In 1990, Ron Gilbert created the seminal point-and-click adventure The Secret of Monkey Island. It grabbed hearts and hasn’t let go for 32 years. In 1991, he concluded Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge on a bombshell cliffhanger. In 1992, he departed Lucasarts, and the secret third part of his trilogy went down in legend like a sunken ship. Fan communities theorized and fantasized for a couple of decades about where the story might have been going, desperate for confirmation from Gilbert or his colleagues.
In 2013, Gilbert wrote, “I always envisioned the game as a trilogy” – one he could only make with “complete control over what [he] was making and the only way to do that is to own it.” In 2015 he wrote, “Monkey Island is now owned by Disney and they haven’t shown any desire to sell me the IP.” The fans’ final gasp of what if? was snuffed. He bemoaned April Fools’ day annually on his blog, proudly staying “Fools’ day free” for 18 years. He once tweeted, “If I ever get to make another Monkey Island, I’m going to announce it on April 1st”.
On April Fools’ Day 2022, Ron Gilbert joked, “I’ve decided to make another Monkey Island.”
And here we are. To say Return to Monkey Island is hotly anticipated doesn’t capture the mental and emotional pilgrimage of the aging gamers who were swept away as children to shores of Booty Island by a pair of demonic eyes. This is an event gameand perhaps the only conceivable event game in what is – despite some scattered bright lights over the decades – a frustratingly staid genre.
But what is this “return”? A return to the past: retrograde fan service for 40-somethings? A return to commercial interests: watered-down Monkey Island to accommodate later sequels of dubious canonicity? Or could it be… maybe… a return to form for the graphic adventure genre – to when you didn’t know what the point-and-click would do next, and you were enraptured by what it did?
Terrible Toybox, under the direction of Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, has set out to deliver something new, but at the same time, the whole game is laced with musings on the question “What is the secret of Monkey Island?” – the rallying cry of giant Monkey-heads around the world. We are invited to join Guybrush on parallel expeditions for both the in-game Secret™ and some bigger, transcendental secret about what exactly we’ve been longing for all these years, and whether either of those ever existed at all.
It is made immediately clear that Return is going to lean on its history. The title screen menu directs players to a scrapbook that provides an overview of the story so far. This politely covers every Monkey Island game, but it’s clear which ones are prioritized. Monkey Islands 1 and 2 get a glorious multi-page retelling through painted pictures in Return’s new art style, with every buckle lovingly swashed. The Curse of Monkey Island gets a tidy spread of high-level plot points… and there were two other games.
The most hypersensitive of Monkey Island fans will detect a somewhat selective respect for post-Gilbert works. Perhaps it was our imagination, but gentle little digs were had at the directions the story was taken, with particular interest in how Elaine Marley was portrayed. When Guybrush looks back at the image of Elaine frozen into a statue in The Curse of Monkey Island, his remark by her that LeChuck “thinks of her dela as furniture” could easily be directed at the writers of that third game. It is emphasized at every opportunity that the Elaine of the first two games never needed saving by Guybrush. It’s ironic that Gilbert and co-writer Dave Grossman must take pains to save her here.
For all this looking backwards at the series so far, Return to Monkey Island feels fantastically fresh. It owns the nostalgia around it and confidently spins that into the fabric of its story. New characters abound who immediately won our hearts – friends and foes – and the grand scale of the adventure allows space to bask in reimagined versions of familiar places, while also conjuring tones of new locales full of mystery and fun. The jokes and pervading silly-seriousness are fresher than they have ever been since 1991, picking the right moments to call back the classic lines, but not making them the main attraction. The new art style speaks for itself and is magnificent in motion – and, of course, is also harvested for metafictional jokes. The variety of perspectives on the action, the depth of the scenery, and the mouthwatering intricacy of characters’ little worlds is outstanding.
But the greatest triumph is probably the new interface, which provides the framework for every aspect of the game to hang together in a rich player experience. On Switch, this is with direct joystick control of Guybrush, using ‘R’ and ‘L’ to highlight interactive elements and cycle through them. This provides the exploratory experience of hovering the mouse to investigate scenery – the first joy of reaching a new area. In a graphic adventure sense, there are no “verbs” – no on-screen selectable types of action to apply to objects in the world. However, in a more general sense, the verbs are infinite. Where some modern graphic adventures have all interactions to “do the thing to the thing”, Return to Monkey Island displays text to show what pressing a button will do. So instead of always seeing “Walk to…”, “Pick up…”, “Talk to…”, “Look at…” etc., Guybrush can “Brave…”, “Steal…”, “Clear the air with…” , “Praise the excellent…” etc. This is treated as another space for the writers to play – a place for more jokes, surprises, and rewards for progression.
The combination through this interface of the graphics, the writing, the excellent voice work, and the new ideas and gleeful reworkings in the music is sublime. There is a strong sense of authorial control over the whole experience, everything flowing together to deliver a coherent vision – a story of fun, adventure, deliverance, and sentimentality, acted out through carefully designed and inspiring puzzles, laced with set pieces and asides that kept us laughing.
Given the depth of the well of fan passion, it would have been absurd for Return to Monkey Island not to draw on it. Given the clamoring specifically for Ron Gilbert’s follow-up to his first two games, it would have been absurd not to play to that. Equally, it would be absurd to hold this game’s dependence on its roots against it. Yes, people who aren’t long-time fans of the first two games will have a great time with Return to Monkey Island, but Terrible Toybox has leveraged the incredible storytelling potential of fan fervor to deliver something rare and spectacular for those in the bull’s eye of the target audience. If that’s you, go ahead and add a point to the score below.
Maybe Return finally found a way to exist to the multimedia fad of remake-as-a-genre, but if that’s the case then it’s had no influence on the game: it is crafted with total integrity and a contagious glee that sparkles over every scene.
Return to Monkey Island reaches into your heart, rips out your desire to know THE SECRET, and clenches it in front of your face. As hard as it would be to concede that The Secret of Monkey Island™ might always have been a McGuffin, it’s agonizing to contemplate that your 30-year longing for the Monkey Island 3 might be just the same. Delighting as you tremble, Return presents to your transfixed gaze a phenomenal point-and-click adventure, bubbling with passion and fun. All the way through, you will hope, achingly, that the big reveal is coming – and then…