Game: ‘The Curse Of Monkey Island' (1997) Dev. LucasArts
The third entry into the 'Monkey Island' franchise saw major changes in design, both as a game and with the talent who brought it to life...
Six years after ‘Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge’ had helped re-define graphic adventures for the 1990s, it would be time for another entry into the successful franchise but in a very different era to that which saw pixel graphics, verb command and MIDI music.
‘The Curse Of Monkey Island’ was released under the renamed Lucasfilm Games division, simply called LucasArts. LucasArts would continue until ceasing new game development in 2013 following the Walt Disney acquisition of LucasFilm in 2012. It would go down in gaming history for LucasArts as the last of its games running under the SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), a cross-platform gaming engine.
‘The Curse Of Monkey Island’ had peaked with SCUMM; from what it started off as in Ron Gilbert’s 1987 game ‘Maniac Mansion’ to something as visually impressive and fluid as this, it was due a big shakeup to help LucasArts continue pushing gaming in new, exciting directions.
Gilbert and previous game writers / designers Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer had since parted was soon after ‘LeChuck’s Revenge’, and LucasArts project leaders Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern helped the new direction for the Monkey Island sequel, bringing in background artist Bill Tiller and returning long-term series composer Michael Land. This new mix of talent would inject some new energy and ideas into the beloved game series, but retain what was charming, fun and entertaining to win over new and old audiences.
‘The Curse Of Monkey Island’ was an exciting step forward for fans of the franchise. It would be the first time that voice actors were used in spoken dialogue. While subtitles could still be used with or without dialogue, this was a chance to finally hear Guybrush Threepwood and LeChuck and flesh out so many more characters in the process.
Released from November 1997 across Windows and Mac machines, the game was a drastic change from the previous entries. While this was initially a sad thing to see happen, it was also expected to survive in ever changing times for computer games. It also proved that the franchise was able to evolve with the times to use new technology and ideas to make the game series fresh and original with new stories, characters, locations and humour as fans wanted.
The end of ‘LeChuck’s Revenge’ left games quite certain the story had come to an end. Or had it? Was it closed, or was it open? It went quiet once the credits had been and gone. Six years later and we are back with new and old heroes and villains, this time in glorious 2D animated form. As wannabe-pirate Guybrush Threepwood, back to looking a little cleaner shaven akin to his ‘TSOMI’ look, we are yet again transported into a swashbuckling fray between the zombie pirate LeChuck and Governor Elaine Marley. It turns where we saw them last on its narrative head (clearly due to the change in creative team and loss of Gilbert) and opens up a new adventure in a new location, but filled with the expected family-friendly humour, puzzles and inability to die as a character.
It doesn’t take long to meet a few familiar faces from the past when Guybrush, in the space of minutes, manages to destroy LeChuck’s undead fleet but LeChuck himself into a demonic incarnation complete with a flaming beard. He also manages to inflict his love Elaine with a pirate curse than turns her into solid gold thanks to a cursed diamond ring. And this is just the start!
The new islands of the Caribbean our hero must navigate to break the curse, save Elaine and once more defeat LeChuck include Plunder, Blood, Skull and, of course, the fabled Monkey Island. Each one is unique in its own vibrant way. Plunder is populated with scallywags, tradesmen and pirate entrepreneurs. Blood is a volcanic isle that sports a famous cemetery and hotel. Skull is home to notorious smugglers. Monkey Island is the most surreal of them all that houses dark (if a little more commercial) secrets to be discovered.
The first thing evident when we fade up from the comical opening is the display. It looks like a cut-scene, but instead it is the game itself. Cartoonish graphics welcome us into a very accessible, family friendly looking adventure game, but without the once familiar verb command seen previously. Instead, the crossbones cursor turns into a golden coin when you hover over an item or character with three actions; “Use”, “Talk” and “Look”. Gone is the verbs of open, close, push, pull etc. This is a simple and streamlined upgrade to the SCUMM engine that helps the player identify their environment to help with progression. But what about the inventory also usually at the bottom of the screen? Fear not – with the simple click of the mouse “right” button, your chest is brought up with all the collected inventory you can use.
The continued theme of Lucasfilm Games / LucasArts for graphic adventures has to develop games that are accessible for all without the threat of the player dying or hitting a dead end all in the pursuit of fun. This ethos is present and correct in ‘The Curse Of Monkey Island’; you cannot fail as Guybrush Threepwood. Similar to ‘LeChuck’s Revenge’, there are two levels of difficulty you can choose; normal and Mega Monkey. The latter has more complex challenges and in-depth thought required to solve puzzles. Yet the normal difficulty isn’t overly easy, and still fun with the continued ability to have you think about what to do, how to do it, where to go and who to talk to. The verb interaction offers subtle hints at the environment around you so you can try various ways of using what is around you.
One thing that is able to improve on previous games is the roster of characters and animation used to bring them to life. While the charm of the pixels may be lost as gaming becomes more modern and advanced, the step-up in graphics and overall look and feel proves that the series is capable to life in changing times. Characters can really become their own, instead of similar sprite models used for pixel creation. An example of this is Murray, the talking skull, who pops up over the game in various incarnations and thanks to the voice acting, he becomes a really amusing part of the game with his movements, voice and animated actions.
To accompany this, the game has much more detail in the locations and surroundings, often thanks to the art department creating very rich backdrops and environments that could never be represented in pixel form to be as immersive and atmospheric as this swashbuckling adventure.
The final game for LucasArts to use the revolutionary SCUMM engine was redeveloped for its swan song, ‘The Curse Of Monkey Island’ looks like a totally new game series coming after the pixelated ‘LeChuck’s Revenge in 1991. But only six years after, the graphics leapt forward thanks to the new technology and talent honed by the team as LucasArts whilst keeping things simple for new or old gamers.
A much more cartoon-like animated style is used for the game-play rather than pixels. Hand-drawn animation and matte backgrounds create a much more detailed digital world. Colours were themed, reflective of the locations be it sun-kissed islands, moonlit cabanas or earthy volcanic plateaus. Animations take place all around you, so it’s never dull or stagnant even if you just want to walk around and explore.
All these new upgrades to the art and design overseen by Tiller, known for work on games including 1995s ‘The Dig’, 1999s ‘Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine’ and 2015s ‘Skylanders: Imaginators’, created a rich and refreshing look. Coupled with the atmospheric sound and music, the visual look of ‘The Curse Of Monkey Island’ injects new life and energy into a familiar series that is one of the most pleasing to look at and play.
Sound and music
What stands out from the second this game begins is the how the sound and music immerses you in the full Monkey Island / Caribbean experience. The diegetic noise never stops running from beginning to end, no matter where you are. It can be the gentle serene waves crashing on the shore, gulls in the air, pirate ambiance, rumbling volcanoes...whatever the location, the sound transports you there. The production is flawless, and truly immersive and a stand-out selling point for the new era of Monkey Island gaming.
It is also the first in the series to feature a voice cast who brought the characters to life. These cast were also used in future games and also for the recording of dialogue for the special editions of the first two games. While some characters may not have sounded as people imagined in their own head, it soon gives way to sheer joy and entertainment hearing these colourful characters come to life.
The main cast consists of Dominic Armato as Guybrush, Alexandra Boyd as Elaine, Earl Boen as LeChuck, Denny Delk as Murray and Neil Ross as Wally B. Feed. The supporting cast includes Gary Coleman, Alan Young, Michael Sorich, Gregg Berger, Leilani Jones Wilmore, Kay E. Kuter, Tom Kane, Patrick Pinney and Victor Raider-Wexler.
An orchestra led by series composer Michael Lane have created a full score for the game; no synths or MIDI bleeps here. Tracks are used and loops for every new location, new action, new character, triumphs or failures in puzzles and island navigation. With steel drums, percussion, strings, xylophones and more creating one of the richest swashbuckling scores in any game, Land brings the Monkey Island experience to life in a way fans can only dream about. The music is laced with gentle moods so no matter what situation Guybrush is in, be it romantic, tense or dangerous, the charm of the family friendly game is never lost. It also never stops and cuts to silence without being natural; it becomes part of the narrative and as natural as the game-play itself.
A success across Europe and North America, the game pulled in a wealth of praise for continuing the franchise in a familiar, but very different way thanks to LucasArts pushing forward in technology and story. The main hurdle to overcome was the radical change in graphics from pixels to digital animation. With the change in development team, this was a given, but the tongue-in-cheek humour and family friendly narrative was not lost in the process, something that runs strong in the series.
There has never been a game that feels and looks more like a pirate adventure as this for you to get really stuck into, and that’s thanks to the audio, visual and narrative combination. ‘The Curse Of Monkey Island’ was nominated for a number of industry awards, and ranked high in the best games of 1997 with continued praise for the gameplay and mechanics.
To top it off, series creator Gilbert praised the game and new team saying that "they did an excellent job of capturing the humour and feel of the game.”