There are some dream games that you never expect to see made.
Hundreds of point-and-click adventure games exist, but the Monkey Island series arguably towers above them all. Since its creation, this 30-year-old series has become legendary for its clever writing, inventive puzzles, engrossing locations, and memorable characters. Unfortunately, its last entry, the mixed-reception Telltale Games-developed Tales of Monkey Island, was over a decade ago. In the back of my mind, I expected that we would get another entry someday, but I never expected that the original creators, Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, would return for the first time since the second game’s release in 1991. Could they possibly bring back the magic that made the series one of the most beloved in video game history?
Many years ago, a young man named Guybrush Threepwood arrived on Mêlée Island™, determined to become a world-famous pirate. But a decade after his myriad adventures throughout the Caribbean fighting the infamous undead pirate LeChuck, he finds himself picking at loose ends. He never did find the REAL secret of Monkey Island™, did he? Upon hearing that LeChuck is planning an expedition to finally discover the secret, Guybrush decides to recapture past glories and go on a rousing adventure to beat his old arch nemesis to the punch! It should be easy for an experienced pirate like him, right? However, upon arriving at Mêlée Island™, just as he did so long ago, he discovers that his pirate fame has faded, his old contacts have retired or been jailed, and a new generation of swashbucklers has taken over. Worse yet, that generation seemingly has no interest in funding his expedition! Can Guybrush not only find the secret of Monkey Island™ but also make a fresh mark in this next-generation Caribbean?
The history of the Monkey Island series is fascinating but much too long to be included here. All you need to know is that the first two games in the series, The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, were created by Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, two pioneers of the point-and-click adventure genre. After they left LucasArts, other creators took Guybrush in directions that didn’t align with their plan for the series. Ron Gilbert has been on record for years that he wished he could return to do his own version of Monkey Island 3, picking up on the themes and vision that infused his entries in the series.
Well, Return to Monkey Island is not that. It’s better. Rather than make THEIR version of the third Monkey Island, Ron and Dave have instead taken the best of every entry in the series (even the ones they had nothing to do with) and distilled them into this new entry. This isn’t a soft reboot or reimagining of the series; it’s a continuation that honors what came before while blazing the way ahead to something new. It respects the other developers and the fans of the later entries while still telling their own story of what happens to Guybrush Threepwood. Rather than being a nostalgia trap with throwback mechanics, it is a modern, polished adventure game that just happens to pick up on story threads left dangling since 1991.
Point-and-click adventure games have come a long way since the 90s when verb-based interfaces were the standard GUI. Instead, Return uses a much-simplified system to interact with the world. When your mouse hovers over a hotspot or item, you get one or two actions corresponding to your mouse buttons. The descriptions of these actions are often hilarious in themselves, showing the developers missed no opportunity to load the game with jokes. With this new system, you no longer need to guess which combination of verb, item, and hotspot will advance the game. Instead, you pick up an item and simply hover it over a hotspot. It will only work if it’s the right solution. Not only does this cut down on the number of times Guybrush needs to say, “I don’t think that’ll work,” but it also significantly speeds up gameplay.
If I had to pick the one quality of adventure games that brings some players down, it would be “adventure game logic.” These are puzzles that likely make no sense to anyone but the designers of a game, and the first two Monkey Island games were absolutely loaded with them. Hypnotizing a monkey using a banana on a metronome to use him as a monkey wrench to shut off the water flow to a waterfall comes to mind. Brilliantly funny writing, but good luck figuring that logic chain out! Return to Monkey Island scales back the adventure game logic. While it does have more than a few head-scratchers, I only felt stuck once in my entire playthrough. Rather than spectacular leaps of logic, most puzzles instead rely on your observations of the environment and memories of conversations you had with the characters. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any “rubber-chicken-with-a-pulley-in-the-middle” levels of absurdity in the game, but these puzzles are not quite as opaque as they were in earlier entries.
And if you ever do get stuck, that’s easily rectified with the built-in hint book in your inventory! Rather than simply spoiling the puzzles by going to a walkthrough, the hint book will give you clues that help you piece the puzzles together. It’s an expertly implemented system, obviously designed by people who know the challenges of the point-and-click genre like the back of their hands. It’s no LucasArts Help Line, but it does the trick!
As you would expect from a new LucasArts adventure game (I can’t believe I’m typing that in 2022), the voice acting here is top-notch. Many actors from previous games in the series return to voice their characters, perhaps for the final time. Dominic Armato, the voice of Guybrush Threepwood since 1997’s The Curse of Monkey Island, continues to prove he’s the perfect person for the part. He still rings true as the wanna-be pirate, but with an extra tinge of regret layered on top. This isn’t the bushy-tailed Guybrush we met all those years ago. He feels adrift (both figuratively and, at times, literally) and wants to recapture past glories. His memories are tinged with nostalgia, and revisiting old locations means he is seeing them through rose-colored glasses. At one point, he visits the now-abandoned Stan’s Used Ships, wistfully remembering how full of life it once was while conveniently forgetting how thoroughly he got ripped off by Stan. Like many of us who get lost in memory, he remembers all of the good but none of the bad. He now feels that he is a forgotten figure, swept aside by a new pirate generation. It’s a genuinely touching performance, and one that might be very relatable to those who played the original Monkey Island back in the 90s.
The music has always been a highlight of the series, as it arguably has one of the catchiest main themes of any video game in history. Even after the credits rolled, I would find myself whistling the theme throughout the day. The rest of the music in the game is similarly excellent, with new tracks mixing seamlessly with classics like LeChuck’s Theme and Stan’s Used Ships. Between the exceptional voice acting and brilliant soundtrack, Return is a feast for the ears.
I would also argue that it’s a feast for the eyes, but that might come down to your particular taste in graphics. Return brings a brand-new art style to the series, looking more like a child’s scrapbook than the pixel art from the old days or the cartoonish look of the not-quite-as-old days. In my opinion, this style works spectacularly well. The character and environmental designs are as imaginative as ever, and the reimagining of familiar locations, such as Mêlée Island™, are instantly identifiable. Not only that, but the graphic style also leans heavily into the game’s themes. Before we even start a new game, we have an option to flip through Guybrush’s scrapbook of his old adventures. This is an excellent way to refresh your memory of events in past entries while beautifully setting up the game’s art style. (Also, finding out that Guybrush is a scrapbooker is so perfectly in character that the game had me giggling before it even started.)
And believe me, that wasn’t the only time I giggled throughout the approximate ten hours of playtime. The writing is easily on par with the series’ first two entries, with sharp dialogue filled with chuckle-inducing observations from Guybrush as you click on every hotspot you can find. The situations he and his friends find themselves in are absurd but make perfect sense in the context of the series. As usual, they regularly break the fourth wall, mixing our modern world with the world of the 17th-century Caribbean.
I believe that Return to Monkey Island will become a remarkably personal game for many of the people who play it. For those who have grown up with the series, Return illustrates what it’s like to reflect on your youth and try to find a new purpose in a world that has moved on. For those who are new, it could provide them with an excellent entry point into a brand-new genre of video game. Return is not just a return to form for the series and a celebration of everything that made it great; it’s also an outstanding example of a genre that paved the way for almost every deep narrative experience in video games today. Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and the other figures who created this zany version of the Caribbean have delivered a game that made me smile from the beginning to the almost-end. The actual end, well, that is something I’m going to be thinking about for some time to come. And if you know anything about Ron Gilbert’s Monkey Island, you know that’s par for the course!