Monkey Island (or, How Ron Gilbert Made an Adventure Game That Didn’t Suck)

10 Mar

Shortly after completing Maniac Mansion, his first classic graphic adventure, Ron Gilbert started sketching ideas for his next game. “I wanted to do something that felt like fantasy and might kind of tap into what was interesting about fantasy,” he remembers, “but that wasn’t fantasy.” Gilbert loved the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, which took guests through a whole pirate adventure in fifteen minutes. He only wished that he could linger there, could get out of the little boat that carried guests through the attraction and wander amid the scenery. What the need to keep shoveling amusement-park guests through a paid attraction disallowed, a computer game could allow. Thus was the idea for The Secret of Monkey Island born.

The game casts you in the role of Guybrush Threepwood, a lovable loser who wants to become a pirate. Arriving on Mêlée Island, a den of piratey scum and villainy, he has to complete a set of trials to win the status of Official Pirate. Along the way, he falls in love with the island’s beautiful governor Elaine — her name sets the game up for a gleeful The Graduate homage — and soon has to rescue her from the villain of the story, the evil ghost pirate LeChuck.

The Disneyfied piracy wasn’t hard to do, especially after Gilbert discovered a charming little historical-fantasy novel by Tim Powers called On Stranger Tides. Nor was the goofy humor that was so much his stock in trade as a game designer. What did make things complicated, however, was his desire to create a more playable, forgiving adventure game than even Maniac Mansion had managed to be. Gilbert admits that he was struggling, with no more than the beginnings of a design document or, for that matter, a design philosophy, when a mandate came down from Lucasfilm Games’s parent company’s management: they wanted an adventure game to go with the upcoming film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Such a mandate was unusual for the privileged little artists’ enclave that still was Lucasfilm Games at this time, but, given the freedom they had so generously been granted for so long, they were hardly in a position to argue about it. Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, and David Fox joined forces to grind out the Indiana Jones game, while Monkey Island went on hold for more than six months.

It was just possibly the best thing that could have happened. The delay gave Gilbert time to continue thinking about adventure-game design in the abstract, to continue groping toward that elusive something — or, better said, somethings — that would make his future games different. Hardly a theorist by nature, he nevertheless sat down and wrote out a manifesto of sorts as a way of codifying his opinions, titling it, in inimitable Ron Gilbert fashion, “Why Adventure Games Suck.” This semi-legendary document, probably the most influential ever written on the subject of adventure-game design, was published in the December 1989 issue of The Journal of Computer Game Design (the paper-based adjunct to the Computer Game Developers Conference).

Some of what Gilbert has to say in his manifesto feels a little rambling and esoteric today, while the vast majority of what does feel relevant we’ve already had reasons to discuss on other occasions — what with the general state of adventure-game design in the 1980s, sometimes on all too many other occasions. Still, the document itself and the ideas it contains can only be regarded as hugely important to the evolution of the adventure game.

Consider what the manifesto has to say about the age-old problem of locking the player out of victory without her knowledge.

I forgot to pick it up

Never require a player to pick up an item that is used later in the game if she can’t go back and get it when it is needed. It is very frustrating to learn that a seemingly insignificant object is needed, and the only way to get it is to start over or go back to a saved game. From the player’s point of view, there was no reason for picking it up in the first place. Some designers have actually defended this practice by saying that “adventure-game players know to pick up everything.” This is a cop-out. If the jar of water needs to be used on the spaceship and it can only be found on the planet, create a use for it on the planet that guarantees it will be picked up. If the time between the two uses is long enough, you can be almost guaranteed that the player forgot she even had the object.

The other way around this problem is to give the player hints about what she might need to pick up. If the aliens on the planet suggest that the player find water before returning to the ship, and the player ignores this advice, then failure is her own fault.

In The Secret of Monkey Island and all of the Lucasfilm adventure games that would follow it, Gilbert and his colleagues implemented an extreme remedy to this problem. Rather than admitting a failure to pick up the right object at the right time to be even potentially the player’s “own fault,” they made certain it was always possible to go back and get said item. Locking yourself out of victory, in other words, became literally impossible.

Now consider what the manifesto has to say about arbitrarily killing the player and about another related old bugaboo, requiring knowledge from past lives.

Live and learn

As a rule, adventure games should be able to be played from beginning to end without “dying” or saving the game if the player is very careful and very observant. It is bad design to put puzzles and situations into a game that require a player to die in order to learn what not to do next time. This is not to say that all death situations should be designed out. Danger is inherent in drama, but danger should be survivable if the player is clever.

As an exercise, take one complete path through a story game and then tell it to someone else, as if it were a standard story. If you find places where the main character could not have known a piece of information that was used (the character who learned it died in a previous game), then there is a hole in the plot.

Again, Gilbert and the rest of Lucasfilm would push much further than even the above would imply in their own future designs. Despite the claim that “danger is inherent to drama” — a claim, one has to assume, about which Gilbert must have come to think better — they made it impossible for the player to die, no matter what she did.

Gilbert tells us at the end of his manifesto that he’d like to “get rid of save games” altogether.

If there have to be save games, I would use them only when it was time to quit playing until the next day. Save games should not be a part of game play. This leads to sloppy design. As a challenge, think about how you would design a game differently if there were no save games. If you ever have the pleasure of watching a non-game player playing an adventure game you will notice they treat save games very differently than the experienced user. Some start using it as a defense mechanism only after being slapped in the face by the game a few times, the rest just stop playing.

It’s this idea of designing adventure games as if saves didn’t exist that’s the real key to understanding what made The Secret of Monkey Island and the Lucasfilm adventures which would follow it so different, even so revolutionary. Everything else springs from this one adjustment in perspective. I last played The Secret of Monkey Island nine months or so ago, when my wife and I were on a little holiday in Venice. Each evening, after a long day spent exploring the alleys and canals, we’d retire back to our cozy little hotel and I’d poke at Monkey Island for an hour or two on my laptop before bed. Having played heaps of older adventure games for years prior to getting to Monkey Island — the life of a digital antiquarian sadly doesn’t leave much time for games that aren’t on the syllabus! — I must have experienced it much as its first players did. And I have to say, it’s downright difficult to express how freeing it was to know that I didn’t need to save every ten minutes, didn’t need to stress over the potential of somehow locking myself out of victory with every action. Instead, I could feel free to explore and experiment, knowing the game would take care of me. I don’t say that every game needs to be this way, but I do know that The Secret of Monkey Island is, along with its immediate Lucasfilm predecessor Loom, perhaps the first adventure games I’ve ever played for this blog that felt like natural holiday companions, things to relax into and just enjoy rather than assault with deadly seriousness. And yet The Secret of Monkey Island in particular manages this feat without ever feeling trivial. The game represents a remarkable historical watershed, as of an entire culture of game makers and players waking up and realizing that all the little aggravations they had thought adventure games had to include really didn’t need to be in there at all.

Cheerfully blatant anachronisms like the grog machine and Stan the used-boat salesman are everywhere. Ron Gilbert has mentioned the grog machine as one of his great lessons in “copyrights and trademarks.” Apparently getting it to look enough like a Coke machine to make the joke work but not so much that Lucasfilm was likely to get sued was quite the exercise in triangulation.

Taken apart from its immense importance as a model for future designs at Lucasfilm and elsewhere, The Secret of Monkey Island might initially seem a less than overwhelming package. It exists in very typical adventure-game territory for its era, at first glance dismayingly so. We’ve got yet another sad-sack loser of a protagonist, wandering through a comedy landscape built from pop-culture detritus, anachronisms, and meta-humor. The whole ought to read as lazy as most such efforts. Yet two things save the day, both of which feel intrinsic to the people who wrote the game, Ron Gilbert and his two assistant writers Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. The first is the marvelously unaffected quality of the humor. The game is consistently, off-handedly funny without ever conspicuously straining to be in the manner of its peers. Where their humor is labored, Monkey Island‘s is effortless. And then there’s the related quality of a certain sweetness about the game. Guybrush Threepwood is the ultimate innocent. He just wants to be a Disney version of a pirate and to rescue and win the hand of the beautiful Elaine; guile is a foreign concept to him. Not only is The Secret of Monkey Island that rarest of beasts, a self-styled comedy adventure that’s genuinely, consistently funny, it’s about as likeable a game as has ever been made. This is a game where when a cannibal asks you how to “get ahead” he means… no, that one’s just too much fun to spoil.

The Secret of Monkey Island isn’t flashy or self-consciously spectacular in the way that so many contemporaneous Sierra adventures strained to be, but it is sophisticated in its aesthetics in a way few other games of its era can match. Still working with 16-color EGA graphics (a 256-color VGA version, from which the screenshots in this article are drawn, was released within a few months of the original), artists Steve Purcell and Mark Ferrari used their limited color palette to good effect to evoke the various moods of the various environments, while Michael Land crafted a gentle reggae-influenced soundtrack to plink away unobtrusively in the background or swell up into the foreground as circumstances dictated. Playing The Secret of Monkey Island really does feel like wandering through a delightful pirate theme park (a quality which the rather infamous ending of the sequel, which we won’t go into further in this article, would take very much to heart).

Most of all, The Secret of Monkey Island thrives on its puzzle design. The game’s plot plays out in four chapters, within each of which you have broad discretion to solve puzzles at your own pace and in your own order. (“Give the player options” is another commandment in “Why Adventure Games Suck.”) Its most famous puzzle, “insult sword-fighting,” says much about the game’s personality as a whole: instead of fighting with swords, pirates in this game like to fight via insults. You need to collect these insults and their ripostes as you explore, then apply them just right to win the “sword fight.” (Hey, anything’s better than a sharp sword in the gut, right?) The idea was born as Ron Gilbert was watching old pirate movies of the Errol Flynn stripe, and noticed that the opponents spent as much time verbally as physically assaulting one another. What with a verbal joust being far easier to implement in an adventure game than a sword-fighting engine, it didn’t take him long to run with the idea.

But really the entirety of the puzzle design, top to bottom, is just superb, managing to be funny and clever and occasionally challenging without ever devolving into the random using of each object on each other object. Throughout, attention is paid to you the player’s time and sanity in a way very few games of the era bother to do. For instance, at one point you need to follow another character through the jungle to find a secret location. Most games of the time would happily make you do this over and over, every time you want to return to said location — not least because doing so could serve to boost the length of the game at no expense. The Secret of Monkey Island only makes you do it once, then proceeds to do it for you from then on. “No point in having to solve the same puzzle over and over,” said Gilbert. Amen to that.

The game’s system of nudging you on to the correct solution to many puzzles is subtle to the extent that many players never even notice it’s there — and this, it must be said, again feels like the way it ought to be. At the beginning of the game, you’re expected to fulfill three tasks to prove to the pirates on the island that Guybrush has what it takes to become a pirate as well. As you poke around the island, your challengers actually take note of what you’ve done, and will offer some hints based on your progress if you go back and talk to them. “We want to guide the player subtly through the game,” said Gilbert’s colleague David Fox. “If the game works right, it should know that you’re stuck somewhere and it should give you a little help in a subtle way, so that you can solve the puzzle without feeling like it was solved for you.” In the context of 1990, the year of The Secret of Monkey Island‘s release, this was astonishingly progressive design. “As opposed,” remarked Fox wryly, “to the kind of game where the designer seems to be saying, ‘Aha! I’ve got you this time!’ and you have to spend three hours of gameplay to find some hidden object that you need to solve one puzzle.”

A rare example of a game where every element complements every other element, The Secret of Monkey Island has gone down in history as one of the finest, most justly beloved graphic adventures ever made. And for any aspiring adventure designer, even today, it’s a veritable master class in how to make an adventure game that most definitively doesn’t suck.

Released in October of 1990 as Lucasfilm’s second adventure of the year, The Secret of Monkey Island shared with its immediate predecessor Loom its pretend-the-player-can’t-save approach to design. Loom, however, had been a bridge too far for many traditionalist adventure gamers. What with its aggressively minimalist interface and portentous setting and story, it felt like an adventure game filtered through the aesthetics of a European avant-garde film. But The Secret of Monkey Island was, to strain the metaphor, all Hollywood. Whatever its innovations, it was also very much a meat-and-potatoes adventure game in the old style, complete with a menu of verbs, a comic tone, lots of object-oriented puzzles to solve, and a length more in keeping with that people had come to expect from a $40 boxed adventure game. It was thus far better equipped to deliver the gospel of “Why Adventure Games Suck” than Loom had been. While Loom had been greeted with critical uncertainty, reviewers fell over themselves to praise The Secret of Monkey Island, which wasted no time in becoming Lucasfilm Games’s biggest hit to date. It marks an enormously important watershed in the history of Lucasfilm’s adventure games in general, the moment when they commercially and creatively came fully into their own. The classic era of Lucasfilm adventures begins in earnest with The Secret of Monkey Island, which would become nothing less than the ideal most of the games that would follow would strive, sometimes perhaps a little too self-consciously, to reach.

Its commercial performance aside, The Secret of Monkey Island‘s enormous importance in the history of the art of adventure-game design in general shouldn’t be neglected. For many designers working at other companies, Ron Gilbert’s no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends approach hit home with the force of revelation. Both Corey Cole, co-designer of the Quest for Glory series for Sierra, and Bob Bates, co-founder of Legend Entertainment, brought up The Secret of Monkey Island unprompted in recent interviews with me as a work that made a huge impression on them. By no means would all designers push as far as Ron Gilbert had in the name of making a more playable adventure game. Corey Cole’s design partner Lori Ann Cole, for example, pronounced herself to be against “capricious” death in adventure games, but insisted that the possibility of death needed to be present to foster “personal involvement” and “an emotional stake” and to elevate the game above “mere amusement” — all of which positions strike me as perfectly reasonable for the very different sort of adventure games she and Corey were making. Still, everyone serious about the art of adventure-game design simply had to reckon with The Secret of Monkey Island, had to decide what its lessons really were and how to apply them. The game’s impact was such that to speak of a pre-Monkey Island and post-Monkey Island era of adventure games wouldn’t be at all out of order.

As the 1990s began, times were beginning to change inside Lucasfilm Games. With the fire hose of cash that had been the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises now ebbing and no new sequels in either blockbuster franchise on the horizon, Lucasfilm in general was concentrating on becoming a more commercially savvy organization. These changes inevitably affected the games division. Just about the instant that The Secret of Monkey Island was hitting store shelves, a major corporate reorganization was in progress at Lucasfilm, which saw the games division given far more resources — their personnel roll grew from about 25 to more than 100 between 1989 and 1991 — but also given much closer supervision. They would now be expected to justify each of their projects to the accountants. This transformation of Lucasfilm Games from sideline to major profit center was by no means viewed as a comprehensively bad thing by everyone working inside the games division — it did after all lead to them finally being let loose on the Star Wars intellectual property, something they’d been wishing for for years — but it would change the character of the place and the games that came from it forever.

The changes meant that the two sequels to Loom which Brian Moriarty had hoped to make would never be realized; Moriarty was instead sent off to work on a new educational-games initiative. A sequel to the big hit The Secret of Monkey Island, however, became a major priority under the new order, especially as Lucasfilm, now devoting lots of resources to flight simulators and those aforementioned Star Wars games, had no other adventures on their calendar for 1991. Released in December of 1991, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge didn’t disappoint commercially. Benefiting from the enormous good will accrued by its predecessor, it became another bestseller, and won a number of the game-of-the-year awards that a tardy industry should have been awarding to its predecessor (inertia being the force it is, most of the awards for 1990 had gone to Sierra’s pretty but horribly designed King’s Quest V, which served as its own argument for “why adventure games suck”). Today, the sequel remains almost as beloved as the original among hardcore Lucasfilm fans.

Personally, though, I’m not such a big fan of Monkey Island 2 as I am of its predecessor. Ron Gilbert had spent two and a half years designing, writing, and developing the first Monkey Island, alone or with others. He was given just a year for Monkey Island 2, a game that’s at least 50 percent larger, and I fancy I can see this disparity in the end result. The writing is neither as sharp nor as sweet. For the first time in a Ron Gilbert game, some of the humor is more gross than clever — spitting, with attention to the color and consistency of your loogies, is a major puzzle mechanic — and some of the rest is weirdly mean-spirited. Guybrush Threepwood has been transformed from the gee-whiz innocent of the first game to a bit of a raging asshole, the type of guy who steals a monocle from an innocent character who can’t see a thing without it and locks another guy who didn’t do anything to him inside a coffin. I don’t know to what I should attribute the change in tone — whether to changes going on inside Lucasfilm Games at the time, to changes going on in the personal lives of Ron Gilbert and/or the other members of his writing team, to the pressure of getting a bigger game out in much less time, or simply to happenstance. I know only that it doesn’t sit that well with me.

Captured by LeChuck in Monkey Island 2. The game will arbitrarily let you use only one item you’re carrying to effect your escape, and there’s no way to know ahead of time what that item is. Guess what that means you have to do…

In terms of puzzle design, the sequel also marks a big step down from its predecessor. While the no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends approach to design is still present, Monkey Island 2 constantly violates another of the dicta found in Ron Gilbert’s manifesto.

Arbitrary puzzles

Puzzles and their solutions need to make sense. They don’t have to be obvious, just make sense. The best reaction after solving a tough puzzle should be, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that sooner!” The worst, and most often heard after being told the solution, is, “I never would have gotten that!” If the solution can only be reached by trial and error or plain luck, it’s a bad puzzle.

Monkey Island 2 is full of these sorts of, to use Ron Gilbert’s own words, “bad puzzles.” Many solutions are so outlandish that you can stumble upon them only by using every object on every other object. At one point, for instance, you’re carrying a monkey around in your inventory (don’t ask!) when you come upon a closed water valve you need to open. Using the monkey on the valve does the trick because “monkey wrench.” Now, credit where it’s due, there’s some real wit to this. Yet it’s the sort of thing absolutely no player will ever think of on her own, especially given that the game hasn’t heretofore shown any interest in this sort of wordplay. (And that’s without even beginning to consider the problems of localization to other languages than English, which tends to render a puzzle like this into a complete non sequitur.) As you get deeper into the game, there’s more and more of this sort of thing, along with pixel hunts, an infuriating maze, and puzzles that can only be solved by trying to pick up every seemingly immovable item on the screen. Monkey Island 2 at times seems like an experiment in how annoying an adventure game can be without technically violating Lucasfilm’s no-deaths-and-no-dead-ends policy.

Arbitrary puzzles that can be solved only through trial and error would prove to be Lucasfilm’s Achilles heel going forward; too many of the games to come would feature puzzles designed more to create a laugh at how ridiculous they are than to be interesting or satisfying to solve. The end result is to create a feeling in the player of playing the interface rather than participating actively in the game world.

Despite my complaints, by no means was Lucasfilm’s progressive design philosophy completely abandoned for Monkey Island 2. The puzzle you need to solve to get through the swamp is a prime example. After you figure out what object to use as a paddle, the game solves the puzzle for you on each return visit.

Perhaps aware that they had crossed a line in trying to make Monkey Island 2 more difficult than its predecessor, Lucasfilm added a “Lite” mode to the game which scales the complexity of the puzzle structure back dramatically. Unfortunately, most players agree that the Lite mode goes too far in the other direction, removing most of the interest from the game. Taken together, the very presence of the two modes speaks to a design that didn’t quite hit the sweet spot of the first game, and to a design team that at some intuitive level may have realized this.

Shortly after completing Monkey Island 2, Ron Gilbert left Lucasfilm Games, resulting in a long hiatus for Guybrush, Elaine, LeChuck, and company. Given my snail’s pace through history, there will thus likely be an almost equally lengthy hiatus before they’ll grace these pages again. For now, I can only strongly encourage you to make the time to play The Secret of Monkey Island if you haven’t already. It’s as strong a comedy adventure as you’ll ever see, and as historically important an adventure game as any released since Crowther and Woods’s seminal original Adventure. While you can take or leave its sequel as you see fit, The Secret of Monkey Island is one adventure game that everybody really ought to play. It’s just that important. And even better, it’s just that good.

(Sources: the films From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years and its associated extras; the book Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin; A.C.E. of April 1990; The Adventurer of Fall 1990, Spring 1991, and Fall 1991; Computer Gaming World of December 1990, June 1991, October 1991, November 1991, January 1992, May 1992, and November 1992; Retro Gamer 34. Also Ron Gilbert’s blog, The Grumpy Gamer.)


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69 Responses to Monkey Island (or, How Ron Gilbert Made an Adventure Game That Didn’t Suck)

  1. Steven Marsh

    March 10, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    Monkey Island is definitely a classic that holds up today . . . and, yes, the sequel leaves me mostly “meh” in comparison. (The ending, in particular, was really so-so . . . especially since it wasn’t “resolved” for years.)

    As a note of trivia, it is possible to die in The Secret of Monkey Island . . . at least in one spot. If you stay underwater for 10 minutes, you’ll eventually drown. There’s a video of it on YouTube:

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 10, 2017 at 4:28 pm

      Yes, but I’d call that more an Easter egg than a real facet of the design. ;)

  2. Kai

    March 10, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    Regarding the “monkey wrench” in MI2, MI1 does have the “red herring”, which at least for me made a certain puzzle unsolvable due to the nonsensical German translation.

    That aside, having replayed both games shortly after beating MI5 a few years back, I found the humor and general ambience pretty juvenile. No wonder I liked it so much as a youngster, but nowadays I found MI2 to be the more palatable experience. At least this time I played the English version, so finally the herring made sense as well (and was one of the better puns in the whole game, too).

    While I was taken aback by the ending of MI2 back then, I’d really would love to see Ron’s version of part 3. I think it might be both shocking and brilliant.

  3. Keith Palmer

    March 10, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    After hearing about Monkey Island here and there (including a positive mention in the “Macworld Game Hall of Fame 1992,” which leaves me wondering if it took a while for it to be ported to the Macintosh), I was able to play it via a CD-ROM collection featuring it, its sequel, and “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.” I can pretty much agree with it being a game-design revelation, but also have to agree with how the sequel wasn’t quite as enjoyable.

  4. Hanon Ondricek

    March 10, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    I loved Monkey Island 1 and 2! I especially appreciate the “don’t waste the player’s time” aspect of it. I remember when Guybrush has to paddle a boat between islands repeatedly, I almost cheered when at one point the game put up a title card “After lots more furious paddling…” and moved me to my destination directly.

    While 2 isn’t as appreciated, my absolute favorite thing about it was the two different puzzle modes. “Lite” simplified the puzzles, but the harder mode *actually expanded the game* with new sequences, scenes, dialogue and jokes so it was completely worthwhile to experience the game a second time. It even recognized when you tried to solve a puzzle the easy way and Guybrush would comment “I see someone’s been playing the game in LITE mode…”

  5. Benjamin Vigeant

    March 10, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    Monkey Island 1 is one of those adventure games that feels timeless. Every time I revisit it, it still feels pretty fresh and new, in large part to its really elegant design.

    While it’s harder to get a hold of these days, I recommend tracking down the EGA original version. While the VGA version isn’t bad at all, I think that Purcell’s portraits and backgrounds in EGA look far better and have a bit more character.

    Monkey Island 2 might not be as elegant, but the iMuse system – specifically in Woodtick – is cool as heck. The way that the music segues as you approach each area is a real neat piece of programming. I don’t think the remaster of 2 (even with the midi music) has this, as there was no easy way to do it with the orchestrated music.

    • Capostrophic

      April 25, 2017 at 2:44 pm

      Fortunately, Special Edition of MI2 *does* have music transitions.

      • Johnny Walker

        August 15, 2022 at 11:50 pm

        It has SOME music transitions (maybe even most), but not all

      • Lisa H.

        August 19, 2022 at 5:05 pm

        What Johnny Walker said. Because the music for the SE is prerecorded, they had to basically “lock down” a single version of the transitions, rather than it being as dynamic in response to player movement as what iMuse was doing.

  6. Ignacio

    March 10, 2017 at 11:40 pm

    Great article Mr. Maher! MI is definitely my favourite game. Thanks!!

  7. Kaitain

    March 10, 2017 at 11:58 pm

    The original Monkey Island is a strong contender for being my favourite game of all time, certainly as a one-off experience.

    I never liked MI2. It felt to me like it had been made by a different team. The puzzles didn’t work, the dynamic between Guybrush and Elaine was all wrong, the ending was irksome. And it felt like it was essentially ignored by all subsequent installments. The Highlander 2 of the franchise (albeit well-reviewed at the time).

    I hated that monkey wrench puzzle in MI2. In particular it wasn’t likely to occur to people from the UK (where the term isn’t used), and I also remember there being an item at the junk store on Phatt Island that looked like it would be a perfect fit for the valve, but…wasn’t. I really don’t understand why the game got the high scores that it did.

  8. Ricky Derocher

    March 11, 2017 at 1:08 am

    1990 really cemented the dominance of DOS as a gaming platform with titles such as Monkey Island, Wing Commander and King’s Quest V.

  9. Miguel

    March 11, 2017 at 7:22 am

    If memory serves, the Spanish version of the game tried to patch the “monkey wrench” translation problem by substituting one of the books of the Phatt City Library for another that hinted at the many uses of monkeys.

    I suppose they dealt with the issue in the same way in other localized versions of the game.

    • Erik Twice

      September 28, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      I didn’t know that and I’ve played it! Thanks for bringing it up!

  10. BatteMan

    March 11, 2017 at 8:13 am

    Very interesting article on one of my best point&click.

    Can I translate it in french for the Amiga website ? (I already translate the making of Flight of the Amazon Queen for this website)

    Thank you for your great job and for your answer.

    Amigalement vôtre,

  11. GeoX

    March 11, 2017 at 8:15 am

    This is a game where when a cannibal asks you how to “get ahead” he means… no, that one’s just too much fun to spoil.

    I…kinda think you just spoiled it. :p

    It’s a devilishly clever puzzle, but I must admit it was one I “solved” by brute force, just trying to give the guy everything in my inventory.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 11, 2017 at 8:35 am

      It’s actually interesting to compare the “get ahead” puzzle with the “monkey wrench” puzzle. While the former might be subtle, it can be reasonably expected to be solved by means other than brute force; I did solve this one on my own in a flash of insight, and, let me tell you, it felt really good. ;) The latter, though, is something nobody would ever just think of unprompted. The *only* way to solve it is by brute force. The difference is that the vital clue is given to you in the case of “get ahead” — you see the phrase in question right there on the screen — while you’re expected to divine the solution of “monkey wrench” out of whole cloth. The latter puzzle, in other words, is a read-the-author’s-mind puzzle. Only the possibility of lawnmowering through all objects makes it soluble at all. Thank God Monkey Island 2 wasn’t a text adventure!

      Of course, both puzzles do present a challenge to localization teams. It sounds as if the Spanish team at least may have wound up making a better puzzle out of the monkey wrench.

      • Colin Djukic

        March 18, 2017 at 8:22 pm

        To be fair, the monkey’s arms and hands in the graphical representation in the inventory resemble a wrench if I remember correctly, but yeah, that one’s a little heavy; I think Ron Gilbert has said somewhere that he regrets this puzzle. Apart from that I’m quite shocked by the amount of negative feedback here, I never would have guessed! I knew that the ending pissed of a lot of people, but in my recollection the game is so brilliant, takes everything that made MI so great and expands on it. I always thought everybody agreed that Mi2 was even better than the first one. I stand corrected, wow!

        btw Thimbleweed Park is coming out on the 30th! Oh my god!

  12. GeoX

    March 11, 2017 at 8:23 am

    …also, you are SO RIGHT about Monkey Island 2. It’s just awful compared with the first one, and seeing so many people acting as if the two are basically the same qualitywise makes me feel as if I’m losing my mind.

  13. Jubal

    March 11, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    I finally played the first two Monkey Island games a year or two back. I loved the original, but I never even finished the second one. The change in tone was the biggest killer for me. I wanted the good-natured, naive Guybrush back, not this insufferable jerk we’d got instead.

    • bread

      June 4, 2017 at 4:07 pm

      I understand that taking the monocle, locking the coffin etc makes you a jerk but then again in the first MI you send an old crippled man to climb a mountain to relay a message while you plunder his safe.
      So there has to be more to it.

  14. DZ-Jay

    March 11, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    Oh dear! I’m still catching up, and barely done with the Trinity series from two years ago… and I can’t wait to get to this point and read about the games I grew up with and played to death! :)


  15. William Hern

    March 11, 2017 at 8:10 pm

    Another classic article Jimmy! I definitely agree with you that MI1 is one of the all-time great games.

    I did, however, spot one small typo:

    “Throughout, attention is paid to you the player’s time and sanity in a way very few games of the era bother to do.”

    I think the word “you” can be removed from the sentence.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 12, 2017 at 10:25 am

      Thanks, but that’s actually as intended. Don’t spoil my record for this article without a typo. ;)

      • David Boddie

        March 16, 2017 at 11:30 pm

        “Again, Gilbert and the rest of Lucasfilm would push much further that even the above would imply in their own future designs.”

        “that” -> “than” ?

        Sorry! I was hoping someone else would point it out. ;-)

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 17, 2017 at 9:34 am

          Sigh… thanks.

  16. Nathan

    March 11, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    I like Monkey Island. I really do. I love the sense of humor; I especially love the insult swordfighting. But it always felt to me more like a movie than a game. It’s something I watch happen, more of a Candy Land than a Stratego. I’m definitely the target audience for the old-school adventure games. I like solving hard puzzles, even when it takes some thinking time away from the computer. I even like learning by dying. So those later trends in adventure games feel less and less game-like to me.

  17. Petter Sjölund

    March 11, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    If nobody else will stand up for Monkey Island 2, then I suppose I will have to. I played it before the first game, and when playing predecessor later I found everything a little weaker there: from graphics and music to atmosphere and humor. Everything in the first game felt a little more childlike and less cool and to the teenager I was.

    In particular the innocent Guybrush of the first game is a lot less fun than the cruel and bratty character of the second, and gives the whole game a more mature tone. More Simpsons than Duck Tales.

    I had a lot less problem with the monkey wrench puzzle than the herring one, and I absolutely loved the ending of MI2. The suggestion that the entirety of the game (and the first) was really some kids playing in a theme park, that was just genius and explained a lot.

    • Giacomo

      March 21, 2017 at 7:41 pm

      I completely agree with you Petter. Although Jimmy is doing a fantastic job at describing the merits of the first Monkey Island, he’s being too negative about the second. The comparison between the game size and the time required to complete their development is, for instance, absolutely unfair. It doesn’t keep into consideration the much larger team deployed for Monkey Island 2, as well as the fact that the basic ambiance and characters for the series had already been developed.

      Frankly I think it’s quite silly to compare them. Would you ever compare Terminator 1 to Terminator 2? Both in Monkey Island and Terminator there was a considerable improvement in the domain of graphics and sounds (special FX) and a much larger story. But the story doesn’t stand flawlessly on its legs, as anyone who tried to play MI2 first or watch T2 first. The parallels don’t stop there. Even though MI1 was released in 1990, it /feels/ like a product of the 80s, whereas both MI2, like T2 -just one year later- embody the “badassitude” of the 90s.

      I just think they should be both revered, but for different reasons.

      • Iffy Bonzoolie

        May 30, 2020 at 9:52 pm

        One thing I enjoyed about the Harry Potter series was how the tone evolved over the books, as Harry (and the readership) was getting older. As young people grow into less young people, they get moody, morose… and the books got darker, as well.

        What happens when a naive kid who wants to be a child’s idea of pirate becomes a real, successful pirate? They get jaded, arrogant, and maybe try to grow a beard. (Spoilers) The happily ever after with Elaine didn’t work out, as so many never do.

        The progression in aesthetic was also tightly in sync. The graphics, audio, and content weren’t just grittier, but they were 0

        I can’t argue against the fact that MI2 was very hard, and less fair than MI. But I think the tonal shift was actually better than trying to completely preserve the look, feel, and personality of the original. We want our characters to have arcs, do we not?

        • Iffy Bonzoolie

          May 30, 2020 at 9:56 pm

          Ugh, failed to proofread that one.

          I meant to say the aesthetic wasn’t just grittier, it was also just more grown up than the first, as Guybrush has grown up, just a bit.

    • Brian Bagnall

      October 3, 2022 at 4:14 am

      I’ve never heard it suggested MI2 was inferior either. At the time I liked it more, especially in the sound and graphics department. The longer game was also a plus. What a step up! I do recall having to brute force some puzzles. I’m playing these again to prepare for Return to Monkey Island. Maybe the deficits will stand out more now that I’m older and the hype has worn off.

  18. Patrick Stockton

    March 12, 2017 at 3:12 am

    When my birthday rolled around in 1990 I would have been 14. I remember going to Eggehead Software (the brick and mortar predecessor of Newegg) and seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Monkey Island sitting on the shelf. I had just enough birthday cash to buy one so I went for the name recognition of Indiana Jones. Months later flush with Christmas cash I went back to Egghead and picked up Monkey Island.

    I remember on the bus ride home looking at the Pirate Wheel (copy protection) and already beginning to think I had made a mistake going for Indiana Jones months earlier.

    It has been years since I played Money Island but I still remember all the jokes including disk 22.

    Monkey Island 2 was a good game but there are parts that to this day I dread (if this is 6 and this is 9 what is… this I’m looking directly at you).

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • Carlton Little

      March 12, 2017 at 7:00 pm

      “I remember going to Eggehead Software (the brick and mortar predecessor of Newegg)”

      No. This is a common misconception. Newegg has literally nothing to do with Egghead Software. This is one of those persistent myths that just won’t die! Again, the 2 have nothing to do with each other.

      Sorry to act all “bossy pants” but I just had to chime in with the correction. ^_^

      • Patrick Stockton

        March 13, 2017 at 1:48 am

        Could have sworn Egghead morphed in to Newegg. I stand corrected.

  19. Joey

    March 17, 2017 at 12:38 am

    I liked the locations in Monkey Island 2 more, each island had a distinct feel to it. And artistically, the design had come a long way in just a year.

    But you make a good case for saying the puzzle design in the first game is tighter and less frustrating.

  20. Alex Freeman

    March 17, 2017 at 5:12 am

    I’ve never played Monkey Island, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. I’ll definitely have to give it a try now! That said, this is the first place I’ve seen people criticize MI2. Lots of people seem to prefer it to the original.

    “inertia being the force it is, most of the awards for 1990 had gone to Sierra’s pretty but horribly designed King’s Quest V, which served as its own argument for ‘why adventure games suck'”
    Just out of curiosity, have you only played King’s Quest 1, 4, and 5?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 17, 2017 at 9:36 am

      I’ve played the first to completion relatively fairly, dabbled only in the second and third, and played the fourth and fifth from a walkthrough.

      • Alex Freeman

        March 17, 2017 at 4:18 pm

        I take it then you played the fifth one because you plan on discussing its use of 256-color VGA graphics and the CD version’s use of voices.

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 17, 2017 at 4:33 pm

          Yes, although I don’t anticipate spending a great deal of time on it. Probably similar to what I spent on King’s Quest IV, another game notable primarily for its technical innovations. I don’t think anyone is dying for more articles here where I flail away at bad adventure design. ;)

          • Lisa H.

            March 17, 2017 at 6:21 pm

            I like VI the best, although because I’ve played it through so many times I probably do not have anything like objective judgement on whether it is any good considered as game design. (I will also withhold my opinion on the “Girl in the Tower” song that they apparently thought was good enough to release as a single. Oops, I guess I just failed to withhold my opinion.)

            • Jimmy Maher

              March 17, 2017 at 7:01 pm

              I’ve heard that King’s Quest VI is the least objectionable of the lot, although I haven’t looked at it myself yet. Some attribute this to the involvement of Jane Jenson as Roberta Williams’s assistant designer, but this does strike me as a bit of a stretch. (All of the Gabriel Knight games, strong as they are in the storytelling aspect, have some pretty questionable design choices.)

  21. Alex Freeman

    March 18, 2017 at 2:29 am

    Well, I’ve played the first six to completion and dabbled with the 7th. The usual reason people give for liking 6 is the writing. It has more developed dialogue than the other games, but my main objection to it is that, for various reasons, it feels out of place in the King’s Quest series (although 7 and 8 are, if anything, much worse offenders in that regard).

    Having said that, my only major objection to its game play is its point-and-click interface. There is at least one death without warning, and there are some ways to make it unwinnable, but nothing really bad IMHO. 5 is much worse in that regard. Interestingly, 7 makes it impossible to render the game unwinnable, and death is always easily undone, but almost everyone agrees it’s bad.

    Speaking of Sierra games, you might be interested in Police Quest 2 and Quest for Glory 4. PQ2 is much better regarded than the first and with good reason, and QFG4 manages to recapture the feeling of being on your own like in the original. The only two major problems with it its bugginess, and sometimes everything you can do is listed out for you.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 18, 2017 at 8:00 am

      I anticipate writing about all of the Quest for Glory games in some detail. I’ll give the Police Quest series as a whole some coverage, but I’m waiting for the first Daryl Gates game. Published just at the time of the Los Angeles riots, it makes for a fascinating intersection of gaming and real-world events.

  22. sho

    March 18, 2017 at 8:16 am

    Jimmy, what version of MI did you play?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 18, 2017 at 8:24 am

      The first MS-DOS VGA release.

  23. Adam

    March 26, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    So glad to see an analysis of the problems with MI2 in light of the brilliance of MI1 and Ron’s manifesto. Having played the 256 color version of the original, I think the second game looks uglier and is more prone to annoying “early PC” SFX problems (that PARROT). For as much love as everyone has for iMuse, I don’t think it added much either.

  24. ShadowAngel

    March 29, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    As fun as those games were, Lucas Arts basically destroyed the whole genre by dumbing it down to the extreme. In every other single genre dying or losing is part of the game and what makes everything a challenge. But in Adventure games it’s “bad” if you can die or make a mistake…i never understood this weird logic, it would be like having Godmode in First Person Shooters or an Autopilot in racing games. It just makes no sense and it was the beginning of the end for challenging games, it continued on with making games linear, easy, dumb and simple. A shame, really.

  25. bryce777

    April 9, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    I can’t imagine how anyone can think Monkey Island 2 was full of bad puzzles. It was an EXTREMELY easy game for its time, even more so than the first one. I played through it without even pausing, and they just got dumber after that unfortunately. MI 2 is probably the last one worth bothering with.

    Only Monkey Island puzzle I remember getting stuck in was related to “how to get a head in navigation”. And that was just me being an idiot.

  26. Maurizio

    May 22, 2017 at 9:30 am

    I think MI2 was treated a bit unfairly. It has the monkey wrench puzzle and the pick-up-dog puzzles that are unfair. But where it’s good, it’s better than MI1. In particular it has a few puzzles so good that you could base a degree thesis on them. “Stick leaflet with Kate’s face on the wanted poster in order to have her jailed” is arguably the best puzzle of all times. “Saw the peg leg of the sleeping pirate because you guess that the woodcutter will be called to fix it” is impressive. “Blow the horn in the location of the spitting contest” is total genius. It’s a matter of being totally logical, totally fair, and yet not too easy, and funny.

  27. Steve

    July 28, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, which took guests through a whole pirate adventure in fifteen minutes, climaxing in a cannon duel between two ships.

    Just to note, there is no duel between two ships in the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There is a scene towards the beginning of the ride where a ship fires its cannons at a fort, but its climax involves pirates pillaging a town then shooting pistols at each other from either side of the ride canal.

    Also, I believe you may have misspelled “Disneyfied” as “Disnefied.” It certainly rolls off the tongue easier, but the dictionary (and Wikipedia, for that matter) has it with a Y (as a form of the word “Disneyfication.”)

    One other note. Didn’t Lucasfilm Games rename itself LucasArts during that massive restructuring in 1991? (It even says “LucasArts” on the MI2 cover you used in your article.) It just seemed odd you didn’t mention it, as you were sure to footnote the Activision/Mediagenic name change when discussing that period. Just wondered if it was something you overlooked.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 29, 2017 at 8:16 am


      Lucasfilm Games did become LucasArts right around this period, although I confess I’m not sure of the exact timing off the top of my head. (The box art isn’t definitive proof because the name was changed on all the older boxes as well as the new.) But I do know that I consciously chose to hold back that story for a later article at the time I wrote this one. It’s not forgotten.

  28. Keith Weatherby II

    October 31, 2017 at 4:32 am

    I, too, thought MI2 wasn’t nearly as good as the first one. I think the spitting puzzle kind of half turned me off to it.

    I am very surprised and delighted that a lot of you guys also didn’t care for it as much. Most people I’ve talked to preferred it to the first one. They did have a leap in technology and had their first scanned in (I think hand painted) background art. And the whole iMuse thing. It was also a little more non-linear where you could travel to the different islands. I say a little only because you could do the three trials in nearly any order in the first one. But the second feels like it’s more non-linear.

    That said, I still prefer the first. The one I played was the vga version on cd-rom with redbook audio — to this day I still prefer that cd audio to all the MI theme songs in all the games (be it midi, or what-have-you)

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 1, 2017 at 8:17 am

      Yeah, I “solved” the spitting contest by sheer dumb luck after trying again and again, and never did understand why until I peaked at the walkthrough. That’s not generally a sign of good puzzle design. Asking the player to note an incidental background detail like the way the flags were blowing was too much in my opinion. This one needed another clue somewhere else to work.

  29. James K

    January 2, 2018 at 2:39 am

    First off, I got linked to one of your posts from somewhere random and ended up enthralled. Great job on writing so well on both the games and business side of an industry I had only passing familiarity with!

    Even though I disagree with your overall appraisal of MI2, I do agree with your point as far as the bad puzzles go. One of the funniest moments in gaming for teenage-me was when Guybrush’s parents show up, turn to skeletons, and start singing. But this was totally undercut by what I saw as an illogical use of the information in the song (I recall it being used to escape LeChuck’s dungeon, but you have to only use the first body part of each line or something).

    You also mentioned the death gag in MI1, but I think the one in MI2 outdoes it. After dying it cuts to you hanging next to Elaine, who doesn’t believe your story, it then takes you back to where you were just before it happened. Very fair, and funny in execution.

  30. Jonathanmcc

    January 2, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    You might be interested to know that the insult/fighting parts were written by Orson Scott Card.
    I remember thinking when I played the game when it came out that it had been lifted from Doon – the parody of science fiction novel Dune – that features Pall fighting P’jamis in single combat but where they fight by trading insults.

  31. Alex

    March 31, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    Well, the first game also contains a “bad puzzle” (chicken with pulley).

  32. Marco

    July 29, 2020 at 9:26 pm

    Hmm … I’ve just completed The Secret of Monkey Island and this is tricky. I’m well aware how much many people love it – they’ve written lists of Greatest Adventure Games that are pretty much exclusively Lucasarts(film), and they’ve made long youtube videos that discuss SOMI with almost religious reverence.

    I totally get that in the context of what came before, it’s a great game. From my own experience and everything you’ve written, I honestly don’t think there are many 80s adventure games that are more than historical curiosities now. There are bits of it that fully land with me – the iconic theme music, the unusually innovative use of maps, the passive-aggressive memos between the three groups sharing Monkey Island.

    But I don’t think it’s the perfect game by any means. There’s a fair amount of hunt-the-verb in the puzzles (use doesn’t work, you need to push or open), and the use of inventory items sometimes depends on wordplay or is just illogical. Telling you to find something steel, for which the answer is a cannonball that would really have been iron, while the steel staple remover isn’t acceptable and in fact has no use at all, particularly irritated me.

    But what I wasn’t prepared for was the weird sense of futility that dogs the game. Every time you complete an objective, the game turns around and says “actually, you didn’t need to do that”. Seemingly in fact, the entire plot could have been resolved with the first object you encounter (grog). I don’t know if that was deliberate, or if all the breaking the fourth wall humour overpowered the concept, but it left me quite unsatisfied.

  33. BatteMan

    October 14, 2021 at 6:55 am

    As promised and after many years, the french translation is online ! Thank you for this wonderful article and for the authorization.

    You can read it here, with a link back to your article :

    Thank you !

  34. Jan

    March 25, 2024 at 8:57 pm

    I still remember vividly at my 47, how painfull was to get stucked at some point for several or dozen hours. And no googling walkthrough!!!
    And the joy after trying again next day, doing something completely stupid (like I remember still monkey/wrench thing) and breaking through… One time life experience truly.
    Thanks for the piece.

  35. Don Alsafi

    April 19, 2024 at 7:58 pm

    Re-reading this lovely article after so many years prompted the following two thoughts about stellar game design:

    1. After having played the first Resident Evil a half dozen times, I suddenly stopped at the very end of the game to wonder about an element I’d never questioned before. See, when you first enter a *very* short hallway before the end, there is a Fuse Unit on the floor. Turning the corner, you find – just a few steps away – the elevator to the final boss, without power… but with a slot for the fuse unit. Why bother? I wondered in mild annoyance.

    And then it hit me like a bolt: Because the Fuse Unit takes up two inventory spaces. As do the Signal Rockets and the Rocket Launcher, both of which are found in the game’s final location. By requiring you to free up two spaces, it ensures you’re not juggling inventory during the climax.

    And it was so subtly done I didn’t even question it the first several times I played it.

    2. In the space of four minutes, this video (starting at 7:51) analyzes the Monkey Island’s first three locations to an astonishing degree. More to the point, it points out something I had never ever noticed: That it subtly leads the player into gaining the first three inventory items they need to start pursuing The Three Trials.

    Seriously, at the end of those four minutes my jaw simply dropped in awe and wonder at something I’d never noticed in likely dozens of playthroughs over the years. So impressive!

  36. Don Alsafi

    April 19, 2024 at 7:59 pm

    Whoops! Forgot the second video link:


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