Franchise Festival #47: Monkey Island

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we will be engaging in Monkey Kombat with the history of Lucasarts’ Monkey Island. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. A bonus credit goes to tireless aggregator of data and accumulator of insight @ShinigamiAppleMerchant, who directed me towards much of the series’ funniest imagery.

Background

Lucasfilm Games was spun out of parent company Lucasfilm Computer Division in 1982. Though Lucasfilm Games would rapidly begin to produce interactive content, adaptations of studio founder George Lucas’ beloved Star Wars film series were off-limits due to Atari’s ownership of that brand’s video game licensing. This limitation would result in Lucasfilm Games focusing on the development of entirely new intellectual properties.

A still from the 1990 Nintendo Entertainment System version of Maniac Mansion (1987). Credit: NintendoComplete

The studio’s earliest titles were action-oriented, though this had begun to change by the end of the 1980s. Similarly, the studio went from being strictly a developer to being a combined developer/publisher with the release of 1987’s influential Maniac Mansion. With more financial and creative freedom than ever, Lucasfilm Games’ employees Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer would have the ideal conditions to establish one of the medium’s most enduring adventure series.

The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)

The initial inspiration for The Secret of Monkey Island, according to writer/director Ron Gilbert, was Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. He had been speculating on what stories could be told about the characters glimpsed only momentarily in the humorous theme park attraction. Tim Powers’ pirate novel On Stranger Tides (1987) became a key influence in the game’s ongoing development too, informing the inclusion of supernatural elements.

Gilbert and his team wring their fair share of laughs from the abrasive qualities of competitor Sierra’s adventure games. Credit: amartini51

Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, two Lucasfilm Games’ staffers originally hired by Gilbert in 1989, would prove to be critical allies in the game getting off the ground. Both would leverage their writing abilities and programming acumen to bring Gilbert’s initial concept to life. All were happy to craft a game built on the foundation of 1980s graphical adventures but lacking many of the less player-friendly tropes characteristic of that genre. In particular, the team sought to avoid overly complex puzzles and fail states in which the player would be forced to restart the entire game.

Guybrush explores a nighttime scene. Note the verb selection to the lower-left and the inventory to the lower-right. Credit: PushingUpRoses

In The Secret of Monkey Island, players take on the role of Guybrush Threepwood, a sailor who wishes to become a pirate. To do so, he must take part in challenges assigned by three pirate leaders. The narrative slowly evolves into a love triangle, with Threepwood pining after Melee Island Governor Elaine Marley and being opposed by ghostly pirate captain LeChuck.

Elaine (L) and Guybrush (R). Credit: PushingUpRoses

Visual design is sprite-based, as was the style at the time. Lushly animated 2D characters navigate a 2.5D background as they interact with one another. Environmental features are often static at first appearance but spring to life upon closer examination. As it was designed for the PC, pointing and clicking with a cursor are the player’s primary means of directing Guybrush around the game’s world.

Lest the player consider himself or herself a monster, he or she is reminded that the dogs are only sleeping. Credit: Shortlist

Interaction is facilitated through the use of Ron Gilbert’s SCUMM engine. This action bar, which is constantly present in the lower third of the screen, was originally developed for Maniac Mansion (1987). It allows the player to quickly indicate an action that Guybrush is to perform on any character, item, or place of interest. An inventory is built into the interface, offering quick access to the various doodads obtained by Guybrush throughout his adventure. Puzzle solving is facilitated with a system that is both expansive and comparatively accessible.

Guybrush uses the SCUMM system to puzzle his way out of a watery grave. Credit: PushingUpRoses

While its narrative, visual design, and mechanics are all agreeable, the comedic tone is what truly set this game apart from its competitors. Lucasfilm Games already had a reputation for highly detailed adventure title, but The Secret of Monkey Island would establish the studio as one of the most reliable comedy creators in a medium that rarely focused on tickling players’ funny bones.

It’s hard to imagine Orson Scott Card coming up with the non sequiturs of insult sword fighting. Credit: PushingUpRoses

One of the most noteworthy sequences involves sword duels waged through the deployment of creative insults rather than combat prowess. Many of the funniest lines, surprisingly, were contributed by controversial science fiction author Orson Scott Card. This duel mechanic would recur throughout the franchise.

Self-referential humor is the order of the day in The Secret of Monkey Island. This gag refers to an earlier LucasArts adventure game called Loom. Credit: The Immersive World

The Secret of Monkey Island was first released for the IBM PC and Atari ST in 1990. An updated version switched from the floppy format to CD-ROM, eliminating at least one joke about inserting another disk but otherwise substantially improving the game through a more advanced visual palette. This would prove the basis for all future editions.

The 2009 remaster is more polished, though it loses something in its transition away from sprite-based art. Credit: PushingUpRoses

Ports would be published for various computer and console hardware over the following two decades, but the most notable is a 2009 remaster released on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and mobile devices. The original engine remains in use for better and for worse, allowing players to switch between graphical styles at will and interact with the world through the SCUMM interface around which the game was originally designed while also limiting the ability to improve on the original game’s limited number of animation frames. This results in the updated graphics looking shoddier than they might otherwise have done. It is still an impressive remaster, capturing the spirit of the original 1990 release while shading in quite a bit of detail that had previously been absent. Full voice acting is integrated for the first time as well. Most importantly, the 2009 edition ensured that Lucasfilm Games’ classic remained accessible to an entirely new generation of players.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991)

Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer quickly got to work on a sequel to their comedic magnum opus. The first game’s commercial performance had not even been assessed when production on Monkey Island 2 began. Lucasfilm Games, meanwhile, was in an era of transition. The studio was renamed LucasArts during a 1990 reorganization and moved away from George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch.

Monkey Island 2 features a rather explicit reference to its Pirates of the Caribbean source with this key-bearing dog. Credit: Let’s Play Archive

In spite of this apparent upheaval on the corporate side, the creative staff on the Monkey Island series remained largely unchanged. Composer Peter McConnell would represent the most significant addition to the team, as he worked with The Secret of Monkey Island composer Michael Land to develop the innovative iMUSE audio system between the series’ first and second entries. iMUSE, which allows multiple audio tracks to operate in sync with in-game transitions, would make its public debut in 1991’s Monkey Island 2 before going on to appear in a plethora of other LucasArts titles.

Guybrush reacts poorly to a late-game revelation from LeChuck. Credit: PushingUpRoses

The narrative begins some time after The Secret of Monkey Island, as Elaine discovers Guybrush suspended by a rope over a pit and has him recount the series of silly events which led to his predicament. LeChuck returns in a zombie form. Monkey Island 2’s new MacGuffin is the mysterious Big Whoop, the truth of which is only revealed at the story’s climax. Most of the first game’s amusing characters return, including the Voodoo Lady and Stan, a put-upon salesman now in the business of selling coffins.

Stan’s back! And boy does he have a lot of coffins to sell. Credit: Let’s Play Archive

Gameplay is virtually unchanged. The key exception is an option to choose between two difficulty settings. Hard Mode is the standard experience intended for fans familiar with the sometimes-byzantine logic governing adventure games, while Easy Mode (named Monkey 2 Lite) presents a breezier series of simple puzzles. Players more interested in Monkey Island’s characteristic humor and characters were grateful for the option to eschew the genre’s most notorious feature.

The special edition features director’s commentary in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000. My still is subtitled in Italian because that’s the best YouTube could produce. Credit: Andrea Pannochia

As with The Secret of Monkey Island, a remake for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, and mobile devices would follow almost two decades after the game’s initial publication. This 2010 release provides updated graphics and sound design, including voice performances, though the new audio/visual presentation comes at the expense of the original sprite graphics and innovative iMUSE soundtrack. In deference to longtime fans, however, players can switch between the original and revised versions of the game. An additional bonus for dedicated Monkey Island aficionados is the inclusion of optional Directors’ Commentary by Gilbert, Grossman, and Schafer; this is accompanied by a silhouette overlay inspired by the popular Mystery Science Theater 3000 television show.

The Curse of Monkey Island (1997)

Six years would pass between the second and third entries in LucasArts’ seafaring adventure franchise. This was particularly vexing for fans who had been left on a cliffhanger ending at the conclusion of Monkey Island 2. A new creative team was assigned to the third title in the series, as Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman had departed LucasArts during the intervening years while Tim Schafer had grown busy with new IPs. The new team would be led by Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern. This update in personnel would have an impact on the writing style of The Curse of Monkey Island, though the game’s irreverent tone would remain consistent with earlier series entries.

A delightful rhyming minigame. I strongly encourage you to check out the video as no still will do this justice. Credit: PhantomVulture

The most conspicuous update is cosmetic. The gap between 1991 and 1997 had seen 3D graphics ascend to popularity over sprite-based visual design. Seeking to avoid feeling needlessly antiquated while still retaining a distinctive appearance, LucasArts worked up a unique animation style for The Curse of Monkey Island. The island and characters are rendered in a thin-lined style reminiscent of animated television programs, and the expanded capacity of mid-1990s computer hardware permits more extensively articulated character movements than had been possible in 1991. Most players enjoyed the new voice acting, with the heaviest praise directed towards Dominic Armato for his role as Guybrush Threepwood. Some fans criticized the animation style, though, claiming that it represented a garish step backwards from the charms of earlier entries’ pixel graphics.

Surprisingly, the animation tends to look better in stills than in motion due to its comparatively low number of frames. The quality of any given frame is high but smooth movement suffers. Credit: PushingUpRoses

The narrative is still more controversial. Much of the climactic cliffhanger sequence from Monkey Island 2 is abandoned, and the story begins with Guybrush floating through the Caribbean on driftwood rather than being trapped in an amusement park as a magically de-aged version of himself. This jarring discontinuity is later papered over, but many fans were disappointed that the previous story had been left unresolved.

Statue Elaine is a particularly controversial decision in a game full of controversial decisions. Credit: PushingUpRoses

The overall plot of the new game echoes its predecessors while adding new wrinkles. As is Monkey Island tradition, Guybrush attempts to marry Elaine while opposed by LeChuck. It first seems that Guybrush has finally conquered his nemesis and proposed to Elaine, but his fortunes are reversed when Elaine’s engagement ring turns her into a gold statue and LeChuck is reanimated as a demonic figure. Though its climactic sequence returns to the Big Whoop amusement park of Monkey Island 2, The Curse of Monkey Island ends with a more definitive resolution.

Guybrush… debates the demonic LeChuck. Credit: Filben

Gameplay is based on the foundation of earlier titles in the series. The player still interacts with the world by using his or her mouse to select a target, either in Guybrush’s inventory or the surrounding environment, and choosing a verb. The primary difference is the interface itself, as LucasArts overhauled the venerable SCUMM system with a wheel-based visual overlay displayed when interacting with targets. This was highly influenced by Full Throttle (1995), a LucasArts adventure game designed by Tim Schafer and worked on by The Curse of Monkey Island creators Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern. Ron Gilbert’s SCUMM system would make its final appearance here.

One of the games more amusing puzzles, in which Guybrush must spray a beach-goer’s back with oil and then extract the fried layer of skin containing a map. Credit: PushingUpRoses

Reception to The Curse of Monkey Island was muted, as many long-time fans felt that the series had lost key elements of its identity in the six years between its second and third entries. In spite of their deference to the style of earlier games, the new writing staff was believed to lack some of the pizzazz displayed by Gilbert, Grossman, and Schafer. The series’ new aesthetic was similarly divisive. With this mixed response, and the uncertain state of the adventure game genre more generally in the late 1990s, several years would pass before LucasArts committed to a follow-up.

Escape from Monkey Island (2000)

Escape from Monkey Island would come to symbolize a turning point for adventure games. The genre had peaked in the 1980s, but had remained active throughout the 1990s largely driven by two studios: Sierra Entertainment and LucasArts. The former would be bought and heavily restructured by CUC International in 1996, while the latter would struggle on into the 2000s and effectively abandon the adventure genre following Escape from Monkey Island. The Curse of Monkey Island had not sold well, so Escape from Monkey Island functioned as a last attempt at commercial viability for a rapidly fading type of game.

Elaine and Guybrush look a little different in this one. Credit: Pushing Up Roses

To that end, it was the second Monkey Island title to see a home console release. The series had consistently been published on the PC, as computers’ input mechanisms had made them the default home for adventure games since the rise of the genre in the 1980s, but this would change with Escape from Monkey Island. The Secret of Monkey Island had been released on the SEGA CD in 1994, but suffered from an interface designed around point-and-click interactions; Escape from Monkey Island would adopt the so-called tank controls of late 1990s survival horror games, ensuring that it would translate better to a home console environment on Sony’s PlayStation 2.

Environments in Escape from Monkey Island are sometimes expansive (and full of beautiful clouds). Credit: Pushing Up Roses

No longer would players direct a cursor around a screen, clicking on items of interest to interact with them. Players instead manually direct Guybrush Threepwood around navigable environments and tap a button to interact with nearby features or characters when prompted. The modified SCUMM game engine of The Curse of Monkey Island is abandoned in favor of the GrimE engine, which had debuted with LucasArts’ Grim Fandango (1997).

A pirate re-education program. Credit: SkeletonBill

Still more controversial is the replacement of cartoonish hand drawn art with textured polygonal models and environments. Long-time fans would blame this major shift in the series’ visual design on new writer/designers Sean Clark and Michael Stemmle, but Escape from Monkey Island is just one example of a broader trend sweeping video games in the late 1990s. Virtually no property avoided the siren song of 3D visuals, and those that did were criticized for their inability to adapt to an evolving hardware landscape.

Sam and Max Hit the Road, another LucasArts classic of the early 1990s made possible by Sean Clark and Michael Stemmle. Credit: NintendoComplete

The Monkey Island series’ characteristic comedy remains consistent in its fourth entry, on the other hand. Though writing responsibilities again changed hands, and indeed brought with them some significant additions to a narrative arc which had reached its natural conclusion in The Curse of Monkey Island, LucasArts’ staff was determined to retain the identity of its cult franchise. Sean Clark and Michael Stemmle had previously been responsible for the humorous fan favorite adventure game Sam and Max Hit the Road (1993), so it’s not surprising that they were able to iterate successfully upon Ron Gilbert’s beloved creation.

Charles L. Charles knows that the route to a pirate’s heart is through his liver. Credit: Pushing Up Roses

Escape from Monkey Island opens with Guybrush and Elaine returning from their honeymoon to find that Elaine has been declared dead in her absence. With no governor, Melee Island is in the midst of election preparations and the mysterious candidate Charles L. Charles appears likely to win. Australian land developer Ozzie Mandrill is simultaneously introduced as a new enemy for Guybrush and Elaine; he is focused on turning the series’ Tri-Island Area into a crassly commercial tourist trap. The two lead characters must work to win the election and thwart Ozzie’s plans, with numerous familiar faces from past Monkey Island entries appearing throughout the adventure.

Ozzie Mandrill knows himself. The self-described “businessman… capitalist… and real estate developer” is also very Australian. Credit: Pushing Up Roses

While the series’ humor and zany narrative remain largely intact, the insult sword fighting of The Secret of Monkey Island and The Curse of Monkey Island is controversially replaced with Monkey Kombat. Clearly a riff on Midway’s Mortal Kombat fighting game franchise, this was already a dated cultural reference by 2000. Monkey Kombat’s mechanics are similarly lukewarm, as they require the player to memorize a procedurally generated set of monkey noises and repeat those back in order to progress through portions of the narrative. Insult sword fighting had sometimes been regarded as a roadblock in a series otherwise oriented around amusing puzzles, and Monkey Kombat is a still more frustrating distraction from Monkey Island’s core virtues.

It’s Anxious Ape vs. Gimpy Gibbon in… MONKEY KOMBAT! Credit: Monkey Island Wiki

Facing increasingly harsh critical reception and the adventure genre’s continued commercial decline in the early 2000s, LucasArts opted to close the book on Monkey Island after its fourth entry. The staff had put in a valiant attempt at modernizing a popular series based on industry trends; this was not enough, it seems, to bring in new fans. LucasArts would begin to shift its focus towards production of games set in the ever-reliable Star Wars universe following Escape from Monkey Island, having acquired the license to develop content for that IP in 1992 and sensing an opportunity in the wake of George Lucas’ newly released Star Wars prequels. It would require a new studio and a renewed interest in adventure games to revive the franchise almost ten years later.

Tales of Monkey Island (2009)

Telltale Games was born through a rift over the future of adventure games at LucasArts. The small studio, which would become famous in the 2010s for episodic licensed games like The Walking Dead (2012) and Tales from the Borderlands (2014), was formed in 2004 by ex-LucasArts employees disappointed at that company’s abandonment of the adventure genre. Following a handful of unremarkable licensed tie-ins with television show CSI and the poker simulator Telltale Texas Hold’em (2005), a genuine oddity developed to prove the viability of their proprietary Telltale Tool game engine, the studio would establish a reputation for narratively rich humor with Sam and Max Save the World (2006-2007). Published monthly over the span of six episodes, the game would be regarded as a worthy successor to Sam and Max Hit the Road (1993).

Telltale Texas Hold’em is a rather peculiar experiment. Credit: Pudding Muffin

While other franchises would lend their licenses to Telltale in the years after Sam and Max, the small studio would be overjoyed when it had the opportunity to take on one of the adventure genre’s most esteemed properties following a 2008 change in leadership at LucasArts. New LucasArts CEO Darrell Rodriguez lacked the antipathy that his predecessor had displayed towards Telltale and was eager to revive properties which had been neglected during his studio’s commercial reorientation in the 2000s. Rodriguez would offer Telltale the Monkey Island license in 2008 as LucasArts began work on remasters of the series’ first two games.

Tales of Monkey Island‘s new inventory system. Credit: World of Longplays

Guybrush Threepwood’s next adventure would be released for PC as five episodes published in late 2009. Telltale made use of 3D models and environments, as dictated by its game engine, but otherwise sought to enhance connections to Monkey Island’s earliest entries. One of the writers for The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2, Dave Grossman, would serve as the project’s director while series creator Ron Gilbert contributed heavily during the planning phases. The result was a game that inherited the spirit of its predecessors without being overly beholden to outdated mechanics or visual design.

Nothing warms the heart like giant manatee monsters in love. Credit: Blackadder125

Indeed, Tales of Monkey Island’s gameplay is an intriguing mix of the old and new. Players navigate Guybrush around 3D environments using either a keyboard or mouse clicks, bridging the gap between those who preferred a vintage point-and-click style and those more comfortable with standard third-person movement controls. This hybrid control scheme simplified the process of porting the game to Nintendo Wii in 2009-2010, PlayStation 3 in 2010, and iOS devices in 2010.

LeChuck gets a rather dramatic makeover in Episode 1. Credit: World of Longplays

The narrative is humorous, as befits a Monkey Island title, but grows darker in its final two chapters. Telltale had manage to infuse pathos into other comedic properties, and the studio’s characteristic edge makes Tales of Monkey Island an unusual entry in an otherwise reliably goofy franchise. The first chapter of the game establishes immediately the sense that things will be different, as perennial antagonist LeChuck is physically transformed into a more sympathetic human figure while the rest of the surrounding Gulf of Melange is infected with the voodoo curse formerly confined to his body. Even Guybrush becomes a victim as his hand turns evil before eventually being cut off by the game’s most engaging new character, Morgan LeFlay. Telltale uses Morgan to reflect on nostalgia and the dangers of hero worship as her most prominent characteristic is an uncritical adulation of Guybrush’s past deeds. By the end of the story, Guybrush has made his way through the gullet of a massive manatee, been put on trial for his role in spreading LeChuck’s curse, and wound up in an eerie underworld alongside several of his companions.

Morgan LeFlay is a marvelous addition to an already-stacked cast. Credit: World of Longplays

Puzzles remain present, though Telltale would primarily tie narrative progression to branching dialogue trees. This is reminiscent of sword fighting sequences in earlier titles but occupies a much larger proportion of the game. A tendency towards complex, fully-voiced dialogue would go on to become one of the studio’s most recognizable staples.

Santino, the clearly-dead-but-not-recognized-as-such member of the Democratically United Brotherhood of the Manatee Interior, is a jerk. Credit: Game Surf

Tales of Monkey Island would close out the Monkey Island series with aplomb. It faced some criticism, particularly due to a lack of polish in early episodes stemming from resource limitations and a darker tone in later episodes, but grew into one of the series’ most memorable outings by the conclusion. Telltale had managed to resurrect a revered intellectual property while still contributing to its ongoing evolution.

Conclusion

Surprisingly, no Monkey Island spinoffs have been released so far. An animated film called The Curse of Monkey Island was in production briefly around 2000 but was canceled early in development. Bizarrely, Ted Elliot’s script seems to have gone on to inform Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films. Perhaps the interactive nature of Monkey Island is too foundational to the series’ identity for non-interactive media tie-ins to hold much appeal.

The future seems dim for more franchise entries, as Telltale was unable to secure the license from LucasArts for a sequel to Tales of Monkey Island before LucasArts was acquired by Disney in 2013. Telltale itself would go out of business in 2018, definitively ending speculation that it may yet revive the series. Ron Gilbert has made bids to acquire the Monkey Island license from Disney but these entreaties have so far been met with silence. Until further information emerges, it is safe to assume that the amusing adventures of Guybrush Threepwood, Elaine Marley, and LeChuck have come to an end.


Which is your favorite Monkey Island title? How about your favorite characters? What is your favorite insult? Are you too a recovering pirate? Let’s discuss below!

Next week we’ll be covering Kingdom Rush, the mobile tower defense sensation. Join us for the next Franchise Festival on February 1, 2019, at 9:00 AM EST.