(The following piece was originally published on bostonphoenix.com on November 19, 2004. With news of an HD remake for Xbox Live Arcade and PC, it seemed appropriate to revisit it. Reading it now, I'm pretty sure the game continues to be more popular than I gave it credit for.)
The only problem with The Secret of Monkey Island was that it arrived about 10 years too early. As Pirates of the Caribbean proved, America loves comic buccaneers. I'm not sure whether Monkey Island lacked marketing muscle, whether audiences weren't happy with its dialogue-heavy gameplay, or if the nascent PC market in 1990 simply didn't have the sort of mass-market appeal it does today, but it seems tragically few people have played this game. The name of its hero, Guybrush Threepwood, should be as ingrained in the American consciousness as Mario and Sonic.
Monkey Island's greatness lay in its writing. While most games of the era were simple shoot-'em-ups and platform games, Monkey Island presaged the advent of software that was more about story and character than about high scores. And it was funny as hell.
At the beginning of the game, you arrive on Melee Island and track down the pirate bar to declare your intentions. "My name is Guybrush Threepwood, and I want to be a pirate," you say.
The pirate you're speaking to starts laughing. "That's the most ridiculous name I've ever heard!"
"Well, what's YOUR name?"
He adopts a grim expression. "My name is Mancomb Seepgood."
Guybrush wants to be a pirate for no reason other than that it sure sounds neat, but as he proceeds through the three trials necessary to becoming a pirate, he quickly becomes involved in a love triangle between Melee Governor Elaine Marley and the ghost pirate LeChuck, and eventually finds himself on the mythical Monkey Island. Along the way, he hobnobs with a menagerie of ne'er-do-wells and malcontents, gets shot out of not one, but two cannons, and discovers the uses of a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. And these are some of the less bizarre things that happen.
Much of the game progresses through dialogue trees. When speaking to a new character, you're given the choice of about five statements, each one resulting in an often-hilarious response. Usually the majority of the conversation has nothing to do with progressing through the game, but who cares? Pleasures like these are rare to find in video games.
Even swordfights proceed through dialogue rather than action. As your swordfighting instructor informs you, "Swordfighting is a little like making love. It's not always what you do, but what you say." And he's right. The only way to win is to out-insult your opponent, and it's a shame that Monkey Island's witty repartee has never caught on. Finding someone who knows the correct retort to "You fight like a dairy farmer!" is one of life's little pleasures.
The puzzles are just as unique. The door to LeChuck's underground headquarters is – what else? – a giant monkey head, and the key is a six-foot Q-tip. I'm sure you can figure out how that one works. But how, exactly, does one get "a head" in navigating?
Add to this a quirky Caribbean score and you have something that's never been duplicated – hell, no one's even tried. And though LucasArts has released three Monkey Island sequels, all of which have been pretty good, none has disproved the lesson Guybrush learns by the end of The Secret of Monkey Island: "Never spend more than 20 bucks on a computer game."