“Look behind you, there’s a three-headed monkey!” That’s right gamers, Guybrush Threepwood and all his crazy antics are back in Return to Monkey Island! It has been thirteen years since the last Monkey Island game, and what a wait it has been. It is difficult to describe the flood of emotions I experienced when seeing the trailer for Return to Monkey Island just a few short months ago. Whether you are new to adventure puzzle gaming or an experienced veteran like myself, what people need to understand is that this series defined an entire genre of gaming. There are numerous references to Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood, three-headed monkeys, rubber chickens with pulleys in the middle, and more in a substantial majority of adventure puzzle games that are worth playing. Those references are a sincere and genuine nod of recognition and appreciation for the founding fathers of this type of gameplay. With that being said, does this newest installation in the series offer anything groundbreaking or revolutionary? Does the story and gameplay measure up to the other games so far?
I am Guybrush Threepwood! Mighty pirate!
The beginning of the game introduces us to two young boys with very familiar names playing around by a pier. After solving a puzzle they go through a gate and enter a tranquil park. After solving a few more puzzles that help introduce the controls, including inventory management, they eventually run into one of the boy’s fathers who happens to be none other than THE Guybrush Threepwood. He definitely looks older, wiser, and as exhausted as every adult over 30 feels daily. It is there that Guybrush begins to tell his son the story about the time he returned to Monkey Island in search of The Secret…. once again.
The story uses a frame narrative. This is a storytelling device that involves a story within a story. A few famous examples being Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, and the Princess Bride. The creators of the game had said in interviews that this newest installation is supposed to be an introduction to a new generation of gamers. With that frame of reference this type of storytelling makes sense. Guybrush’s son represents the new generation and the story will pause to return to present day where either Guybrush or his son would provide context for things that have happened in previous games. Finding out that Tales of Monkey Island is canon provided a really great thrill as the original creators were merely consulted on its production, yet it is among the best in the series.
Overall, the story of Return to Monkey Island accomplishes the goal of introducing a new generation while providing nostalgic throwbacks for us veterans. Even though this game is supposed to take place after the events of Monkey Island 2, the series as a whole is not moved forward by the story that is told. The game finds clever ways of telling a story where you do not need to have played any of the previous games, but it caters more to newcomers. Years of complicated relationship dynamics between Guybrush and his arch nemesis LeChuck were mildly alluded to. Guybrush and Elaine were painted as an immature, infatuated couple that told the other to hang up first instead of the pirates of yore who fell in love and stayed together because of their love of their shared occupation: mighty pirates!
At the beginning of the game you have to choose if you want easy or hard in terms of the number and difficulty of the puzzles. Without hesitation I selected difficult. Veteran adventure puzzle gamers were born in the time before walkthroughs were a few keystrokes away. If you got stuck you would usually go back and exhaust all dialog options with any character you can interact with, double-checking that you've picked up every possible thing you are able to fill your inventory with, including red herrings. You'll try to combine everything in your inventory together, especially if the two things would normally not go together. And when all else fails you take a break to think on it. There was one puzzle and one puzzle only in the entire game where I was mildly stumped and decided to pause for a bit to think. That aha moment when it randomly comes to you is priceless and a very gratifying experience when you log back in to find it is the correct solution.
Someone who has never been inside the mind of Ron Gilbert may have been legitimately stymied by many of the puzzles. Having played all variations of Monkey Island as well as Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, The Cave, Thimbleweed Park, DeathSpank (not really an adventure puzzle game but still worth a shout), as well as too many others to name made the difficult mode more a little too easy. This prior knowledge made the gameplay feel more like pushing a button at the right time to move the story forward instead of a game where you have to solve complicated, complex, and time-consuming puzzles. If you don’t throw your controller in frustration at least one time can it really be considered an adventure puzzle game?
There were moments of deja vu with some of the puzzles or how to approach a situation. For example, at one point Guybrush is undercover on LeChuck’s ship and has to whip the votes of every crew member in favor of going to Monkey Island. In Tales of Monkey Island Guybrush finds himself on trial for multiple infractions against inhabitants of an island he is stranded on and has to prove his innocence. Both situations and the solutions were eerily familiar.
An animated storybook
The most controversial thing about Return to Monkey Island is the art style. The overwhelmingly negative response from the fanbase was premature and frankly unfair. The original Secret of Monkey Island was pixel art. We are in 2022 and a facelift was definitely in order. Keeping in mind that the creators are trying to lure in a new generation that was raised on Jimmy Neutron, Phineas and Ferb, and Dora the Explorer to name a few, it is not surprising they went with a stylized, angular look. I admit to initially being thrown off but I was more excited about the prospect of a new game in the series to be bothered by the new look for a very, very long time.
One of the best parts of the new game were the cutscenes. It was like watching an animated cartoon. They were seamless, smooth, colorful, and thoroughly entertaining. It is difficult not to compare something to what came before it, even if it is supposed to be a fresh restart. I just hope the fanbase learned their lesson and there is still hope for more games in the future.
Feels good to be back
Return to Monkey Island is an enjoyable game that I will definitely be telling my nephews and niece to play. It left me wanting more and now that the introduction is over, the next installment should provide the story progression that I was hoping for with this one. If nothing else this game will serve as a reminder to never say never. Ordinarily when a small company is bought out by a multibillion dollar conglomerate it usually goes quietly into the night never to be heard from again. The fact that this game was made at all is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Terrible Toybox and Devolver Digital have overcome the impossible and opened the door for more. Until then, might I suggest playing through the entire original series as well as befriending the three-headed monkey that’s behind you.
This review is based on a Switch key provided by the publisher. Return to Monkey Island is available now for PC, MacOS, and Nintendo Switch.
Return to Monkey Island
- Introduces Monkey island to a new generation
- Good recap of the series to date
- Tales of Monkey Island is cannon
- Good voice acting
- Classic "Ron Gilbert" style humor
- Doesn't move the story forward
- Veterans may find puzzles too easy
- Wish it was longer
Nicole Burke posted a new article, Return to Monkey Island review: Grab a root beer & walk down memory lane