[5 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
The month of July 2009 has seen a resurgence of adventure game classics from the 1980s and 1990s hitting STEAM. Everything from the King’s Quest and Space Quest games to the classic catalog from LucasArts. Old fans are able to revisit their favorite places while new players can see what all the fuss was about for the first time. In preparation for this moment, LucasArts created a remake of one of their most popular franchises, Monkey Island. Featuring a new interface and graphics that recreate the original game scene for scene and puzzle for puzzle, the Special Edition serves as a reminder that perhaps some things are better left in their original form.
Remaking a video game so that the interface and graphics suit modern sensibilities actually has an established standard. It’s just that that standard was established back in the 1990s. When Sierra created a new engine for their adventure games that used icons instead of text parsing, they released new versions of all of their classic titles. Due to how primitive the original graphics in these games were in comparison to their 256 color brethren, the visual overhaul of these games was usually massive. This revision was also important because introducing a new interface to the game meant a lot of the puzzles had to be reorganized. For example, a puzzle where you typed “Look in Chest” now needed visual clues to get you to look inside. The benefit of all of the tweaking and the new art required for these remakes was that many of these games were fun to play even if you had experienced the original. You could in essence go to the same place and experience it all over again.
I raise this issue because LucasArts has opted for their own approach to remaking the adventure game and the results are a bit more mixed. By pressing F10 anytime during the game, you can alternate between the original game’s graphics or switch to an exact recreation of them in lush, graphical detail. The two games also use two different interfaces. The original’s verb menu remains, but when you switch to the Special Edition, the player faces a one-click style of interaction. To switch verbs you have to pull down a separate menu or press a hotkey. Inventory is also a separate window. So, it’s literally the exact same game, but you can swap to prettier graphics with the push of a button.
The problem is that the interface in the enhanced version does not really work for the game. The classic version (which, again, you just press F10 to bring up) works as elegantly as ever, making all the verbs easy to access and mix with inventory. But in the Special Edition it’s a tedious affair to juggle menus and try to sync everything up. I’ve played Monkey Island too many times to even begin to guess what the experience would be like for someone unfamiliar with the game, but I’m not sure you could even figure out half the puzzles by just playing in the Special Edition mode. Since many of the solutions are words puns (red herring, magnetic compass, etc.) part of the clues for the game come from staring at your inventory while you look at the various puzzles. That concept is no longer present in the Special Edition. If anything, the Special Edition is an interesting example of what would happen if you put a totally alien interface on a game that wasn’t designed for it.
The second issue is whether or not the new visuals add much to the game. Unlike the standard cited above, where Sierra created entirely new layouts and graphics for each place, the visuals here have to match those of the original games. They are scene for scene the same except more glossy and shinier. I’m not even totally sure how one is meant to judge such a thing, it’s like asking whether a pencil drawing is made better when ink is applied. Where the visuals do become a bit more awkward is in the actual character animations, which are stylized but must still move like the original game’s characters do. The result is like watching a weird marionette show as these fluid looking images move blockily about the screen. Although many of the characters’ new looks are well crafted, the one that suffers the most is also the most significant. The new look for Guybrush Threepwood involves having his hair pulled all the way up into a weird pomade buzzcut, leaving something to be desired. Like much of this review, speaking personally, I found myself switching back to the Classic Edition just because the new look seemed so bizarre.
Ultimately, reviewing this game is turning into the equivalent of trying to review the 1998 Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho. It was a shot for shot recreation of Hitchcock’s thriller that did absolutely nothing new. Except with this game, you can press a button and switch between the two versions at your convenience. How do you review such a thing? If I slam the game I come across as insulting Monkey Island, which would be a bit ludicrous for me at this point. The Special Edition’s voices are all pitch perfect and the actors do a great job. That’s about the only real addition that I can offer to justify not just pressing F10 and playing in classic mode. With all the possible things they could have done with a Special Edition of Monkey Island, the only real criticism you can make is the missed opportunity. If you’re not going to do something significantly new with the game, what’s the point of remaking it?