Returning to Monkey Island

September 7th, 2007

Only Guybrush Threepwood can bring me back to video games.

I’ve basically had it — if I want to watch a movie, I’m going to watch a movie. If I want to play a game, I’m going to play a game. I don’t want some weird hybrid where I have to sit through hours of poorly translated exposition before I can start killing monsters (“Final Fantasy,” I’m looking at you).

I also don’t want to have to relearn controls and combos every time I plug in. Why should I be penalized for time away from the console when I’m out actually having a life?
Yes, this is the brilliance of the Nintendo Wii — quick party games that can be easily mastered and enjoyed with friends.

But there’s not much creative thinking going on — if you want to go bowling, go to a bowling alley.

I hate to sound like a bitter old man, but the truth is, they don’t make my kind of games any more. (Not really, unless you count some small publishers and die-hard enthusiasts.)

As a kid, stomping koopa troopas was mindless fun, but what first captured my imagination was a game called “The Black Cauldron,” played at my friend Kyle’s on countless snow days.

Based on the Disney cartoon, which in turn was based on the Lloyd Alexander novels, “The Black Cauldron” is probably the only video game that ever got me to read something beyond a hint guide. Kyle and I would scour the books for clues to help us advance on our quest to take down the Horned King.

“The Black Cauldron” wasn’t a side-scroller or shoot ‘em up. It was an adventure game, where players relied more on creative problem solving interacting in a digital world then reflexes and pounding out a series of rapid-fire button combinations.
From there I graduated to other adventure games — “Kings Quest,” “Maniac Mansion” and, my favorite, “Monkey Island.”

The Money Island games, published by LucasArts (a division of Lucasfilm) began, deep in the Caribbean, with a hopeless dweeb, Guybrush Threepwood, announcing his intention to become a pirate.

In the span of four games, Guybrush learned how to swashbuckle, matched wits with the beautiful Governor Elaine Marley, sought advice from the mysterious Voodoo Lady and battled the evil ghost pirate LeChuck.

(Sounds familiar? One could make a fairly convincing argument that Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy steals liberally from the Monkey Island mythos.)

The Monkey Island games were gloriously silly — beyond sly pop-culture digs at everything from “The Graduate” to Rupert Murdoch. In the games, Guybrush encountered everything from vegetarian cannibals to pirate barbers. The best gimmick? Duels could be won not by superior swordsmanship, but by superior insults.

(“You fight like a dairy farmer!” “How appropriate. You fight like a cow.”)

What really made these games special, beyond the sharp writing, fun story and inviting graphics, was the game play.

For all of his screw-ups and mishaps, Guybrush couldn’t die. This was standard in most LucasArts games — players weren’t punished for making a mistake. They were free to explore, experiment and say inappropriate things to different characters — often resulting in the best jokes.

I’d love to play a game like that today.

Guybrush’s last adventure was 2000’s “Escape from Monkey Island,” the least significant of the series. Since then, LucasArts has pretty much killed their graphic adventure department, instead churning out countless Star Wars tie-ins, which is probably like printing money.

I’m not alone in wanting one final adventure for Guybrush, Elaine and LeChuck — the final game ended with Guybrush literally hanging for a cliff.

The Internet — okay, handful of devoted Web sites — has been abuzz this summer over the possibility of the wannabe pirate hero’s return, from rumors of composers working on a new score to leaked concept drawings (which might have been related to a canned pre-“Pirates” “Monkey Island” movie). Smaller publishers, releasing the games in episodes, have resurrected other LucasArts properties. (Not to be picky, but I’d rather just get a one-shot adventure than episodes).

Who knows? Maybe one day Guybrush will return — and so will I, to a video game store.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072.

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