For whatever critiques you could level at the Monkey Island franchise, you have to admire its utter refusal to die.
Today’s release of Return to Monkey Island marks 13 years since the last game, Telltale’s Tales of Monkey Island, an episodic adventure from 2009. That hiatus was preceded by a nine-year break that followed Curse of Monkey Island, which was the final LucasArts adventure game. Did I mention there was a six-year lapse before that?
Return to Monkey Island marks the return of two of the three original series creators (Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman are back, DoubleFine’s Tim Schafer is not). So it is perhaps not surprising that the newest adventure for Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate, is most fixated on his own legacy.
Though the game picks up after the events of Gilbert’s last entry, Monkey Island 2, Return doesn’t attempt to brush the non-Gilbert games out of the canon. It just decides to pick up on an unanswered question hanging in the series’ history. Namely: “What actually was the Secret of Monkey Island?” Despite being the title of the first game, the titular secret was never actually revealed.
So Return follows Guybrush as he’s launched into a race with his constant nemesis, the ghost pirate LeChuck, to uncover the secret with the assistance of former-governor-turned-scurvy-activist Elaine Marley, who happens to also be Guybrush’s wife. Throughout the voyage, there are lots of fun meta jokes about how long it’s been since the last Monkey Island game. Many on Guybrush’s home of Melee Island don’t seem to remember him that well, and Threepwood remarks on a suspicious number of remodels in the town.
Yet while Return to Monkey Island is aware of what a relic it can feel like at times, it doesn’t seem that interested in evolving.
Of course, there have been clear upgrades. The downright ugly polygonal visuals of Escape and Tales of Monkey Island have been replaced with a sort of Henry Selick aesthetic, like a living map populated by hinged paper dolls. The look will undoubtedly polarize long-time adherents to the games (a first in all of pop culture fandom, I’m sure), but it’s certainly less dated than the 3D models employed for every other Monkey Island game released in this millennium.
One notable way in which the adventuring has been streamlined: You no longer have to select how you’ll interact with objects in the world. Instead, that’s established through context. A left click might continue a conversation with a friend, peer at a painting, or simply walk to a different point in the room. If you can either talk to the aforementioned friend or steal their wallet, you may have the ability to right click, but two options are as far as it ever extends. It makes for a more engrossing experience in which the UI is really in service of the story rather than taking center stage, as is much more common in the genre. It’s a welcome refinement, though I do miss forcing Guybrush to describe how a lamp sounds or explain why he can’t talk to a tree.
I would have appreciated a similar improvement to getting around the world. Watching Guybrush stroll after your furiously clicking cursor from screen to screen wasn’t particularly pleasurable in The Secret of Monkey Island, and it’s no less of a chore some 32 years later.
Luckily, the other parts of the series’ lineage that Return to Monkey Island has held onto are far more welcome.
This is still the same warm-hearted, stridently corny jaunt through the Caribbean that Monkey Island has always traded in. Stalwarts like Stan, the slippery used ship salesman, and Otis, the frequently incarcerated thief, aid Guybrush in his journey, and sword fights are conducted through the hurling of insults (both a literal and metaphorical repartee). It’s the same avuncular, eager-to-please Monkey Island you’ve always known.
Puzzle solutions are as harebrained as they’ve ever been — you can’t borrow the chef’s mop, you must obviously go on a spiritual quest to discover the fabled mop-wood tree. Maybe the apology you wrote on the frog wasn’t personal enough? There’s a casual mode with fewer puzzles, but that feels more like an abridgement than an evolution. If you do get stuck, there’s no need to call the LucasArts 900 number. Instead, you’ll find a built-in hint book that nudges you in the right direction.
Return’s humor, perhaps the most fundamental facet of the series, doesn’t try as hard as some more cringe-inducing efforts in the comedy adventure genre. There are very few pop culture references or overwrought visual gags (I’m looking at you, Starbuccaneers). It seems content with hovering between “mildly amusing” and “smirk-inducing” on the Chuckle-O-Meter. The game is firmly in possession of its predecessors’ workmanlike refusal to leave any gag unpunned, which isn’t necessarily my bag. That said, I had a few deep-down belly laughs at some of the more abstract gags that were closer to my taste.
Though it’s doubtlessly captivating to read what a grown man does and doesn’t find funny, I must cease, to make special mention of returning composers Michael Land, Peter McConnell, and Clint Bajakian, who continue the franchise’s “pirate reggae” score in a way that’ll feel like a snuggly blanket to ’90s adventure nerds. Ditto to the returning voice cast, including Alexandra Boyd’s implacable Elaine and Dominic Armato’s affable and ever-hapless Guybrush.
It all coalesces in an experience that’s nostalgic in the best kind of way. Return to Monkey Island genuinely recaptured the joy the series provided in my youth, rather than nudging me in the ribs and reminding me of all the fun we used to have back in the day.
Curiously – yet refreshingly – for a series with this long, uneven history, Return to Monkey Island doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in reasserting its own significance or greatness. It seems content to see how others in the world, especially the player, contextualize its existence. It doesn’t require players to have previous knowledge of the series, but it doesn’t over-explain its characters or in-jokes either.
Return to Monkey Island is yet another game in the Monkey Island franchise that makes only a slight effort to reflect the ever-shifting gaming landscape, while confidently clinging to the DNA that made it so beloved in the first place. And if you’re looking for the secret to creating an enduring franchise, you could do a lot worse than that.
Return to Monkey Island was released on Sept. 19 on Windows PC, Mac, and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Devolver Digital. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.