle. No, you just need to copy down which strings Van Helgen plays and click them on your banjo. If there's a more brainless exercise than this I don't know what it is.
Best Plot Twist: None. Nothing happened in this plot that could remotely surprise or interest anyone over the age of six.
Lamest Plot Twist: The cutscene where LeChuck comes back to life for no reason whatsoever. Like we didn't know THAT was going to happen.
High Point: Probably when the credits started rolling in the tomb, while Guybrush banged on the inside of the coffin and yelled "HEY!" I busted up laughing at several points in this game, but that's the one I remember best. (-:
Low Point: The annoying endgame sequence, where you have to wait for the rollercoaster to loop to the right screen and time a jump out properly every time you want to switch areas, and LeChuck appears every few seconds and forces you to repeat the whole process if you're not quick enough. This turns the simple final puzzle (finding the lamp and getting the oil out of it) into an aggravating chore.

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