The Invincible Hero of ‘Monkey Island’ Was an Adventure Game Masterstroke
Lucasfilm Games revolutionised a genre by making Guybrush Threepwood an inept, but unbeatable, pirate wannabe.
The graphic adventure game has been around since the very early 1980s, but the genre really found its footing, and both brilliant critical acclaim and great commercial success, with the implementation of point-and-click control.
No company did more to popularize this method of moving your character around the screen, interacting with objects and other, non-playable individuals, than Lucasfilm Games, subsequently known as LucasArts.
In 1987, the studio released Maniac Mansion, an adventure in which verbs played a starring role. "Push", "Give", "Open", "Read." Simply click one of the commands, then the object you wished to perform it on, and magic happened. This was the SCUMM Engine, and it'd go on to be used in many more LucasArts games.
And for many, 1990's The Secret of Monkey Island still represents the very pinnacle of the SCUMM production line—challenged only by its 1991 sequel, Le Chuck's Revenge.
A frequently laugh-out-loud pirate adventure featuring the ostensibly hapless Guybrush Threepwood in the main role, Monkey Island refined the SCUMM engine to make what was already an accessible system even more user friendly. As such, it was easy to make progress, quickly—and as a result, the player forms a greater connection with Guybrush than they ever had with previous LucasArts games' protagonists.
But it's not the (albeit brilliant) humor of Monkey Island that makes it special amongst adventure games, nor its simplified interface or star-in-the-making pirate wannabe. Its makers did the unthinkable for video games at the time: they made the game virtually impossible to lose at.
Adventure games prior to Monkey Island could leave their player stranded or, worse, kill them off entirely. LucasArts' own Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders were guilty of this. You could easily pursue dead ends, leaving you with no way of advancing proceedings, or in the case of Maniac Mansion see your characters completely obliterated.
Monkey Island got rid of those headaches. While its puzzles could be obtuse at times, to say the least, they were never unsolvable just because an object was missed a few screens back, or insurmountable due to any degree of player imprecision.
This could mean a degree of using the most wildly random collectibles in the weirdest situations until something stuck, but there's always a surreal logic underpinning the game—and once that clicks, it's there for life.
And Guybrush couldn't be murdered by a ghost pirate, fall off a cliff edge to his doom, or collapse having been poisoned by a dodgier-than-usual batch of grog. He was invincible—unless you really wanted to put his claim of being able to hold his breath for ten minutes to the test.
And if you do, at least the game has a laugh with you—the commands change from "open" and "close" to things like "bloat" and "decompose." And also: "Order hint book."
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Nowadays, of course, if you get stuck on an old game, you just look online for the solution—no need for helplines or hint books. But the original Monkey Island doesn't often leave you stumped, staring a red herring in the face as you plead with a troll to let you pass. And knowing that there's no real risk to any of it encourages you to experiment with the silliest combinations of instructions—which usually produces the correct results.
The no-dead-ends design of the first Monkey Island would carry forward in the series, and influence future graphic adventures too. It allowed the game to breathe, for the player to truly drink in its cartoon Caribbean world full of oddball circus folk, crusty pirate captains and swashbuckling love-interest governors.
Guybrush just wanted to be a pirate—but by being outright unbeatable, what he got was a place in history books as one of gaming's most unlikely icons.