Review: Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge
In 1994, the internet was still a mystery to most of us. My dad, forever the electronics tinkerer, was perpetually trying to hook our household up to the net via the local library's dial up access point (it never actually worked). Meanwhile my friends all had varying degrees of connectivity using the "big three" of AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy. So when I first loaded up Monkey Island 2 and after I thwarted the state of the art copy protection (involving a decoder-wheel!), it asked me if I wanted to play the regular (easier) version of the game, or "Mega Monkey". Mega Monkey should have read: "Bug your friend Jeff every day at school to go home and post yet another obscure gaming question on some backwater message boards on your behalf...mode". Though he probably hated the task, I have fond memories of those times, always eager the following day to hear the next step in an impossibly hard puzzle.
Jumping into the same game sixteen years later, I'm still laughing out loud at the great humor and still looking on GameFaqs for the answers. Monkey Island 2: Special Edition is Lucasarts' remake of the classic only now with better graphics, full voice work, updated user interface and a host of fun little extras. Clearly I'm enjoying my time with an old friend, but is it just nostalgia and is this ancient game worth buying again?
The first change that smacks you across the face upon load-up is the graphics overhaul. The backgrounds and general artistic style are spot on, matching the original's intent and then running with it. You almost get the sense that the artists painted the scenery onto your screen using watercolors. All of the colors pop and even the night scenes are vivid and inviting. If there's one area where Lucasarts dropped the ball, it's in the model for Guybrush himself. Maybe it's the height difference, maybe it's the too-lightly-colored beard but one way another, the remodeled Threepwood just doesn't hold a candle to the original and I found myself wishing I could navigate the old 8-bit avatar around in the new world.
For those snobs out there that refuse to play old games because of all the reading, now you have no excuses left; the entire game is also full voice acted with all the previous actors reprising their roles. One small improvement from The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition seems to be timing. In the first SE installment, there was a bit of dead air between spoken lines because the game was still waiting for the player to "read" the dialogue. This led to the game feeling very staccato, almost as if the characters were performing a bad high school play, rather than talking naturally. Thankfully, this issue has been fixed for the second SE and now everything flows naturally, with jokes firing off right on cue. The music has also been remastered, going from MIDI blats and tinny chimes to fully realized string and woodwind scores.
One of the crazy cool inventions that have carried over from SMI: SE is one where, with a simple press of the F1 key, you can switch back and forth between the 1994 and 2010 versions. I'd like to say I was making all of these comparisons by memory but you don't truly understand the gravity and amount of change that Lucasarts put in until you alternate between the two versions. The user interface is also revamped over the first remake as now all you have to do is hold down right click over an object and only the relevant options are given (including the very situational "push" and "pull" functions). Behold the power of late 90's technology!
Finally, MI2: SE comes with a goodly amount of extras, similar to what you would find on DVDs of newly released movies. Included is concept art from both the Special Edition and the original art dating back to 1992. While it is neat to see what Sam and Max creator Steve Purcell was drawing eighteen years ago, it's especially cool to see how the current artists grappled with turning the old 8-bit collection of pixels into fully realized characters.
I'm not sure I could tolerate drawing different versions of Elaine over and over, but I'm glad Gary Choo did!
The other special edition feature is the audio commentary by three of the original creators. I will say it right now: every game needs this feature included from now on. Every single game. When entering an area, you are sometimes given the indicator that pressing the A button will bring up some neat bit of information or even some friendly banter between old developing buddies relating war stories. It even switches to a Mystery Science Theater 3000 type view. This feature isn't implemented perfectly, however, since the game doesn't pause and the commentary can overlap important/funny game dialogue. Also, the commentaries are linked to areas, not game progression, so you will end up hearing the same bit of commentary every time you enter the town of Woodtick, no matter how far into the game you are. But these are small concerns and I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
All of these improvements are great for die-hard adventure fans and people who played the game as kids, but what about the rest of today's population? Does the actual game hold up low these many years later? While the humor is still very funny and the equal (better?) of the recently released Tales of Monkey Island episodes, the gameplay is definitely showing some age. At one point I had close to 30 inventory items; that's just too many and shows that while these games are classics and laid the foundation for future generations, they still hadn't quite gotten everything right yet.
The game is also hard. A lot of these puzzles have such backwards logic as to be evident only in hindsight. There is also lots of requisite backtracking which is something most games were guilty of throughout the 90's. Later adventure games like Full Throttle managed this problem by inventing the double click area transition arrow, but MI2: SE stayed true to its roots, opting to leave you double-click-less. Authentic but ultimately frustrating.
To answer my own question, no, this special edition of a sixteen year old game probably won't nestle itself in the hearts of those that never played the original. But I'm not sure that was ever really the point. It seems more like Lucasarts, apart from wanting to make a bit of money off an old IP, wanted to give the old girl one last coat of wax and some touch-up paint before sending her off to the Smithsonian to be forever crystallized in time. Now all of the adventures of Guybrush Threepwood are fully voiced, look great, and will be available when parents want to show their kids a relic of a bygone era of gaming. It's the closest a developer has come to turning a game into a public service.
It belongs in a museum!