I got my break into the game industry as a game tester at LucasArts back in 2000. One of my favorite titles to test was the fourth game in the Monkey Island franchise, Escape from Monkey Island. It was a year of long hours checking every aspect of the game from the dialogue to the difficulty of the puzzles. I must have played the game hundreds of times and by nature of the repeated playthroughs, my view of it was skewed as I’d already heard every iteration of the dialogue multiple times and I could repeat the puzzles blindfolded. Objectively speaking, I knew Escape from Monkey Island was a good game, currently standing at 86 on Metacritic. But almost 13 years later, LucasArts having closed, I wanted to take a look back and find out for myself, did it still hold up?
I was pleasantly surprised that the answer was yes.
The trouble with sequels is finding the balance between maintaining the feel and spirit of the original while innovating enough to differentiate the experience for gamers. How many series can say the fourth iteration feels just as fresh as the original? With Escape from Monkey Island, LucasArts changed the engine, switched to 3D graphics, and updated the interface so that it was no longer a point-and-click adventure like the first three. The result was a game that branched out with its own identity, but also successfully maintained its roots. Directed by Sean Clarke and Mike Stemmle, we saw an older Guybrush Threepwood who was no longer a young buck trying to make his way in the world. Instead, he was married to Elaine, he had a reputation to maintain (however infamous that might be), and he was an actual pirate with three huge adventures under his belt.
To connect the game with its past, many of the characters from previous iterations made a return including Meathook, Otis, and Carla, the original crew of Secret of Monkey Island that ‘mutinied’ and refused to work for Guybrush. It was interesting to see how much had happened to them and how little they’d changed. No Monkey Island would be complete without LeChuck, and in this version, he masquerades as a French politician, Charles L. Charles, seeking to usurp Governor Elaine’s position. Elaine had been declared dead and it was Guybrush’s job to prove she was undead (“Won't that make you a flesh-eating zombie?” Guybrush wonders).
Social satire abounds, particularly in the corporatization of piracy. An Australian business tycoon, Ozzie Mandrill, wants to wipe out the roguery of the seas using huge wads of money and insults. Insult-sword fighting had evolved and gone viral, spreading to every form of conflict including insult arm-wrestling. It was an effective plot twist that had its fair share of irony, especially considering the original Secret of Monkey Island was inspired by the Disneyland ride, Pirates of the Caribbean.
What really makes Escape from Monkey Island shine is the eclectic cast of quirky figures that’d fit perfectly into a Freudian case list. There’s Hugo, who has reformed his pirate ways and sells perfume on Lucre Island while suppressing his animalistic instincts with scents based off LeChuck’s earthy smells. The family lawyers on Lucre Island are hilariously deadpan, particularly when confronted with a string of bad lawyer jokes. The paranoid Admiral Casaba of Knuttin Atoll (pronounced nothin’ at all), also known as Ricardo Luigi Pierre M'Bengu Chang Nehru O'Hara Casaba III, obsessively roots out piracy, even launching cannon balls at a puppet show when he suspects treachery. Probably my favorite character was Marco de Pollo, the suave diver traumatized by a childhood swimming pool game reverberating around his name, “Marco.... pollo.” Beating him at the diving was a complex puzzle involving blackmail, schmear wiz dipped in a mini-bagel, a dunce cap retrieved from the Pirate Transmogrification Academy, and mastering the dive moves. Like the rest of the cast, his voice acting was hilarious, spot-on with their performances. The music took the game to another level.
Catchy, light-hearted, and whimsical, the musical compositions of Escape from Monkey Island complemented the visuals in superb fashion. It’s a wonder how much of a difference having a score makes. When I originally started testing the game, there was no music. In fact, there was very little of anything, and it was a real learning experience seeing the game come together, literally, piece by piece. A lot of placeholder art was scattered over the digital topography. Whole sets were missing. There was no voice dialogue. With each new build, whole segments would appear. Fiat Lux.
The art aesthetic was fantastic and cartoony, maintaining the visual panache of the original while introducing several new islands. My favorite had to be Jambalaya Island with its StarBuccaneers and Planet Threepwood, poking fun at the iconic franchises in Monkey Island fashion where nothing is sacred. The twirling clouds seemed like they were part of a dream world and the individual animations, simple as some may seem, exuded with personality. I still remember the concept paintings that the 3D environments were based on. The whole question of, is gaming art, never seemed relevant to me, just because I was surrounded by so many breathtaking paintings in the halls that looked like they belonged in an art gallery (and I don’t use the word breathtaking lightly).
Evaluating the difficulty of the puzzles was a key component of the testing process. The question with many of the riddles came down to, how do you juggle that fine line between making a particular puzzle challenging enough for the gamer to enjoy it and being just outright obscure with no possibility of resolution without a FAQ? I struggled with that in Monkey Kombat, a fighting system that served as the foundation of the Ultimate Insult and worked like an advanced rock-paper-scissors. I thought the concept was great, especially as it was a spoof on Mortal Kombat without bloody spinal cords. This was also in line with LucasArts’ general adventure game policy of making death nearly impossible for players. But I’ll be honest in saying I struggled with the difficulty of mastering Monkey Kombat when I was first introduced to it, even though the developers tweaked it to make it more intuitive, and I still struggled with it on my recent playthrough.
There were a variety of strange bugs I found during the testing process. Some of the crash bugs I recall are accessing inventory items in the middle of puzzles, using items out of order to break the game logic, and even saving in the wrong place causing a lock when reloading. Fortunately, the development team was great about fixing most of the bugs we found. LucasArts as a whole emphasized the cooperation between the different departments, cultivating testers and developing relationships with those in the ‘test pit’ to help them move up as developers. That sense of camaraderie imbued the game with its vibrant feel and I feel team chemistry is an aspect of game development that doesn’t get as much notice/credit as it should. As extraordinary as the cast was in Monkey Island, I’d have to say my fellow QA testers were equally extraordinary, a great motley of gamers who taught me many of the lessons I hold to this day. Those guys knew everything about gaming and Star Wars. The amount of Star Wars trivia I learned during those days would scare you.
Like Guybrush in Escape from Monkey Island, I’ve grown up and a lot has changed in the past decade. I was glad to find out that for this play through, I appreciated the game in ways I couldn’t have before. Many of the jokes caused me to burst out laughing as I’d forgotten them. The spoofs and self-deprecating delivery were perfect and I was continually impressed by the voice-acting. In some ways, it felt like I was back in the past, enjoying the game, albeit without having to worry about tracking down the bugs.
Who needs an escape when Monkey Island is this much fun?
Peter Tieryas worked at LucasArts as a QA Tester, a technical artist, and a technical writer. He is currently a technical director working on VFX for films, recent ones including Men in Black 3 and Hotel Transylvania. He blogs regularly at tieryas.wordpress.com.