I have been here before. Mêlée Island feels as familiar as my own home: I know the elderly lookout by the signal fire on the mountaintop, the rickety boardwalk by the Scumm Bar, the glittering ocean all around. Yet on closer inspection, I notice differences. A new crowd has moved in, familiar shops are boarded up and closed. While I am still Guybrush Threepwood, hapless pirate wannabe, I now sport a beard flecked with grey. This place has changed, and I have, too.
It has been more than a decade since the last game in the beloved Monkey Island series and 31 years since Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, the last instalment made by the original team of Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. Since then there have been three sequels of varying quality made by different teams, but this year Gilbert and Grossman announced that they would finally return to the series, having worked on Return to Monkey Island in secret for two years (Schafer now makes games such as Psychonauts with Double Fine Productions).
The “legacy sequel” is a cultural phenomenon where a dormant franchise that induces soothing waves of nostalgia in audiences of a certain age is resurrected and reanimated. In a media age where IP is prized more for its familiarity than its relevance, these have become common. The recent sequels to, say, Top Gun, Mad Max and The Matrix have ranged in quality from meaningful narrative continuations to cynical cash grabs.
In the world of gaming, the stakes can’t get much higher than Monkey Island. For a generation of gamers, few series can rival the heady nostalgia this series invokes. Though the original game from 1990 may look positively Jurassic to contemporary players, the tropical cocktail it offered of charming characters, zany comedy and head-scratching puzzles felt revelatory on release, becoming the standard-bearer for the entire point-and-click adventure genre. Its fans are so dedicated that they staged a Monkey Island play at a German theatre. So Gilbert and Grossman faced a tricky question: how best to approach their return?
Monkey Island games have always revelled in breaking the fourth wall, so it’s fitting that this new instalment directly grapples with the question of what it means to revisit your past. Guybrush returns for another swashbuckling adventure, planning to face the evil LeChuck and finally untangle that pesky secret of Monkey Island, but on arriving at Mêlée Island, he finds that he has been mostly forgotten. Though a new museum of piracy contains relics from his previous adventures, the listless hipster curator has no idea who he is. Meanwhile the new, ultra-accomplished pirate leaders care little for his haphazard problem-solving.
Despite these changes, much of this game will be as reassuringly familiar to fans as rediscovering a favourite pair of slippers. It’s still a 2D point-and-click adventure where you collect a wunderkammer of bizarre items which are used to solve puzzles and push the story forwards. Returning characters are a joy, from Guybrush’s wife Elaine to Murray the talking skull and Stan the jargon-spouting used ship salesman.
Most importantly, the comic writing that defined those early games is as sharp and generous-hearted as ever. Witness zany situations ranging from zombies who write poetry to a quest for a sacred tree prophesied as providing the perfect wood for mop handles. It’s worth seeking out every line of dialogue because the hit-rate of jokes is so high: a stone sundial Guybrush passes is “running a little fast”. And when he’s asked what he’s been doing, he deadpans: “Swashing buckles and so on.”
While the game is stuffed with eccentric puzzles that can feel, in Guybrush’s own words, “needlessly complicated”, these are reliably entertaining and generally have logical solutions. In response to the sometimes obtuse challenges of earlier instalments, here the developers have added a “casual mode” and a handy in-game hint book. This is not the only change they’ve made: the story takes players to fresh locations such as Terror Island and the icy Brr Muda, all drawn in a charming new art style which resembles a pop-up picture book.
This childlike aesthetic suits the game’s framing narrative, which revolves around an older Guybrush telling his son a story from his swashbuckling days. As you play through his memories, the game succeeds in both commenting on and celebrating its substantial legacy. While Guybrush’s desire to recapture his glory days is futile, it’s eminently relatable. When he goes to the moonlit jetty where Stan once sold his used ships, now in disrepair, you can direct Guybrush to various spots and click a prompt to “reflect on happier times”. He contemplates in silence for a few moments until you direct him away, onwards to the adventure that still lies ahead.
‘Return to Monkey Island’ is out now on Nintendo Switch, PC and Mac