It was quite the announcement, wasn’t it. When, a mere 32 years after the release of The Secret of Monkey Island, Ron Gilbert himself was returning to the Monkey Island series in 2022. The announcement, which brought a grown man to tears, I can confirm, was enough for the old-school point and click adventurer in all of us to wake up again and get a little excited for what was to come. Monkey Island is a franchise that we once thought was resigned to history, a product of the closure of Lucasfilm Games. A timeless experience that created a genre unto itself. It was a good run.
How wrong we were. Return to Monkey Island is here and boy has it been worth the wait.
It’s quite the glorious story, really. Return to Monkey Island follows exactly where 1990’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge ended way back in 1990 when this lowly writer was a mere four years old. I don’t remember every beat of the games, or if I played them at all, but I certainly remember Monkey Island, and the humour and nostalgic weight it carried. Hell, I’ve lived with Monkey Island for the past eleven years of my life thanks to working with one Sean Davies on various websites. The joy that is evident on his face whenever the series is brought up is reason enough to get excited about a brand new Guybrush Threepwood adventure.
That this carries on from 1990’s Monkey Island 2, leapfrogging 1997’s Curse of Monkey Island, 2000’s Escape from Monkey Island and 2009’s Tales of Monkey Island perhaps gives credence to the ‘father returning to his favourite child’ narrative – with Gilbert not being involved in any of them – the most exciting aspect of Return is that Gilbert has any involvement at all. It was enough to light the flame of excitement from the internet upon reveal, though rather pleasingly they aren’t completely forgotten here with subtle nods to the three Gilber-less Monkey games throughout.
And I don’t know about you, but Return to Monkey Island certainly looks 2022. Whilst the classic visual style not returning for this new age Monkey title certainly ruffled feathers upon reveal, there’s no denying it looks absolutely superb from top to bottom. Popping off the Switch OLED screen, Return to Monkey Island’s cut-out paper style suits the series more than you would expect, particularly when it’s self referenced within the game ensures Gilbert is as fully aware of the chance as you are.
It feels much cleaner and a little more alive than before and it’s definitely worth commending artist Rex Crowle for having the guts to change the style up in the first place. Do keep a look out for lovely series easter eggs in damn near every level. No denying this entry in the series is a ‘by the fans for the fans’. It’s The Force Awakens of Monkey Island games.
“You fool! You gave cheese to a lactose intolerant volcano god!”
It also gives the series a much needed sense of brightness. Return to Monkey Island is self-aware enough to know that it doesn’t look like it used to, but thirty years later would you really want it to? The cutscenes are lavishly and lovingly directed with – dare I say – 3D-esque effects. It’s wall to wall fan service and exactly what any discerning Monkey Island fan could want after waiting so long for a Gilbert-led follow up to a thirty year old sequel.
The pixel-art is almost commonplace now with the glorious rise of indies, that Monkey Island has moved away from that and remained so unique in its art style sets it apart from almost all that surrounds it on Steam charts and eShops. And yet a single screenshot of this game would be enough to convince any fan that what they’re looking at is Monkey Island. Hell, Sean clocked it within seconds after seeing the reveal trailer for the first time.
Really, Return’s most immediate change is that Guybrush contextually interacts with the world, rather than choosing to talk, use or examine objects individually. The good news is you can still interact with everything in some way, and there is dialogue that ribs you for using objects on assets that don’t make sense. It may be something to get used to for die-hard adventure game fans, but it feels only fair as a way to modernise Monkey Island for the generations who have grown up without it.
I didn’t notice its absence, especially while playing with a controller, and it certainly didn’t impact the comedy. Return To Monkey Island is just as belly-buckling as any other entry in the series, with its absurdist jokes about rock soup and creative accounting.
And if there’s one thing that remains from the classic era is that it’s still bloody hard. It’s certainly beneficial at certain points to have the built-in hint system which I came to rely on a little bit near the end and I was genuinely scratching my head in certain locations – the hints are helpful, but vague. They turn you in a direction but you still need to work out how to get there.
Those rewarding moments when you finally work something out is still present and correct though, and there’s nothing better than figuring it all out on your lonesome and punching the air. I’ve never been very good at these kind of games so when I saw the credits roll – according to my Switch after around 13 hours ot so – I felt like I genuinely achieved something. I don’t have much else going on in my life, so this felt like a huge accomplishment.
And it’s just all so charming. Even when you’re perplexed by how on earth you get past a particular puzzle the smile never really wavers. You know there’s something around the corner that’ll make you chuckle. Levels are beautifully designed, the music remains an absolute masterwork and a staple of the franchise. Guybrush remains a wonderful protagonist to spend time with as he explores new areas, meets new people, rummaging through their homes for helpful items and learn wonderful things such as what on earth avocado fizz is.
But the bigger question that lingers over the game is really, what is the Secret of Monkey Island? It’s really up to you and Guybrush to find out and hereby draws in perhaps the biggest change to the series where Guybrush can interact with items and people in the world rather than individually examining objects.
You’ll get abused for picking up objects that are of very little use to you (flashbacks to the actually not terrible Leisure Suit Larry point-and-click adventure…yeesh). It remains consistently funny and contextually it all makes perfect sense. It makes the world of Monkey Island feel a little more lived-in than previous entries.
The magic remains then, and old-school fans have so much to enjoy in Return to Monkey Island. The Gilbert magic is present and correct, and the wondrous visuals and tricky puzzles brings you right back home to the mad, mad world of Guybrush Threepwood. What a joy it is to tread the seven seas with him again.
Return to Monkey Island lives up to the near thirty year long wait with a modernised take that feels fresh, unique and brand new. Nostalgia naturally fuels a major proportion of its endearing qualities, but the new puzzles, the sumptuous music and the glorious performances bring the series back to life in ways we couldn’t have imagined. An absolutely stellar return for a franchise we thought we’d never see again.
Return to Monkey Island is available now on Nintendo Switch (review platform) and PC.
Developer: Terrible Toybox
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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