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The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition Review

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Lucasarts’ reboot raises ape expectations...

★★★★

In this giddy era of HD graphics and media-baiting crime capers, it’s a cruel irony that gamers have probably lost more than they’ve gained. While the developers of yesteryear were restricted by clunky graphics when crafting tales that sparkled with wit, these days an asinine plot can be discreetly hidden under a layer of eye candy. Similarly, coders were careful to use simple controls that hooked an audience with limited gaming experience, whereas many of today’s biggest titles require a degree in physics to complete the first level. Hoarier players will wax lyrical about innovative anomalies such as Vib-Ribbon, but it’s hard to find anything nowadays that doesn’t follow a lucrative formula or stick doggedly with genre conventions.

God bless LucasArts, then, for resurrecting the point-and-click adventure game Monkey Island. First released in 1990, The Secret Of Monkey Island remains one of the best-loved adventures of all time, its ingenious blend of likable heroes, enchanting storytelling and clever puzzles charming a generation more accustomed to shallow platformers and brain-dead blasters. It also showcased the potential for video-games to weave a tale as deep and as moving as any Hollywood blockbuster.

Nearly 20 years later and Guybrush, LeChuck and friends have returned in a Special Edition. It’s a flashy franchise reboot that follows the exact formula of the hallowed original, with players using an old-fashioned point-and-click system to explore the game world and interact with other characters. It’s a routine that feels creakily retro in an industry ruled by GTA-alikes, but offers a simple interface and relaxed pace, allowing players to lose themselves in the flamboyant story.

And what a story. Awash with charismatic characters and genuinely funny dialogue, this is closer to the cinematic work of Pixar, making players actually give a damn about what happens to their protagonist. And while the new graphics and canny ‘cheat’ system that stops you being bamboozled by more obscure puzzles are fine additions, it’s still the sharp writing that makes it so damned appealing, whether you’re looking for a nostalgia trip or just want to see what all the fuss is about.

Also steering the Monkey Island reboot are Launch Of The Screaming Narwhal and The Siege Of Spinner Cay, the first two chapters in a new five-episode quest released as monthly downloads on the PC and Wii.Sadly, the dialogue feels more strained than in previous outings, making it harder to become consumed by the experience. And as the writers have to set the backdrop in each chapter to keep things moving forward, each story lacks a strong conclusion and the elegant narrative clip of standalone Monkey Islands, making it unlikely that you’ll return once you’ve reached each outing’s nail-biting cliffhanger.

But while they’re not Monkey Island’s finest moments, the first two Tales downloads boast a genial atmosphere that’s a breath of fresh air, laying the foundations for three more instalments that will surely re-establish this piratical yarn as one of video-gaming’s most beloved swashbucklers. Meanwhile, the success of the Special Edition across Xbox Live and even iPhone will hopefully pave the way for the sublime Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge to appear with a new lick of paint some time next year.

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