In Defence of Escape From Monkey Island

By Jack Yarwood on at

Escape from Monkey Island has arrived on GOG. That means you can now buy all the Monkey Island games, from Ron Gilbert’s original to Telltale’s episodic reboot, without having to go through the effort of using tools like ScummVM or ResidualVM.

Escape from Monkey Island is the much-maligned fourth game in the much-loved series. It was built using the GrimE engine (created for Grim Fandango) and is a departure in many ways from the previous games: it ditched the point-and-click controls in favour of awkward tank controls, and replaced the incredibly detailed 2D sprites and locales with blocky polygonal models and pre-rendered backgrounds. So it’s easy to see why so many people balked at the game when it was first released. This was different to what was expected and took the series in a new direction, when what a large chunk of the fanbase wanted was more of the same. But playing it through again recently, I was struck by just how enjoyable this is.

(There be spoilers ahead for some puzzles, so avert your eyes if you plan to take on the journey yourself and wish to remain oblivious.)

The story this time around goes as follows: returning home from their honeymoon, our heroes Elaine Marley and Guybrush Threepwood find that they’ve been declared dead in their absence and half the Caribbean is in the possession of a ruthless Australian businessman named Ozzie Mandrill. Hearing rumour of a powerful voodoo talisman that can solve all of their problems called The Ultimate Insult, they set out on another adventure to save the Caribbean, encountering difficult puzzles, a memorable cast of cutthroat pirates, and worst of all… tourists.

The harshest criticisms directed at Escape from Monkey Island usually involve the move to 3D. While the tank controls are undeniably clunky (the game is calling out for the same kind of point-and-click integration that Grim Fandango Remastered got), the art style actually works on its own terms, and still holds up where it counts. Sure, some characters lack the same level of detail than others, resulting in the odd blocky-looking model (Carla and Otis have seen better days), but the pre-rendered backgrounds are gorgeous to look at and full of interesting and imaginative details.

The First Church of LeChuck

Some standout locations from the game include The First Church of LeChuck located on Monkey Island with its beautiful stained-glass windows and stream of molten-hot lava; Ozzie Mandrill’s domed Mansion featuring a crooked roof modelled after its owner’s head; and the SCUMM Bar with its cracked walls, shipwheel candelabra, and risqué art. Given the challenge that faced the studio, LucasArts did a spectacular job of translating the 2D art of Curse of Monkey Island into something that could work in 3D and there’s still an amazing attention to detail on display in every scene if you look for it.

Ozzie Mandrill's mansion

In 2018 the story is an even more striking angle on the Monkey Island setup: the main antagonist is a ruthless land developer whose sole goal in life is to acquire wealth and power while belittling his opponents. The parallel at the time of release was clearly meant to be the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who was also being sent up in Bond movies of the time, but play now and it's hard to ignore the shadow of US president Donald Trump hanging over proceedings. Mandrill’s bullish behaviour and childish insulting of his opponents has plenty of similarities to the current president, particularly for viewers of You’ve Been Trumped, albeit filtered through the Saturday morning cartoon contrivances that one expects from this series.

The writing is also just as sharp and as humorous as ever, though it does skew younger than its previous entries, and use the new 3D aesthetic for slapstick. A great example of this comes near the beginning, where you need to stop a construction worker from demolishing your house. The solution to the puzzle is to attach an elasticated inner tube over a funny-looking cactus on your lawn and to make the operator aim for it. He will fire the catapult at the cactus and it will slingshot back, knocking the catapult off the cliff in a cutscene resembling a Wile E. Coyote masterplan.

There's still plenty of fantastic dialogue beyond the visual gags though, and lots of my favourites come from the barbed clerk at StarBuccaneers (the game’s parody of Starbucks) on Jambalaya Island. Included among these is his observation that StarBuccaneers doesn’t need to worry about the customers taking their business elsewhere, as there are no other options available to them anyway.

You can find this attitude permeating everything in the game, even the puzzles. Some do overstay their welcome, such as the infamous Monkey Kombat and the buried treasure puzzle on Knuttin Atoll, but the design elsewhere is remarkably strong. There’s a clear, consistent logic that runs through the game, and even if it isn’t exactly real-world problem solving it's much closer than some of the random suck-it-and-see stuff of the previous entries. The earlier Monkey Island games may be classics, but they also have wild swings in tone and some truly funky puzzle logic at times. You could call working it all out part of the fun, and fair enough. But sometimes it wasn't fun.

Escape from Monkey Island is a much friendlier game than the previous titles in this regard. All of the puzzles have at least two or three hints in the world that will point you towards the answer. This means that, when you do eventually come across the right action or combination of items, you are never left wondering what you did right or how you could have come to the solution. At one point in the game, for example, you are required to throw a duck into a small shack to capture a criminal. It is a ridiculous solution, yes, but the whole thing makes total sense if you take the time to speak to the residents of Lucre Island — who will tell you about the thief’s intense fear of ducks after his nose was bitten off.

There’s even a puzzle or two that rewards experimentation, letting you solve them in a couple of ways depending on the items in your inventory.

The one I found involved obtaining a meal ticket, to get the silver monkey mug from Planet Threepwood required to advance. On one playthrough, I used some superglue on the Menacing Mechanical Manatee ride in the Micro-Groggery and then spoke to the bartender to take part in a competition where I had to stay on it to win the ticket. I thought that this might be the only way to beat this puzzle, but on a later playthrough I discovered I could get the ticket from another source, using the grogocinno coffee to listen to Stan’s entire timeshare spiel and receive the ticket as a free gift.

These rewards exist elsewhere too, giving players a reason to combine different items in their inventory and explore the dialogue trees. Right at the very beginning, for example, you are required to kick a burning hot coal at a loaded cannon, but if you want to you can kick it at a pirate instead, which will cause them to throw a dagger your way in a lovely throwaway gag that's easy to miss. Similarly, talking to the darts players in the SCUMM bar will unlock the option for them to aim towards you, the viewer, in a move that literally breaks the fourth wall, cracking the screen. It’s these small touches that add up to real charm.

I wouldn't claim Escape from Monkey Island is the strongest game in the series, but the negative reputation it has accumulated over the years feels grossly unfair. It’s a charming tale of swashbuckling with plenty to love: from the imaginative setting to the wonderful dialogue and tremendous performances from voice acting legends like Rob Paulsen, Tom Kenny, and Tress MacNeile. If you’ve been put off in the past by all the complaints, you may be pleasantly surprised by the reality. And surely it's worth something that, in a series which has gone on to experience some really ropey stuff, Escape from Monkey Island still has the feel, the soul, of the real thing coming through.

A defining element of Monkey Island has always been insult swordfighting. This is in Escape from Monkey Island, but one little twist always makes me smile: Ozzy Mandrill, the main antagonist, is Australian. Thus Ozzy proves unbeatable in duels, because his opponents literally cannot understand his insults, and thus cannot counter them. It's only a minor gag, but asserting that you can't beat an Aussie in a swearing competition... that feels like Monkey Island to me.