a monumental masterclass in metatextual mischief

It has been 32 years since The Secret of Monkey Island warped the video game landscape with its timeless wit and mechanical ingenuity. Now in its 30s, the sixth entry in the point-and-click series is acutely aware of the nostalgic burden it carries. Return To Monkey Island is a brave and refreshing adventure game about confronting your own legacy. It answers difficult metatextual questions with surprisingly moving answers, all the while delivering everything that fans might expect from such a coveted sequel.

Return picks up immediately after the events of 1990’s Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, which makes sense, as this also marks the return of the series creator, Ron Gilbert, to Monkey Island. While Gilbert wasn’t involved in Curse (1997), Escape (2000) or Tales Of (2009), their contributions to the Monkey Island mythos are still heartily respected, with characters and in-jokes popping up all over the shop for the lore nerds to titter about.

Back in the driver’s seat, the question Gilbert ponders in Return is a simple but highly effective one: “What was The Secret of Monkey Island, anyway?”. Clumsy wannabe pirate protagonist Guybrush Threepwood returns to Melee Island to confront old friends, charter a ship and figure it out once and for all. What follows is a uniquely resonant reckoning for those ‘in the know’, but Return To Monkey Island ventures far beyond fan service and proves itself a very clever and well-made game for newcomers outside its reverie orbit.

Return To Monkey Island. Credit: Terrible Toybox.
Return To Monkey Island. Credit: Terrible Toybox.

Not to break tradition and perform heresy, Return To Monkey Island is still very much a point-and-click adventure game, though it feels more at home on a controller nowadays (the Steam Deck being my vessel of choice). As Guybrush, you wander around vibrant hubs, chatting to charming characters, investigating their abodes and procuring items to combine and conjure puzzle solutions. There’s your classic disguise plot, ingredients to gather, and stubborn leader to depose, but it also veers in many unexpected directions involving chicken grease, algebra and avocado fizz.

I played on the hardest difficulty, and I didn’t struggle as much as I have in previous entries. But that’s not to say Return To Monkey Island is easy. I was profoundly stumped a handful of times, but this was significantly mitigated by the built-in hint system, which is well-written and vague enough to be respectful to the many eureka moments Return has to offer. Stubbornness will decide how much time you get out of it, but I clocked a comfortable 12 hours across a few days, and it never once felt like a chore, thanks to its tight pacing and compelling stakes.

The main complaint lobbied at Return when it was revealed earlier this year concerned its angular, beady-eyed paper cut art style, helmed by Rex Crowle of Tearaway fame. A curious grievance aimed towards a series that has historically wrestled with pixel art, Disney cel animation, early pre-render 3D and Telltale chic… But Monkey Island is still an adaptable canvas in 2022. Crowle’s deft hand and eye for detail imbues characters like the ghost pirate LeChuck with animated energy — while ranting at Guybrush, I noticed a hidden stress toy gripped under the villain’s desk!

Return To Monkey Island. Credit: Terrible Toybox.
Return To Monkey Island. Credit: Terrible Toybox.

Meticulous set dressing and vivid colours breathe life into the game’s environments, and slight 3D effects add a sprinkle of magic to cutscenes. New characters easily fit the mould and old hands never look out of place. The thought and care necessary to recreate the infinite texture detail on Stan the wheeler dealer’s suit could only come from the mind of someone who loves the property dearly. It shows throughout the many varied island nooks Guybrush puzzles through in his adventure, avoiding any dull notes. An elevated art style like this makes much more sense than nostalgia-baiting pixel art, especially for a game meaningfully pursuing its own cultural heritage. I think it will come out in the wash, even for the dogged sceptics.

Really, Return’s most controversial change is that Guybrush contextually interacts with the world, rather than choosing to talk, use or examine objects individually. The good news is you can still interact with everything in some way, and there is dialogue that ribs you for using objects on assets that don’t make sense. It may be something to get used to for die-hard adventure game fans, but it feels only fair as a way to modernise Monkey Island for the generations who have grown up without it. I didn’t notice its absence, especially while playing with a controller, and it certainly didn’t impact the comedy. Return To Monkey Island is just as belly-buckling as any other entry in the series, with its absurdist jokes about rock soup and creative accounting.

Return To Monkey Island. Credit: Terrible Toybox.
Return To Monkey Island. Credit: Terrible Toybox.

And yes, iMUSE pioneers Michael Land, Clint Bajakian and Peter McConnell return to work their pan flute-y beauty on the soundtrack, which has range and flair by the boatload. It’s a rare kind of score that you only get with adventure games, a masterclass in repetition and homage, in that it has to placate and soothe the player as they wrack their brains for answers. I’m still humming their ‘LeShip’ theme now, and the Monkey Island master theme is still an all-timer that never fails to impress when revised.

But I think the ultimate selling point of Monkey Island has always been its unique spirit, and Return’s misty-eyed, reflective tone cranks it up to 11. There’s nothing prickly about it, and Guybrush is still the perfect plucky protagonist. It’s just brimming with this joyful, punch-up comedy that feels so novel in 2022. Despite being inherently ‘meta’, it’s not overly cynical or ironic and delivers a story that anyone young or old, captain or swabbie, could enjoy.

Terrible Toybox has delicately conjured a silly-billy world full of fallible, memorable characters, and it feels like watching a comforting action movie from your childhood. Seeing Guybrush and Elaine banter like a self-aware, loved-up couple was a breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed. And suffice to say, when it eventually grapples with that golden legacy that gives its comeback such weight, Return To Monkey Island comfortably sticks the landing, and there isn’t a dry eye in the house. How? …Well, that’s just The Secret, isn’t it? Go find out for yourself, mighty pirate.

Return To Monkey Island is out now, for PC and Nintendo Switch. This review was played on PC and Steam Deck.

The Verdict

If true achievement in art is realising creative ambition, then Return to Monkey Island is a masterclass bursting with metatextual mischief. By turning inward and confronting its own legacy, this sixth entry in a storied series summons the laughter and adventure of its forebears but ventures beyond them to deliver a surprising and brave dose of heart. Those looking for nostalgia will find it, but not in a way that feels fleeting. And newcomers to the series will find a sleek, must-play, carefully modernised adventure game that provides plenty of reasons to dig in the LucasArts archives.

Pros

  • A rare tale of legacy-reckoning from reflective creators
  • Consistently hilarious for 10+ hours
  • Awesome art style and an infectious score
  • A fun-first, accessible revival of point-and-click mechanics

Cons

  • Some necessary modernisations that may anger devout adventure gamers

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