Swords, sand and razor-sharp insults: The Secret of Monkey Island at 30

Anyone who went to school during the Thatcher years will remember adventure games as something experienced on the class computer, typically a BBC Micro. Educational titles such as Granny’s Garden and Flowers of Crystal were as compulsive as they were frustrating. These were the prototype point-and-click games, incorporating graphics into riddles and thinly disguised geography lessons. After my 50th wrong marker buoy on Cambridge Software House’s Mary Rose had me contemplating hurling the floppy disks away from me like a pair of swimming floats, I’d learn that there was a new type of adventure game on the horizon: LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island, which turns 30 this month.

Ron Gilbert, co-designer on Monkey Island and various other adventure games of the era, disliked the fantasy themes that titles like Loom (1990) were relying on, and wrote as much in a 1989 article Why Adventure Games Suck. So Monkey Island took players to the 17th-century Caribbean instead, the place and time of Treasure Island. Players took control of Guybrush Threepwood as he tried to prove himself a seadog, rubbing shoulders with some of the most bloodthirsty – and self-aware – buccaneers ever conjured in code: Smirk, a cigar-chewing fencing instructor, and Meathooks, a brawler with metal claws for hands. Then there was island governor Elaine Marley, a formidable swordfighter and unlikely damsel who had been kidnapped by back-from-the-dead ghost pirate LeChuck.

Monkey Island’s enduring originality shines through even on the title screen, soundtracked by Michael Land’s digital calypso. As Guybrush wanders around Melee Island, there are in-jokes galore (the name Threepwood is lifted from a PG Wodehouse story. Monkey Island pushed the adventure envelope, with characters who addressed the player through the monitor: LucasArts wanted to break the fourth wall and scrap the dead ends found in previous adventures. You’re constantly reminded that you’re playing a game: years before Metal Gear Solid had players searching for the Codec frequency on the back of the box, Monkey Island’s “treestump” moment asked credulous players to insert a series of non-existent disks.

Perhaps Monkey Island’s best contribution to culture is insult swordfighting. Whenever Guybrush has to draw his cutlass against an opponent, victory is decided not by button-mashing but by who can deliver the most stinging insult, with retorts written by Orson Scott Card, author of the 1985 sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. Guybrush collects an arsenal of barbs that he can use to trash-talk his enemies into surrender. (“You fight like a dairy farmer”; “How appropriate – you fight like a cow!”)

It took me 19 years to finish Monkey Island. Only once the game had been remastered for smartphones did I find the patience (and the Reddit threads) to help me beat the devilish puzzles that I couldn’t get my head around in the 90s. Despite modest initial sales, Monkey Island went on to become a cult classic, spawning a run of sequels and directly influencing an entire genre of graphical adventure games that would define 90s PC gaming. LucasArts’ designers would apply the story mechanics to Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis – the best fourth movie we never got – and Monkey Island’s legacy would sustain the adventure genre until the advent of the 3D graphics card, when it went into semi-hibernation.

Point-and-click adventures have re-emerged since then, often made by younger designers inspired by childhoods spent puzzling over what to do with a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. There have also been new games from Monkey Island’s original creators: Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park and Tim Schafer’s Broken Age were both bankrolled on Kickstarter by fans eager to recapture the joy they got from exploring this irreverent, beautifully drawn world. Like LeChuck, the spirit of Monkey Island lives on.

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