Return to Monkey Island review (Switch eShop)

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In 1990, Ron Gilbert created the seminal point-and-click adventure The Secret of Monkey Island. It captured hearts and hasn’t let go for 32 years. In 1991, he ended Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge on a bombshell cliffhanger. In 1992 he left Lucasarts, and the secret third part of his trilogy went down in legend like a sunken ship. Fan communities theorized and fantasized for a few decades about where the story might have been headed, 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] made, and the only way to do that is to own it.” In 2015, he wrote, “Monkey Island is now owned by Disney and they have shown no desire to sell me the IP.” Fans’ last gasp of what if? was sniffed. He lamented April 1 every year on his blog and proudly kept himself “Fools’ day free” for 18 years. He once tweeted: “If I’m ever going to make another Monkey Island, I’ll announce it on April 1st”.

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On April Fool’s Day 2022, Ron Gilbert joked, “I’ve decided to do another Monkey Island.”

And here we are. To say that Return to Monkey Island is long overdue doesn’t capture the mental and emotional pilgrimage of the aging gamers who, as children, were swept to the shores of Booty Island by a pair of taunting demonic eyes. This is a event gamesand perhaps the only conceivable event game in what is – despite some scattered bright lights over the decades – a frustratingly stagnant genre.

But what is this “return”? A throwback to the past: retrograde fan service for 40-somethings? A return to commercial interests: watered down Monkey Island to accommodate later sequels of questionable canonicity? Or it could be… maybe… a return to form for the graphic adventure genre – to where you didn’t know what the point-and-click would do next, and you were delighted by what it did?

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Terrible Toybox, under the direction of Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman, has set out to deliver something new, but at the same time the entire game is filled with reflections on the question “What is the secret of Monkey Island?” – the rallying cry of giant monkey heads around the world. We’re invited to join Guybrush on parallel expeditions for both the in-game Secret™ and a larger, transcendental secret about what exactly we’ve been longing for all these years, and whether any of it even existed.

It is immediately made clear that Return will 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 take priority. Monkey Islands 1 and 2 get a glorious multi-page retelling through painted images in Return’s new art style, where every buckle is delicately drawn. The Curse of Monkey Island gets a nice spread of high-level plot points… and there were two other games.

The most hypersensitive of Monkey Island fans will discover something selective respect for works by Gilbert. Maybe it was our imaginations, but gentle little digs were made 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 that LeChuck “thinks of her as a piece of furniture” could easily be aimed at the writers of the third game. It is emphasized at every opportunity that Elaine from the first two games never had to be rescued by Guybrush. It’s ironic that Gilbert and co-writer Dave Grossman have to go out of their way to save her here.

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Despite all this looking backwards at the series so far, Return to Monkey Island feels wonderfully fresh. It owns the nostalgia around it and spins it confidently into its story. There are plenty of new characters who immediately won our hearts – friends and foes alike – and the sheer scale of the adventure leaves room to bask in reimagined versions of familiar locations, while also conjuring up tons of new locales full of mystery and fun. The jokes and piercingly silly seriousness are fresher than they’ve 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 also ripe for metafictional jokes. The diversity of perspectives on the action, the depth of the scenery and the delicious intricacy of the small worlds of the characters are unique.

But the biggest triumph is probably the new interface, which provides the framework for all aspects of the game to be connected 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 with the mouse to survey landscapes – the first joy of reaching a new area. In a graphic adventure sense, there are no “verbs” – no selectable on-screen action types that can be applied to objects in the world. But in a more general sense, verbs are infinitive. Where some modern graphic adventures have reduced all interactions to “doing things with things”, Return to Monkey Island displays text to show what pressing a button will do. So instead of always seeing “Go 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.

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The combination through this interface of the graphics, the writing, the excellent voice work and the new ideas and happy reworkings in the music is sublime. There’s a strong sense of authorial control over the entire experience, everything flows together to deliver a cohesive vision – a story of fun, adventure, liberation and sentimentality, played out through carefully designed and inspiring puzzles, filled with set pieces and asides that made us to laugh.

Given the depth of the well of fan passion, it would have been absurd for Return to Monkey Island to not draw on it. Given the clamor specifically for Ron Gilbert’s follow-up to his first two games, it would have been absurd not to play to that. Likewise, it would be absurd to hold this game’s reliance on its roots against itself. Yes, people who haven’t been fans of the first two games for a long time will have a great time with Return to Monkey Island, but Terrible Toybox has harnessed the incredible storytelling potential of fan fervor to deliver something rare and spectacular for those at the forefront of the target audience. If that’s you, go ahead and add a point to the score below.

Perhaps Return has finally found a way to exist thanks to the remake’s multimedia mode, but if so, then it has no effect on the game: it is made with total integrity and an infectious joy that sparkles over every scene.

Conclusion

Return to Monkey Island reaches into your heart, rips out your desire to know THE SECRET and ties it in front of your face. As hard as it would be to admit that The Secret of Monkey Island™ might always have been a McGuffin, it’s agonizing to think that your 30-year longing for that Monkey Island 3 might just be the same. Retur, which delights you while you shiver, presents to your fixed gaze a phenomenal point-and-click adventure bubbling with passion and fun. All the way through, you’ll be hoping in agony for the big reveal to come – and then…

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