Monkey tales

Very recently the young company Telltale games released Tales of Monkey Island, Episode 1: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal. Guybrush Threepwood is back.

Monkey Island is a legendary series of graphic adventure games, released by Lucasarts during the time that their focus was on more than only Star Wars. Four games were released in this series. Of these, the third is probably my favorite. The first two were very interesting and fun to play, but as they were made for a screen resolution of 320×200 pixels with 256 vibrant colors, one can understand they look rather dated now. The fourth tried to latch on to the 3D craze, but as such looks and plays badly, and frankly, the story and puzzles are not up to what we would expect from this classic series. The third game, Curse of Monkey Island, however, is nearly perfect.

Curse of Monkey Island is created in a cartoon style, and is fully voice acted. It plays well, it has a long and interesting story to tell, it is filled to the brim with funny moments, it has well-designed characters, and is a joy to play. What is really good about it, is the fact that you will not need a walkthrough to solve it. Every puzzle is designed in such a way that you will be able to solve it on your own if you stick by it. That is quite a step up from LeChuck’s Revenge, which I played three times and for which I still needed a walkthrough the third time I played it.

Lucasarts killed off their adventure game branch quite a few years ago, and until recently that was the end of enjoyable, cool adventure games. Sure, some companies still produced such games, but they either degenerated into clichéd, paranormal horror stories, or desperately tried to be funny without being able to live up to Lucasarts glorious example.

Then Telltale entered the picture. Their business is focused on releasing “episodic games”, i.e., games that are relatively cheap and do not play very long, of which a series of a few games can be combined into one big story. Graphic adventure games are perfect for this purpose: such games often consist of a linear series of short storylines, each of which furthers the plot a little. Telltale flexed their muscles by releasing some Strong Bad games, and starting on a series of Bone adventures. Both these series are rather forgettable, in my opinion, but evidently they gained enough credit with them that they could go for something bigger: they licensed Sam & Max.

Lucasarts had released one Sam & Max game in 1993, and the studio was working on a new title before cutting off their complete adventure game division. The only released title, Sam & Max Hit the Road, is widely regarded as one of the best adventure games ever. When Telltale picked up the license in 2005, they had quite a legacy to live up to. Telltale released two series of Sam & Max games, totalling no less than eleven episodes.

The results were wonderful. Telltale managed to faithfully capture the spirit of the original game. The zany characters are a lot of fun, the dialogues are hilarious, the puzzles are perfectly adequate, the voice-acting is top notch, and the games look beautiful. I am very happy with the new Sam & Max, and I recommend everybody to give them a try: they are available for PC, Xbox and Wii.

Obviously, Telltale is the perfect choice to bring new life to the Monkey Island series, too. And they did so now, in collaboration with Lucasarts.

Clearly, they did some things right with the first episode. Guybrush is still Guybrush (they even used the same voice actor), Elaine is still Elaine, LeChuck is… well, a bit less menacing than the original LeChuck, but acceptable, and there are still loads of monkeys. The graphics look great, although I prefer the cartoon style of Curse. Dialogues are amusing. All and all the spirit of Monkey sland is present.

Still, not all is well. The puzzles are a bit bland. Most of them are easy, some of them are a bit harder, but unfortunately many are of the type “let’s click on everything and use every object with every other object to see if it has any effect.” Only very few shine with a creative spark that I am so desperately looking for. I know that is hard to achieve, but it is something that Monkey Island is famous for. The story of the new game is not that interesting either. Overall, it is still Monkey Island, definitely better than the fourth game, but not yet being of the same quality as the first three. But there are more episodes to come, and I have good hopes that Telltale will be able to improve a bit.

I have to say that I am happy that Telltale exists, and that a new dawn of graphic adventure gaming has risen. If you need convincing to give their games a look, go over to their website and download the free fourth episode of Telltale’s Sam & Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die. It’s hilarious.

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