That nostalgic backstory is why “Return to Monkey Island” is such a big deal. It’s a return not only of the series but also for its creator Ron Gilbert, who left the series after 1991’s “Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge”. The game finally answers the question that fans have speculated about for decades: what is the Secret of Monkey Island? Other designers after Gilbert have provided their own answers in sequels. “Return to Monkey Island” reveals the secret straight from the original creator himself and in definitive fashion.
“Return to Monkey Island” didn’t quite live up to 30 years of pent-up fan theorizing, forum debates and hype from hardcore fans whose tastes are still locked inside a 90s adventure game time capsule, however. Not because it’s a bad game (on the contrary, it’s quite delightful) but because Monkey Island is a humble series that’s been unfairly saddled with an unfeasibly epic expectation. The series has always been about a silly pirate going on zany adventures and “Return to Monkey Island” is very self-aware about this position, and the game’s most impressive achievement is how deftly it navigated that conundrum by tapping into the joyful energy of Monkey Island’s earliest games while tempering the nostalgic angst for a time that can’t be recaptured.
For the uninitiated, “Return to Monkey Island” stars the series protagonist Threepwood, a quippy and remarkably likable pirate sailing the Caribbean during an anachronistic version of the Golden Age of Piracy. Guybrush’s world is a Saturday morning cartoon version of piracy, where sword fights are determined by the 1700s equivalent of “yo momma” jokes, ship captains grumble about corporate red tape and zombies are extremely vulnerable to root beer. Since the game is a sequel (specifically to “Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge” in the series’ timeline), you’ll also need some background information before playing.
To that end, “Return to Monkey Island” has a digital scrapbook with Guybrush himself narrating through the major plot points of the previous titles to catch you up. Most of those plot points involve Guybrush’s archnemesis, the undead buccaneer LeChuck. LeChuck is also seeking the Secret of Monkey Island and is also in love with Elaine Marley (governor of the fictional Tri-Island Area and Guybrush’s wife).
“Return to Monkey Island” can be widely enjoyed by everyone, whether you are an adventure game veteran or a total newbie. The game is designed as a classic point-and-click title crafted with a modern sensibility: simple UI, puzzles encouraging unconventional thinking and punchy dialogue coupled with a vibrant Cubist art style and highly adaptable difficulty settings. There’s the Casual mode for players who want to enjoy the game’s story with minimal puzzling and a Hard mode for those who want a more cerebral challenge.
My favorite feature was the Hint Book, an in-game inventory item that provides spoiler-free tips on how to solve a puzzle or progress a quest. Not only does the Hint Book save you from alt-tabbing to a browser for help, it’s also scalable: you can rely on it as little or as much as you want. The first few hints for a quest are just nudges towards the right direction but you can also go through an entire entry to get everything spelled out for you. As someone who enjoyed playing the game on Hard but required the occasional nudge, the Hint Book was a godsend. There’s also a key (or button for controllers) for highlighting all the interactable items in an area.
But even with all these new dressings and increased accessibility, “Return to Monkey Island” is very much a title made for lifetime fans. It’s rife with self-referential throwbacks, inside jokes and cameos from characters introduced in other Monkey Island games. The game’s humor is dry, absurdist and often breaks the fourth wall — all of which compromise Gilbert’s auteur mark. To Monkey Island fans, the opening title sequence from “Return to Monkey Island” showing Mêlée Island at night with the game’s theme music playing is as iconic as the opening crawl in “Star Wars.”
“Return to Monkey Island” is everything that the developers purported it to be. It’s a wonderful, heartfelt adventure game that made me laugh all the way through. The only wonky thing to note is the pacing. The game opens at a steady tempo and then hits a sudden and massive spike. I went from having a clear, focused mission for a specific area to suddenly being saddled with a dozen objectives that sent me frantically traveling back and forth between multiple islands.
Still, the payoff of the game’s final act — and the entire journey that leads up to it — makes “Return to Monkey Island” a game well worth your time. Monkey Island is a series that has been surprisingly resistant to the sequel escalation that affects other long-running video games franchises. Other than “Tales of Monkey Island,” which featured a zombie plague outbreak in the Caribbean, the series has consistently focused on the personal. Monkey Island isn’t about saving the world. It’s about the adventures of the kind and wide-eyed Guybrush Threepwood — his dream of becoming a renowned pirate, marrying the love of his life and finding the Secret of Monkey Island. His is the type of life that would be celebrated by raised mugs in a dockside tavern, not trumpeted in a cathedral with kings and queens in attendance. But over time, Guybrush and Monkey Island have become lionized by his fans into something they aren’t.
In June, Gilbert announced he would stop talking about “Return to Monkey Island” and closed comments on his personal blog after angry posters wrote abusive comments in response to the game’s art direction. Some of the commenters demanded that Gilbert rework or outright cancel “Return to Monkey Island” because it wasn’t made in the pixel art style of the first two Monkey Island games. They defended the harassment by saying it comes from a place of passion, having been deeply shaped by the Monkey Island series since their youth.
Those people were yearning for a Monkey Island that can’t possibly be recreated. After 30 years, the original developers behind Monkey Island are different people now. They’ve grown up and Guybrush had to grow up alongside them. As I was playing “Return to Monkey Island,” I got the distinct sense that this was a game about revisiting the past, not reliving it. During my moody tween years, Monkey Island taught me that being goofy and laughing at dumb jokes is way more fun than being a judgmental moper. After I finished the game, I felt like I had said goodbye to a part of my childhood.
By officially revealing the Secret and bringing the series full circle, “Return to Monkey Island” is deliberately closing a chapter in the franchise’s life. It’s not the end of Guybrush Threepwood or Monkey Island, but it’s a swansong for the bygone era that birthed them.