It took over 30 years for Ron Gilbert and Dan Grossman to finally be able to create their continuation to the Monkey Island franchise, and while there were other Monkey Island games released post-Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, they were completed and released post Ron Gilbert’s departure from LucasArts. As such, they never really felt… right, as they gradually lost the je ne sais quoi that Gilbert and Grossman (along with Tim Schafer) brought to the franchise.
Thirty years later, Terrible Toybox, LucasArts (now known as Lucasfilm Games) and Devolver Digital have fulfilled the wishes of Monkey Island fans and released Return to Monkey Island, with Gilbert at the helm and collaborating with Grossman once again. Return to Monkey Island is a return to form for Guybrush Threepwood, as it taps into the nostalgia of the franchise that many point-and-click fans like myself grew up on, yet it grew up along with the fans as the story gets meta and the purpose of the story becomes more self-aware in the process. While the ending has its controversies and mixed feelings from players, the humour, puzzle-solving gameplay, and the introduction of new mechanics to help progress the game allows Return to Monkey Island to both relive the swash-buckling adventures in the early ‘90s as well as bring the franchise to 2022 gaming standards.
Playing as Guybrush Threepwood as he tells the story of finding the Secret of Monkey Island to his son, the flashback puts Guybrush arriving at Melee Island to try and get a ship and crew together in order to beat his nemesis LeChuck to the treasure, after finding out LeChuck has already obtained a map leading to the MacGuffin. For newer players, Return to Monkey Island does a great job in providing a synopsis of the previous entries by way of a scrapbook to retell the story, along with little tidbits that set the tone for the humour of the game. Along the way, you meet various characters returning to the franchise, including Guybrush’s love interest (now wife) Elaine, Stan the salesman, Wally the mapmaker, and Murray the demonic skull. Gilbert and Grossman put these characters into good use, utilising them for call-backs and subtle jokes that tip their hat to the first two games.
Return to Monkey Island retains the point-and-click gameplay that perforated the gaming landscape in the late 80’s and early 90’s, with some subtle improvements that are welcomed (given that I reviewed this game on Switch, thereby lacking the intuitiveness and the explorative nature had I played with a mouse). Using L and R triggers, I was able to cycle between points of interest on screen, to identify and investigate cues that will progress the story. However, in order to not give everything away, I could only cycle cues in the area of the screen that Guybrush is looking at, so a lot of exploration is still needed in order to find every clue. It’s a fun mechanic that helps console players appreciate the game that was originally designed exclusively for PC, and I absolutely see this translate seamlessly to the PlayStation and Xbox platforms when they port this to those consoles—or, dare I say, the team chooses to develop other point-and-click games comforted with the knowledge that it won’t be solely PC-centric.
To this day, I still credit the Monkey Island franchise as a catalyst to help propel my lateral thinking growing up: its puzzle design encouraged the 10-year-old me to think outside the square, and moulded me to continue to think of wacky ideas and solutions when it comes to problem solving. With that progression, I found the puzzles in Return to Monkey Island a lot more straightforward than what I had encountered 20-odd years ago. The puzzles could be solved relatively efficiently when logic is applied, and some felt like they lacked the outside-the-box approach to them compared to its predecessors. Or, it may simply be the act of growing up, and having had more time and experience in critical thinking, that allowed me to approach these puzzles more efficiently. I played Return to Monkey Island in hardcore mode, to fully experience the puzzle design, and I think for players new and old, this is the best approach to play this game. Even if you are a novice player, there is a welcome addition to help progress through the game.
This addition is the hint system, which comes as an inventory item in the form of a notebook. Opening it presents options of what you’d need help with, and it very meticulously sprinkles hints, one step at a time, until it very straightforwardly gives you the answer to what you are seeking. It is a good way to push the player into the right direction, without immediately providing the answer, thereby giving players plenty of time and opportunities to have their own “A ha!” moments, maintaining that rewarding feeling that they figured it out (almost) all by themselves.
Artistically, Return to Monkey Island presents the characters in a paper cut-out, diorama style of art and animation, and for a franchise that changes the art style with nearly every entry, this was not unexpected, yet somehow it suits the game in its light-hearted style of adventure story-telling.
Now, without giving away the ending, it has been met with some debate on whether the ending was “good”, since it (seemingly) gave away what the “secret” of Monkey Island really is. At surface level, it felt disappointing to some, as it was the MacGuffin that fans have been waiting 30 years to get the answer to what it actually is, and realistically whatever the “secret” is, it will always be disappointing to some.
What I do appreciate about the way this game ended, is that it wasn’t actually clear what the “secret” is, as it was a retelling of his version of the story from Guybrush to his son – and throughout history, storytellers embellished facts, or withhold information to help suit their narratives. Return to Monkey Island is no different, and the game’s ending is a metaphor on the franchise itself: as fans, we’re Guybrush’s child, wanting to find out what the secret is and we wait with bated breath for the storyteller (Guybrush, as a metaphor for Gilbert and Grossman) to finally give us the ending. What was really the point of having this story being concluded isn’t that we actually get to find out what the “secret” was, but to partake in another swash-buckling adventure with Guybrush. The cliché “It’s about the journey, not the destination” could not be more true when it comes to the third instalment of the Monkey Island franchise.
In effect, Gilbert and Grossman are also trying to tell themselves something with the way the game ended. Like fans, they’re also nostalgic about the Monkey Island franchise, and by shaping the narrative in the form of Guybrush telling his son this story, this is them trying to subtly explain that we are all trying to live vicariously through memories past. And for a longtime fan like myself, the ending was the best part of the game: Not the fact that the “secret” was finally unveiled, but more so what Gilbert and Grossman were trying to convey to us in this retelling—that we all long for memories of adventures past, but we all grow up at some point. But isn’t it better that we went through this adventure, rather than opening that chest to find the redacted inside? This metaphorical, self-aware understanding of the game on itself, and on the franchise as a whole, really highlights what fantastic storytellers Gilbert and Grossman are.
Revisiting the franchise; the characters, the story-telling, the puzzles, and the humour, filled me with child-like glee upon returning to one of my favourite video game franchises of all time. However, the unexpected turn in the final hour, reflecting on nostalgia and appreciating the journey, not the destination, allowed me to really appreciate Return to Monkey Island growing up with me. In this sense, it allowed me to retroactively appreciate the precursor games more, and the third instalment elevated the franchise to quite possibly my all-time favourite franchise. For first time fans, enjoy the swash-buckling adventure for what it is: a game filled with puzzles, humour, and most of all, fun. For longtime fans, I really hope you will enjoy the walk down memory lane, but find the game growing up as we all have.
Return to Monkey Island
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.