If you're a gamer, you've heard of the Monkey Island games. The series has been around for twenty years now, and like many others, I've loved every entry. The Secret of Monkey Island is the legendary game that started it all, and the Special Edition is a massive update to the original version, adding full voiceovers, new graphics, re-mastered music, and even a hint system. Just how special is this Special Edition? Read on to find out.
The Secret of Monkey Island (SoMI) tells the story of Guybrush Threepwood, a nobody whose goal in life is to become a mighty pirate. When the pirates of Meleé Island tell him about the three trials he must complete in order to join their ranks, they set off a chain of events that lead him not only to obtain the skills needed by any successful pirate, but also to fall in love with the beautiful Governor Elaine Marley.
Unfortunately, since Elaine is both powerful and gorgeous, Guybrush is not the only one who's after her heart. She's also being pursued by the ghost pirate LeChuck, the Monkey Island series' ever-deceased, ever-evolving villain. Just as Guybrush finishes his trials, LeChuck kidnaps Elaine and takes her to Monkey Island, leaving Guybrush to find a way to follow them, stop LeChuck's evil plan, and rescue his lady love. It's quite the challenge for any pirate, let alone a novice who has just finished his first insult sword fight (one of my all-time favorite adventure game mechanics).
Yes, I said "sword fight," but fear not, this game is classic point-and-click adventure fare. Even the sword fights take place as exchanges of insults. Your opponent insults Guybrush, and if you give the right snappy comeback, you'll get to issue an insult of your own. After a few wrong answers from either side, the losing pirate simply gives up, and you'll lose a fair number of duels as you learn new insults and their corresponding comebacks.
As you play SoMI, you talk to everyone you see, pick up everything that's not nailed down, and solve puzzles that range in difficulty from "obvious" to "where's that hint system?" The hint system is the only way that the gameplay in the Special Edition differs from the original version, but there are times when it's a very welcome difference. I feel like every point-and-click game is required to have puzzles that don't make sense, but that doesn't make the problem any less annoying. For example, you need a monkey to follow you at one point, and he only does so after you give him five bananas, one at a time. Of course, after giving him two or three and not seeing any results, I decided that I must be doing the wrong thing and stopped. The hint system starts out vague, but gives you increasingly specific hints as you repeatedly ask it about the same puzzle, so it was only by getting every hint possible that I was able to solve it and move on.
The gameplay may be unchanged in this Special Edition, but the graphics are another story altogether. Everything and everyone in the game has been redrawn, and it all looks great. My only real complaint graphically is that once you reach Monkey Island, there are no visual cues to help you find several key locations. I made do, but I floundered around for a noticeable amount of time because I couldn't find the next place to go and didn't have a real hint that there was a new place to go.
Stylish new graphics are all well and good, but old timers like me know that SoMI's original graphics were pretty great too. Sure, they're not as technologically advanced as the new ones, but technology isn't all there is to art. Fortunately, swiping two fingers down your device's screen switches between the Special Edition and the original version, so you can still see those charming graphics any time you want. If this is your first exposure to this episode in the Monkey Island series, I'd encourage you to do so, especially during dialogue featuring character portraits – the pirates in the Scumm bar are particularly entertaining.
In my reviews of iPod Touch/iPhone games, I usually complain if the game doesn't allow me to listen to my own music, but I'm happy to make an exception in this case. It's true that SoMI doesn't allow you to listen to your own music, but if it did, you'd miss out on the outstanding voicework and in-game music. You don't want to do that. Switching to the original version of the graphics turns off the Special Edition sound as well, which can be very interesting. The original sound has no voice acting, less sound effects, and classic MIDI sound, but you should still check it out, because it's definitely worth hearing.
I've been almost unfailingly positive thus far, but there is one area of SoMI: Special Edition that I was frequently unhappy with: the controls. In the main area of the screen, your finger acts like a trackball mouse, rather than acting directly like a pointer. That is, you don't tap things you want to interact with – you move your finger around the screen until your "mouse cursor" is over that thing. When the cursor is over something that can be interacted with, you can double-tap to take the default action ("open door," "talk to pirate"), but only if you do it at just the right time. Once you work out the correct timing, you'll be able to get it most of the time, but I occasionally messed up all the way to the end of the game. This also makes the game's few events that require quick action extremely frustrating. If you want to take an action other than the default, or if you can't get the default action timing right, there's an action icon in the bottom corner of the screen that lets you do whatever you want to the thing your cursor is over. The controls aren't so broken that they'll destroy the otherwise great experience. They're just bad enough to make you wish they were better.
The iPod Touch/iPhone features a number of awesome, classic games for point-and-click adventure fans. If my experiences with those games thus far are any indication, developers are still having some trouble working out the best way to control those games, but don't let that stop you from experiencing The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition. If you love this genre and have never played this game, you owe it to yourself to find out why it holds a special place in the hearts of so many people. Now, if we could only get them to re-release Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango...