“Hi! My name is Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate!”
With that, 30 years ago, history was made, and adventure games as a genre went off on what was one of their weirdest adventures yet. Lucasfilm Games released Ron Gilbert’s The Secret of Monkey Island on Oct. 15, 1990. Building on the success of Loom, released earlier that year, and previous point-and-click adventure games like Maniac Mansion and the Indiana Jones series, Lucasfilm Games used The Secret of Monkey Island to distinguish themselves from fellow adventure game competitor Sierra—and to change the face of the genre forever.
While The Secret of Monkey Island was not an instant, out-of-the-box smash hit, it quickly grew to cult status around the world with rave reviews and re-releases on several platforms from Sega CD to Atari ST. In 2009, the game and its sequel, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, both received full remakes courtesy of LucasArts, finally seeing the light of a modern-day system and kicking off a series of LucasArts adventure game remakes including Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle.
But enough of the statistics. Why does Monkey Island remain such an iconic title, to this very day? Why is the adventure game scene still littered with wannabe clones and heavily influenced later entries in the genre? Why do you fight like a Dairy Farmer?
The short answer to all of these questions is: because it’s fun. There’s Insult sword fighting, cookery equipment repurposed as headgear, and rubber chickens with pulleys in the middle. We also have vegetarian cannibals, giant monkey heads, and a man wearing a badge that says “Ask Me About Loom.” For good measure, there’s a protagonist with low moral fiber who can hold his breath for 10 minutes, a kick-ass governor who can stuff two monkeys in a wedding dress, and a ghost pirate who really can’t take “No” for an answer.
The Secret of Monkey Island is bizarre and hilarious and wonderful and takes place in its own little slice of the Caribbean where both nothing and everything make sense, all at the same time. The plot, for those of you who have never played (shame on you), follows protagonist Guybrush Threepwood in his quest to become a mighty pirate™. A tongue-in-cheek satire of typical stories involving the Golden Age of Piracy, we see him complete a series of ridiculous tasks to be accepted by other pirates, fall in love with Governor Elaine Marley, and battle the ghost Captain LeChuck after surviving a harrowing experience with Stan, the Used Boat Salesman.
Not only is the world unique and crazy, but at the time the gameplay itself was unique. Not that it was the first adventure game, but it took a concept from Lucas’ previous game Loom and expanded upon it for the point-and-click genre. It was quite revolutionary in its simplicity; you couldn’t die or lose the game. Not that all the answers would be handed to you on a plate, but the basic idea was that, if you tried every single possible combination of items and places and exhausted all the dialogue, you would eventually find the solution. Sure, it was still frustrating at times, even with Guybrush’s strange quips and gags about misused items, but it was a far cry from games where if you missed picking something up from the floor in your house, you would continue for 18 minutes only to be permanently stuck, halfway across the country (looking at you, Gold Rush).
Monkey Island’s and LucasArts’ influence in this respect was so prolific that this is now something point-and-click adventure games are known for: the ability to keep trying new solutions to puzzles until you finally hit on the right one, rather than go down in a blaze of gunfire if you can’t figure out the door passcode fast enough. While hardcore Sierra fans, and others, might still argue on whether or not this is actually a good thing, it’s clear that it’s what the gamers wanted.
In a lot of ways, The Secret of Monkey Island’s legacy is one that stays very true to the spirit of the game, 30 years on. Remember kids, don’t be afraid to do things differently, keep your rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle handy, and go where the treasure takes you, even if it’s a series of questionably sub-par sequels. While we still don't know what the secret of Monkey Island actually is, we do know that even if someone tells you that you look like a flooring inspector, you can still become a mighty pirate.