The Monkey Island series is memorable and well-loved for a variety of reasons. In many ways, it can be pointed to as the yardstick by which point-and-click games should be measured; for years it actually was.
When people are asked to describe what they love most about the series, you can easily predict the answers: The ending of Monkey Island 2; Insult sword-fighting; Lechuck; Stan the salesman. All of those are great of course – and worthy of their own entries in this series – but few people seem to mention The Curse of Monkey Island.
Released at a time when 3D was king and the genre was starting to fade in popularity, Monkey Island 3 is for many the best installment. The last game ever created with SCUMM (LucasArts’ in-house engine, used for their point and click games), it is an endless procession of wonderful jokes, great puzzles and gorgeous visuals which haven’t aged a day, remaining just as attractive over 15 years later as it was when first released.
For those of us that played it of course, this is far from being news. Curse is packed full of wonderful moments – frequently hilarious moments at that, with some tremendous puzzles and gorgeous visuals that stand up to this day. Although it sidesteps entirely the issue of explaining the ending of the second game in the series (a fact that drew a degree of criticism at the time), it is perhaps one of the best examples of the point-and-click genre from the last twenty years, and a fitting swansong for the’ venerable SCUMM engine.
Where many other games in the genre content themselves with providing a single level of difficulty, Curse gives you two to choose from at the outset – Normal and the much more fiendish Mega Monkey. The latter choice results in some puzzles being remixed, or new conundrums added. For genre veterans, it’s the preferred choice, but no matter which option you choose, the game oozes charm from every pore.
It’s a brave game too: The Curse of Monkey Island stuck with two dimensions when almost the entire industry had long since embraced the third. Released at a time when the genre’s star was fading and PC gaming was on something of a downturn in popularity, Curse is a reminder that any platform can excel even under the direst of circumstances. A combination of cleverly designed puzzles, laugh-out-loud dialogue and wonderful art direction ensures that the game is a joy to play from beginning to end.
It may not have received the acclaim or success that continues to be afforded to the first two games in the series – which continue to be superior in many ways, for a variety of reasons – but The Curse of Monkey Island is still an excellent title with plenty to recommend it, once you learn to ignore the – largely understandable – way in which it bypasses addressing the ending of Monkey Island 2.
The premise of Curse will be familiar to anyone who”s spent time with the series: Once again you step into the shoes of bumbling pirate-wannabe Guybrush Threepwood on a quest to save his love Elaine from the villainous LeChuck and in the process prove his love for her. In this installment, a cursed ring transforms Elaine into a gold statue; Guybrush needs to find a way to reverse the spell and defeat LeChuck in the process through a series of classic brainteasers and some utterly fantastic jokes.
Each game in the series works on some variation of this basic setup – including Telltale Games’ recent episodic duo of “seasons” – and gameplay has remained largely the same over the course of a quarter of a century. However, on its release The Curse of Monkey Island attracted a degree of criticism. Many disliked the voice acting, while others took umbrage at the fact that it almost entirely ignores the ending of its immediate series predecessor (which we won’t spoil here). Criminally, some people hated the visual style.
Others balked at the nerve of LucasArts releasing a new game in the series without the presence of original inventors Ron Gilbert or Tim Schafer and to a degree you can understand those concerns; It’s like writing a sequel to a beloved book without the involvement of the original author, or a band reuniting years after most of the original members have departed. But somehow The Curse of Monkey Island managed to be an excellent game regardless, with a number of memorable puzzles and events which stick in the mind long after completion. But while Schafer and Gilbert are undoubtedly responsible to a large degree for the series’ original success, their absence isn’t as keenly felt here as you might think, with a number of moments which stand up as some of the best in the series.
One of these moments is what we are concerning ourselves with here. Halfway through the game comes a sequence that sticks in the mind and stands as one of the best moments in the entire series. Guybrush, having assembled a ragtag crew and setting sail in his search for a solution to Elaine’s 18-carat curse, soon learns that being a Captain is harder than it looks. Attempting to maintain order and discipline simply doesn’t work and his unlikely band responds by bursting into an impromptu sea shanty.
Easily one of the most amusing sequences of the game, the player then has to select a response at the end of each verse in an attempt to bring the singalong to a halt. The whole sequence is largely scripted – you can’t end the scene until a set number of verses have been recited – but you won’t care; the sheer absurdity of the proceedings is such that only the most joyless of players will fail to raise a smile, while the rest of us were quite possibly reduced to fits of laughter as Guybrush repeatedly tries – and fails – to bring his crew under control.
At the end of every verse, you’re given a series of dialogue choices to choose from. Much of the amusement comes from how the crew manages to incorporate their answers to these demands into their song, effortlessly rhyming and taking things in increasingly bizarre directions.
But eventually Guybrush does manage to stop them by suggesting that they attempt to stave off scurvy by eating an orange. The song abruptly comes to a halt as your crew fails to think of a word to rhyme with “orange”, but the scene sticks in the mind long after you’ve completed the game.
It’s a sequence that could only ever work once, of course; while the series’ trademark insult sword-fighting is able to sustain itself over various iterations (we’ll ignore the poorly-chosen substitute in Escape…), the shanty isn’t so much a puzzle as it is a drawn-out joke. It would lose its impact through repetition and while it’s certainly an extended joke, it ends just before it outstays its welcome. Revisiting it in later titles would be a mistake.
From beginning to end, the sea shanty scene lasts around 5 minutes – out of the approximate 15 hours that it will take new players to complete the game – but that time easily stands up as one of the most memorable sequences in the game, let alone the entire series. Unexpected and utterly hilarious, the sea shanty remains one of the high points of the entire Monkey Island saga.