‘The Secret Of Monkey Island' (1990) Dev. Lucasfilm Games
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
A genre-defining point and click pirate story turns 30 years old, and is one that shaped the graphic adventure for generations to come...
The LucasArts Entertainment Company, otherwise known as Lucasfilm Games was an industry leading and genre-breaking video game developer and publisher, best known for its graphic adventure games. Founded in 1982 by George Lucas as Lucasfilm Games, a video game subsidiary of Lucasfilm, it was renamed LucasArts in 1990. LucasArts was acquired by Disney through the acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012.
On April 3, 2013, in what would be a devastating blow for fans and employees, Disney halted all internal development at LucasArts, but it remained open so that it could retain its function as a licensor. But before the acquisition was even a splinter in the mind’s eye for the House Of Mouse, Lucasfilm Games was the world leader in graphic adventure games. To be fair, they stood strong beside fellow developer of the time Sierra.
Sierra was founded in 1979 by Ken and Roberta Williams and known for classics such as the “Quest” sagas (King's, Space and Police), Gabriel Knight and Leisure Suit Larry.
But the main character could very well die should you make a wrong decision or say the wrong thing. It was always risky if you didn’t save often! While it added some excitement into the gaming process, it also added unwanted worry about how to play the game and therefore remove the enjoyment.
So in 1988 Lucasfilm employee and game developer Ron Gilbert conceived an idea for a new graphic adventure, and enlisted fellow developers and writers Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman to help.
Gilbert already had a number of successful Lucasfilm Games under his belt including 1987s ‘Maniac Mansion’, 1988s ‘Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders’ and 1989s ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure’, all showcasing extraordinary graphics and interfaces for the time, as well as crackling humour, game-play and immersive stories. Gilbert also helped conceive SCUMM, which stands for Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion, and this was used for all future Lucasfilm Games.
SCUMM was a mix between the core game engine and a programming language, allowing designers to create locations, items and dialogue without writing code in the language, allowing the game script and data files to be cross-platform.
Inspired by the Disney ride ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ Gilbert and his team brought us ‘The Secret Of Monkey Island’ in 1990 for a cost of $200k and 9 months of development.
Players are thrust into the polished buckled shoes of wannabe-pirate Guybrush Threepwood, a well-spoken, polite and often naïve young man who arrives on the island of Mêlée, deep in the Caribbean, with dreams of becoming a foul-smelling, grog-swilling pig. This is an island that survives under beloved Governor Elaine Marley, a respected and tough young woman who is more than capable of standing tall among the pirates. This is an island that houses many places such as a travelling circus, a used ship salesman and a deep, dark forest. It’s also an island plagued by the threat of the ghost pirate LeChuck and his un-dead crew.
Sailing the seas in his ghost ship, LeChuck has instilled enough fear in the local pirates to keep them being rather, well, un-pirate like. They wander around keeping themselves to themselves and spend more time in the local tavern drinking than pillaging and looting, so the call for new pirate blood is in hot demand!
It’s down to you to traverse the island and complete the requirements to prove Guybrush can be a real pirate, including treasure hunting and mastering the sword. However, Guybrush will have to contend with not just the affairs of the heart when Governor Marley sweeps him off his feet, but LeChuck and his crew who hatch a dastardly plan that threatens the Governor herself and the entire pirate population of the Caribbean.
Guybrush will suddenly find himself on a dangerous but exciting adventure that takes him across all of Mêlée, meeting new and extraordinary faces and, eventually, hunting down LeChuck. But the ghost pirate’s lair is located beneath the the fabled Monkey Island; a place nobody has returned from before; a place that exists only in pirate myth.
It’s time to hoist the main sails, polish up on your insult sword fighting and embark on a swashbuckling journey that puts the fate of the Caribbean solely in Guybrush’s (and your) hands!
Gilbert and his team created a fully immersive graphic adventure. An adventure that wasn’t based in a fantasy world or medieval land, An adventure that tapped into a genre most audiences would easily recognise, and removed the threat of killing off the main character if you didn’t quite get something right. This move created a far more enjoyable and relaxed game to play for both professional and new players, and also allowed it to be shared with family and friends without the pressure of making a wrong move that ruined the game. Why should a player pay the price for wanting to take a risk, or simply making their own choice to solve a puzzle or advance the story?
As said before, Sierra was not afraid to make players really think and evaluate their options and SAVE OFTEN before making a move, but of course it didn’t remove the overall quality and enjoyment of playing. Now, there IS a way to die in ‘TSOMI’, but it’s a very comical, non-violent death that is only carried out if the player is, in all honesty, a sadist – and you have to do something for ten minutes, so it will not happen by accident, don’t worry.
‘The Secret Of Monkey Island’ presents a very simple point-and-click interface. With a series of verb commands such as ‘Open’, ‘Talk’, ‘Push’ and ‘Use’, you just point and click with your mouse where you want Guybrush to walk to, or what you want him to interact with, and it will happen. No text typing commands here. Simplicity is what makes this game so charming and user-friendly, and it is such a simple game to play. The dialogue, while only in text-form which you read (in numerous colours for each character), is a joy to experience.
When you converse with characters, you’re presented with numerous lines of dialogue to choose from. At least one or two of these advance the conversation, progresses you and gets what you need. A few others are simply there to add some spice and humour to a conversation, letting you decide just how to be around these characters and what sort of mood you want to create. Guybrush can get right the point; you can make him be a smart-ass, be excited, cheeky, sarcastic, amused... whatever the options are there, explore them all and see where they get you and what others respond with.
It’s a very refreshing genre to play in as a pirate, for it leads to so many enjoyable moments we’ve all wanted to playout at one time or another. Be it sword-fighting, sailing ships, digging for treasure, fighting evil pirates or exploring atmospheric islands, but all in a comical and safe way. Along with the pirate theme, you’ll also encounter elements of family-friendly horror, romance, comedy, thriller and mystery with lots of in-jokes to existing LucasFilm material such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and also 4th wall breaking along the way. This is a game with its tongue firmly in its cheeky cheek.
This style of obvious humour and sly comedy comes from the unique minds of Schafer and Grossman, each lending their own touch to various characters and moments in the game to keep it fresh and always fun to be in. Thankfully, there is nothing silly or crass in order to bring some cheap gags – it’s all quality observational comedy, a witty script and sly nods and winks at society and pop-culture without losing the atmosphere of the setting.
When it comes to the puzzles, they are all so naturally written into the story that they are easy enough to solve with a little thought and elimination. There is nothing too surreal and eclectic in the process, and there’s nothing wrong with trying what resides in your inventory to progress. It’s also good to know you will never really get “trapped” in a situation; you will be able to walk around, visit other places and see if the solution comes to you. Talk to the wonderfully colourful and vibrant characters, engage in conversation and explore Guybrush’s cheeky but lovable personality to get as much as you can from everyone and everything. The answers will come to you in time without forsaking the enjoyment of playing.
The 2D sprites (characters) and environments built around pixels and art backgrounds were revolutionary for gaming entering the 1990s. Even now, 30 years on, they are strong, vibrant and full of colour and atmosphere. While the use of computers and cutting-edge software leads the way in modern gaming for games as photo-real as possible, there is something so charming in this form of pixelated gaming, a real nostalgic return to the simple era of games.
It’s a gorgeous looking adventure with so many environments brought to life in both nightlight and daylight – tropical islands and bright, sun-kissed beaches are drenched in yellows, blues and greens, while ghostly catacombs are burning with volcanic reds, earthly browns and glowing neon blues.
As seen in previous efforts such as ‘Maniac Mansion’ and even ‘Loom’, the graphics display the real talent of the time who created these characters and locations. Lead artist Steve Purcell was originally reduced to an Enhanced Graphics Adaptor engine that rendered in 16 colours, but it looked robotic and devoid of appealing colour and atmosphere. The updated Video Graphics Array software version of the game implemented 256-colour support and brought the game to life.
Sound and music
A debut project for Lucasfilm Game composer Michael Land was to create the authentic soundtrack for the game, full of that Caribbean atmosphere and style reflecting various locations, themes and actions in the game. The music was created in MIDI format. The main theme itself is an instantly recognisable piece of music for point-and-click gamers, transcending over various sequels and reworked and re-invented well into the 2000s.
With the opening credits immediately drawing you into the swashbuckling Caribbean settings, the music fills you with a sense of adventure, of wonder, of hope and excitement; everything that Guybrush Threepwood stands for in this game.
You’ll be surprised how little sound there is in the game. Bar a few odd snippets of diegetic noise like jungle creatures, lapping waves and seagulls, most of the atmosphere comes from the soundtrack that drastically changes to suit each area. For example, a bright and breezy score accompanies you as you navigate the island, but it turns to a more sinister, nefarious track when LeChuck is present. That’s not to say there are no sounds, because there are to accompany actions you take such as exploding dams, walking in the galley of a ship or digging for treasure. But it’s natural and uses the phrase “less is more” to enhance the experience rather than bombard you with sound.
In 2009, LucasArts released a remake of ‘The Secret Of Monkey Island’ for next-gen consoles and mobile devices. The remake, while staying true to the original plot and themes, presented new slick animation and hand-drawn art, an updated score and actors providing dialogue for the characters.
The voice talent includes many who worked on future games in the franchise including Dominic Armarto as Guybrush, Alexandra Boyd as Governor Marley and ‘The Terminator’ franchise star Earl Boen as LeChuck. This simply added a whole new dimension to the game, bringing familiar characters more to life than ever before and presenting a more visually pleasing world.
It introduced the franchise to a new generation of gamers with the ability to switch between the original and the remaster during game--play which is a fascinating tool. Yet, however slick the remake is, there’s something that can’t be improved upon with the simplicity and charming features of the original.
Celebrating 30 years in 2020, ‘The Secret Of Monkey Island’ continues to please new and old gamers alike who are invested in the graphic adventure and point-and-click genre of gaming. It also regularly populates lists of all-time favourite games and graphic adventures across many platforms. The recognition it still receives for its cutting-edge game-play, story, mechanics and humour is testament to the talent behind the game itself.
It set a new benchmark for design and development within Lucasfilm Games and for other companies out to make similar games. It even bore three sequels and a mini-series of games to expand and continue this honest and heart-warming story of a young man wanting to be somebody in a world full of danger, piracy and wacky characters and locations.
The only downside?
Ron Gilbert still hasn’t shared just WHAT the secret of Monkey Island is.