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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: Curse of Monkey Island

Curse of Monkey Island (Game release date: 1997)
This is a lightweight game, no doubt about that, but it's lightweight fun.

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Highlights: Streamlined gameplay, smooth interface, good voice acting, just plain fun Lowlights: Cliched plot, boring puzzles, too easy, childish feel in places

As an adventure game, The Curse of Monkey Island isn't really all that special. The story is boring and cliched; having the narrator sardonically point out each cliche doesn't actually make them more palatable. The puzzles are mostly mindless exercises in inventory combination. Most of it is so easy it feels like a children's game (my six-year-old son was able to play big chunks of it all by himself.)

And yet there were surprisingly few moments at which I found myself resenting this. The Curse of Monkey Island isn't a truly memorable game like LucasArts' 1998 game Grim Fandango, but it sure is pleasant to play. It sounds good; it looks pretty good (the graphics are well-animated cartoons, which I generally prefer to badly-animated 3D sprites); the controls handle well, and there aren't any bugs. The main character is likeable and well-acted, and the dialogue is funny, especially if your sense of humor tends towards the slapstick. Best of all, The Curse of Monkey Island is something very few games are: respectful of a player's time. I seriously think 90-95% of this game was actually spent playing it--not navigating, not reloading, not waiting for anything to finish, not trying to figure out what to do to get the game to let you take an action you've already figured out is the one you want to take. Sure, I love games with a long play time, but not when it's long because they padded it out with ten hours of watching the main character walk from screen to screen and listening to unskippable monologues. Curse of Monkey Island is a very short game, but what they cut was all the crap, and you can't help but love a game with the stones to do that.

It's short. It's shallow. It didn't make me think. But I had fun playing it, and in the end that's really what games are supposed to be about. Sometimes, we need a game like Curse of Monkey Island to come around just to remind us of that.

Style: Curse of Monkey Island is a picture-based adventure game with a third-person 2D point-and-click interface. There are a few interludes with more videogame-like controls. None are timed, and little manual dexterity is required. It's not actually possible to lose this game. (There's one point at which your character dies, but it's inevitable and he recovers quickly.) The plot is a basic rescue-the-princess quest, with supernatural elements. Combat and leveling are not elements.

Series: There have been four Monkey Island games by LucasArts. The first two, Secret of Monkey Island and LeChuck's Revenge, were fine old DOS games that are now available as abandonware. It's possible to buy both of these DOS games bundled together with Curse of Monkey Island into the Monkey Island Archives, but they're very dated, and like most DOS abandonware, take a certain amount of dedication to play. The fourth and last Monkey Island game, Escape From Monkey Island, was made during that unfortunate time period when good 2D animation was just giving way to awful 3D polygonal graphics, so Curse is definitely the best entry point into the series.

Finding The Curse of Monkey Island: Like many older games, software stores are charging ridiculously high prices for Curse of Monkey Island. But you can still find new or nearly-new copies online-- try the "New and Used" section of Amazon, where there are often reasonable prices.

Getting The Curse of Monkey Island to Work: I didn't have any problems getting this game working at all. LucasArts is still supporting Curse of Monkey Island, so if you run into any problems, you can visit their website and get their help with it.

Hints For Curse of Monkey Island: I have a page of low-spoiler Curse of Monkey Island hints up online, which makes some gameplay suggestions and helps point you towards any parts of the game you might otherwise have missed. If you're stuck on a puzzle, there is a really good hints page at UHS which reveals only one hint at a time, so you won't accidentally learn the answers to future puzzles while scanning for the one you're stuck on. You can also buy a Curse of Monkey Island Strategy Guide if you prefer, which includes some easter eggs and joke information as well as hints.

Game Length: Less than 20 hours, unless the player is very young--on the short side for a graphic adventure, but because there's not much excess travel or other time-wasters to contend with, it's got as much actual gaming content as most 30-hour games.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated E (for everyone 6 and up), and contains no sex and only cartoon violence. There's a fair amount of bathroom humor, though, and much of the gameplay revolves around choosing the rudest and most insulting possible responses to various NPCs.

Lora's Curse of Monkey Island Review: (Pretty Good)

Plot and Quests: The plot is boring and annoying in that brainless-summer-sequel kind of way (even if you've never played either of the previous Monkey Island games, this one helpfully informs you at nearly every juncture that your character has already defeated this same villain and rescued this same girl with the help of these same NPCs executing some of the same basic quests twice before, so it plays like a stale rerun anyway.) Unlike most Hollywood sequels, Curse of Monkey Island is at least tongue-in-cheek enough to be campy about its lack of originality, which keeps it from truly grating.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: Primarily inventory puzzles (pixel-hunting for objects, then using them in the appropriate places), with a few more challenging logistical puzzles thrown in. There are also a few ridiculously easy action sequences and a game about matching rhyming words that wouldn't be out of place on "Blues Clues," except that the phrases you have to match are insults rather than nursery rhymes. There's a good variety of stuff in here, but it's all way too easy for an adult player.
Characters: You play a pre-assigned PC in the Curse of Monkey Island, a gangly pirate named Guybrush Threepwood. Guybrush is an entertaining and likeable fellow, but you get no input into his character (most of his dialogue is pre-scripted, and your "dialogue options" really just consist of deciding whether to have a certain conversation or not. You have no input into how the conversation goes once you start it.) The NPCs are all caricatures but some of them are very funny.
Gameworld: The Monkey Island games are set on a cluster of seventeenth-century Caribbean islands which are colorful, anachronistic, rather silly, and completely logically inconsistent. Since this is intentional and frequently funny, it didn't end up irritating me as much as inconsistent gameworlds often do, but the setting had too childish a feel to capture my imagination the way LucasArts' more creative offering Grim Fandango did.
Gameplay: The most impressive thing about Curse of Monkey Island was its total mastery of graphic adventure gameplay. There are movement shortcuts out of every scene in the game. There are no dead ends. Even when you attempt a useless action or examine an object that doesn't need examining, the game designers have usually left an amusing comment for you to keep you from feeling like you've wasted your time. I don't think I've ever played a graphic adventure this tight before.
Interface: Above-average point-and-click interface, with smooth movement and easy-to-use inventory management. The only problem I had with it was cutscenes and the conversation interface, where it is necessary to sit and listen to every last word being uttered (pressing "escape" skips the entire sequence, not just the sentence in progress, the way better-designed conversation interfaces do.)
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): Curse of Monkey Island looks quite good for a game its age; the graphics are cartoonish, but they're well-animated cartoons. Voice acting is high quality, especially for Guybrush, and the music is infectiously cheesy. The mood of the game is unfortunately very similar to that of a children's show like Scooby-Doo or the Flintstones; it's well-done, it's funny, but it's also repetitive, juvenile, and rather shallow.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend The Curse of Monkey Island for anyone whose sense of humor encompasses puns and one-liners about pop culture, pirates, and body odor. Junior high school kids in particular really ought to love this game. Adult gamers used to more sophisticated plots may occasionally get the uncomfortable feeling of sitting through Saturday morning cartoons, particularly during the overly long and witty dialogue exchanges. Even then, though, the clever design of the game keeps it from getting too boring, and Curse of Monkey Island should still make an entertaining play-through for any confirmed fan of the third-person adventure genre.

If You Loved Curse of Monkey Island: Then you would probably also like its sequel, Escape From Monkey Island. You may also get a kick out of Sam and Max Hit the Road, another very wacky adventure game by LucasArts, or from the excellent Grim Fandango, which is just as funny but in a more sophisticated, adult style. More recent 3D graphic adventures that have been outstanding are The Longest Journey, Syberia, and Sanitarium.

For a more detailed critique of the Curse of Monkey Island involving spoilers, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Happy gaming!

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