Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I end up writing about nostalgia a lot in this column—partially because, at an ancient (and getting ancienter by the second) 38 years old, my bones are made of dust, my beard grows grey, and I long for the gentle kiss of the suns of my long-distant youth. And partially because fuck, but do video game companies love to sell it to us.
Reboots, remakes, retreads, remasterings: They’re everywhere these days, sucking up oxygen (and cash), re-selling our own histories to us at a considerable mark-up, and, even more damningly, with a dearth of things to say about the source material from which they’re so insistently scavenging.
Thank the gods of gaming, then, for Return To Monkey Island, an honest-to-god, no-tricks sequel to the classic pirate-themed adventure game series. Out this week, and designed by original devs Ron Gilbert and David Grossman with their team at Terrible Toybox, Return is the rare thing that does what so many recent reprises merely promise: serve as both a celebration of the franchise it’s based on, and a new, great game in its own right.
Players once again take on the role of classic adventure game hero Guybrush Threepwood, who no longer wants to be a mighty pirate, on account of already being one. (Sort of.) Now appearing in a gorgeous new art style—it looks a bit like moving paper dolls, and matches the game’s colorful tone perfectly—but still voiced by series vet Dominic Armato, Guybrush is looking to once again try to figure out the actual Secret Of Monkey Island, since the past five games’ worth of reveals have all turned out to be red herrings. (Meanwhile, one of the wonderful things about Return is that, while it’s generally been billed as a direct sequel to Monkey Island 2, the last game Gilbert was lead designer on, it pays its respects to all of Guybrush’s various Caribbean adventures. Take heart, Tales Of Monkey Island fans!)
Pursuing the titular secret will, of course, involve completing a series of tasks usually doled out in groupings of two or three, and almost always involving tricking someone out of a prized possession. (Guybrush is, after all, a pirate—and an adventure game protagonist.) It’s worth noting right up front that puzzle design isn’t necessarily Return’s strong suit: Even on the harder puzzle difficulty offered, it’s usually pretty easy to infer what comes next, and opportunities for old-school LucasArts lateral thinking are pretty rare on the ground.
Where Return excels, though, is in its writing and presentation. It’s a joy to return to this world—not just locations like traditional MI starting point Melée Island, which have been lovingly recreated, but the joke-heavy, consequence-light version of island living that’s always been this series’ stock in trade. Gilbert and company are unafraid to play the hits—you’ll run into Wally, Elaine, and the Voodoo Lady all within your first hour of play—but they’re also not beholden to the past. Monkey Island has always been about tone as much as any specific plot involving root beer or evil Australian real estate tycoons or whatever the hell the villainous Ghost Pirate LeChuck is up to this time. And it’s in recreating that tone that Terrible Toybox has crafted a worthy continuation of Monkey Island’s legacy, rather than a mere re-hash. And if you’re a newcomer to the series, then you’ll just get a beautiful, funny, bright adventure, filled with good jokes and great voice performances.
All that, and Gilbert and Grossman take a decent stab at kind-of, sort-of explaining what the hell was going on with the ending of Monkey Island 2, a mere 30 years after it drove us all to distraction.