Thursday, August 6, 2009

Review: Secret Of Monkey Island, Special Edition.

I used to, in a prior century, be an absolute fiend for adventure games. I loved Infocom more than anything. I would spend three or four months trying to solve a game like, say, Zork II, going at it again and again, trying absolutely every little thing, so that I could have the joy and satisfaction of solving it without degrading myself by getting a hint. Months.

Wow. I was a dope.

It hurts me deeply to say it. But. Is there a genre of computer game that suffered a faster, harsher, and more deserved downfall than the adventure game, with its obscure, illogical puzzles and its total lack of hesitation about stopping you stone cold because you didn't notice some 2x2 pixel detail on the screen?

I don't want to spend too much time kicking a genre when it's down. It has already been taken to pieces better than I ever could here and here.

But adventure games are not dead. Now the flame is kept alive almost solely by Telltale Games, makers of the Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, Tales of Monkey Island games, not to mention Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People. Good for them. It's a lonely vigil. (By the way, I've played Seasons One and Two of Sam & Max. Good games. Lots of fun, as long as you grab a hint any time you're stuck for more than fifteen minutes.)

Although my feeble old brain lacks the patience to bang away at adventure games like I used to, I do get the occasional nostalgic urge to play one for old times sake. And since The Secret Of Monkey Island is a classic which I managed to avoid playing, I jumped at the chance to play the Special Edition on XBox Live.

My review: If you hold down the 'X' button for a few seconds, the game gives you a hint. Do this every time you're stuck for more than fifteen minutes, and you'll have a fantastic time.

Longer version: It's extremely funny. It comes with an awesome feature where you can press a button to toggle between the original version of the game and the new spiffy version, which never stops being cool. Some of the puzzles are really ingenious. And, if you go too long without pressing 'X', it will remind you of everything that was horrible about adventure games.

An Example. (Warning! I am about to reveal the answer to a puzzle!)

So there's a fish on a dock. There is a seagull next to it. You need the fish, but you are afraid that, if you reach for it, the seagull will peck you. So you have to scare the seagull away.

This seems like it should be easy. You see, at this point in the game, you are carrying around a shovel and a sword. And I personally may be no pirate hero, but I assure you that I could use either of those items to scare away a seagull. Because, you know. Sword.

But that isn't the answer. You see, the board the seagull is standing on is loose. Note that there is no visual cue that the board is different from any other board. You need to walk around the dock until you hit the sweet spot and lift the board and knock the seagull away. Of course. The puzzle is solved by wandering around randomly. And hoping you step on the correct spot.

Getting stuck and needing to beg for help on something like this makes me feel angry and stupid. In any game, any bottleneck along the lines of "Be clever or be stuck here forever." is iffy design, at best. So now I mainly play games where the puzzle is how to get past the monster at the end of the hall and the only thing I have in my inventory is a big, big gun.

How Smart I Am ...

I needed about six hints to finish the game. Usually the hint just drew my attention to the door or little screen speck I missed. Playing the game in my TV instead of a monitor and moving the cursor around with a joystick instead of the mouse only makes it harder to find that vitally important hotspot that's about the size of an ant's booger. So be warned. You're gonna spend a lot of time staring.

But I shouldn't let this just be some big rant about adventure games. Monkey Island is really funny, most of the puzzles are neat, and it's a chance to sample gaming history.

But if you stop having fun, even for a moment, lean on that 'X' button and don't be ashamed. Every adventure game should have that feature. What do the developers care if I finish the game quickly? They already have my money!


  1. Wish I could approach needlessly obtruse adventure game puzzles with the same level of integrity as you do. If I use a hint system or a walkthrough I inevitably feel stupid and lazy and not worthy of playing the game in question. Guess my Super-Ego is just too dominant to let me get away that easily from even the most excessive trials and tribulations imposed by game developers...

    An interesting exception to this general rule is when I play really old games in which puzzles exist but can be interpreted as less integral to the gameplay experience than other aspects (such as combat, NPC interaction and/or exploration). Classic examples of this are PC RPGs like Dungeon Master or one of the later Wizardry games, which feature lots of profoundly stupid puzzles like "go to the very first dungeon and find a dirty, hidden and seemingly useless old comb which you will need 50 hours later on the other side of the world when trying to open a secret door which no one ever told you about". In those instances I can quite easily convince myself that the puzzles don't constitute the primary challenge in the game (while killing stuff with larger and larger swords certainly does), and thus also avoid feeling guilty about using walkthroughs to simply bypass the puzzles.

  2. it's actually not true that the flame is kept alive solely by Telltale. Adventure games are still being made on a regular basis, you just won't hear about them on mainstream gaming blogs/magazines.

    Hell, the biggest "games for girls" type series, the Nancy Drew games, is 100% adventure and it's successful enough to crack the top 10 bestseller list on Amazon.

  3. There must be a better way to give new life to adventure games than the "x hint buton". You are turning the genre into interactive movies that way.
    Anyway, I thing the main problem is that today we have to much noise surrounding us (internet noise), and if we don´t receive inmediate satisfaction we jump to the next thing. It´s grim to think that the future of gaming is shoot shoot reload shoot.
    But anyway, Telltale and many independent devs are craking up great stories and gameplay flow.

  4. joulimousis: as someone who disliked adventure games 20 years ago (when they were all the rage), I have to disagree.

    The basic game mechanic of adventure games (be it point&click or entering commands) are just not fun for most people.

    Once the novelty of telling a story with a computer wore off, that basic fact resurfaced and adventure games have lost their claim to fame.

  5. My friend playing Monkey Island for the first time in its Special Edition form also got totally stuck on that fish puzzle. To me it seems like a total departure from the rules established by the rest of the game: it doesn't label the hotspot, as you say. It made the write this:

  6. There is also some life in adventure games in the flash scene. Zeebarf's work on the episodic Journeys of Reemus are quite good.

  7. By the way, no rant on illogical adventurer game puzzles should ever go without a mention of the babel fish puzzle.

  8. This is why Braid was such a brilliant game; it's proof that an adventure game is possible using simple logical approaches to puzzles. I think where adventure game developers went wrong was trying to come up with the most creative possible solutions they could to simple puzzles rather than the other way round. A simple solution to a creative puzzle is far more interesting.

  9. so that I could have the joy and satisfaction of solving it without degrading myself by getting a hint.

    The first thing that ever compelled me to use a strategy guide was a puzzle... in an RPG, of all things. I was quite upset when I learned the solution, as it's something I never would have done except by accident.

    I love a good adventure game. The problem is that it doesn't take much to turn a good one into a bad one. A single puzzle with a counter-intuitive solution could ruin the game.

  10. I used to be a very... determined gamer. I remember renting Startropics and getting stuck because the rental manual no longer reacted to water by giving the magic frequency #. So, being a young kid with a game that was going back the next day, and the internet not really existing... I entered every possible 3 digit combo until I hit 747 and the game allowed further progress.

    So, when I found something similar in Legend of Kyrandia's endgame (Never found, or worse, recognized the hint) where you had to bang out a combination on a wind chime. Clearly a 5 digit code with only 3-4 possible notes for each. Something like 120 possible solutions. Easiest solution was to treat the notes as binary and just... count up.

    Both of those represent times when I was willing to tolerate a game crashing to a dead halt while I ground a solution out from the "try everything on everything" school of thought.

    The thing I like least about resorting to guides is that I don't stop once I do. It's instant insurance against banging my head on a wall, but it also blinds me to anything the guide-writer didn't do. So I feel like I'm missing some nice jokes or animation.

    I don't feel bad tho about the need to resort to a solution. Most games have some element of moon-logic, pixel hunting, or just plain evilly overcomplicated point of vile misconduct that renders the game impossible to reason with.

    One of the earliest games I played was KQ4, and I failed miserably, repeatedly. Even when I managed to win the game, there was only a bad ending... because I was supposed to retrieve the magic fruit first thing, before getting the other quests... as the game advances the clock when you start them, so you'll never have time to fetch the fruit after you visit the castle. And you won't know you've doomed the game.

    Still, as horrible and obscure as the adventure game genre was... at least that "screw the player who lacks a guide" spirit is alive and well in the console RPGs. How many steps to unlock that ultimate form in Shadow Hearts? Breed a gold chocobo?

  11. I still go back and play The Longest Journey every year or so. It's a good example of fairly-simple puzzles (with the exception of one ridiculous one near the beginning, which I suspect is there to reassure adventure game fanatics), there in the service of a plot that I like.

  12. @David: I've been meaning to play Longest Journey forever. I'm sure I will, with my "Hint every 15 minutes" rule in effect.

    @grumble_cakes: You're right, of course. I revealed my pro-gamer bigotry. I also should have plugged Samorost one more time.

    - Jeff Vogel

  13. Even *you* fall victim to thinking adventure games are (almost) dead? Several full commercial games are still released every year, and not just Nancy Drew, and not just Telltale. They may not be big business anymore, but they're hardly disappeared! The mainstream game mags even still review them - and start almost every review with a comment on how adventure games are dead. You'd think they'd notice, after a while, how often they had to type that.

    ... text adventures, on the other hand, are almost entirely freeware now. Every now and then some faithful soul tries to sell one and manages to shift a few copies, but it's not even really viable as an indie thing.

  14. I learned how to type by playing text adventures like Zork, Planetfall, and Wishbringer on an old Atari computer my dad picked up at a yard sale!! I use to love those games so much. My first graphical adventure game was Shadowgate on NES. Those games also drove me completely nuts! How in the hell are you supposed to know you can 'open' a bucket? At 10 years old?! lol

    These days, I don't really have the room in my head. When I've gotta hankerin' for hours and days of chasing nonsense, counter-intuitive clues to do something you'd never think of so you can do something else you didn't even knew you needed to do, I have computer programming for that. ;)

  15. Adventure genre is very much alive. You can check recently released adventure titles for example from

  16. @Whiner - Um. I didn't say they are dead. Nowhere do I say that. In fact, I explicitly say they are "not dead."

    I do say that the genre is "down" and has had a "downfall." But I only say these things because they are true. Their importance to the industry is a fraction of what it once was.

    - Jeff Vogel

  17. Yes, those glorious days are gone. But thanks to digital distribution the genre is now very appealing to indie developers. There will be a lot of new adventure games on the download market in the next few years, and most of them will be poorly written indy/monkey island wannabees. :)

    I hope the good ones will sell enough to keep them coming.

  18. I have been earning my living selling indie point-and-click adventure games for three years. Of course, I'd never be so crass as to plug them here.



  19. I frequently find myself wishing that I'd had Gamefaqs back in the day. Let the anal retentive ones go before me and find all the niggling little details of the games, I'll buy them when they go down in price and if I get stuck, I'll go look at their solutions. Many games I've generally enjoyed would not have been tolerable without that ability to access the hive mind.

  20. The Longest Journey was the last adventure game I tried playing and I quit in disgust after an hour or two. I don't care if I can look up the answer in a guide: the game is still being stupid just to have a "puzzle". The part where I threw in the towel was when you need to retrieve something from a subway track. Instead of doing what a normal person would do (jump down on the track or ask the station attendant to get it for you) you have to go through a bunch of convoluted hoops.

  21. Dag it, I've been checking Irony Central in vain every month for nearly a year now and you've had a blog since MARCH?!

    Yeah, I'm a fan.

    Anyway, putting the subject of internet stalking aside, I'd like to draw your attention to the Interactive Fiction Archive. (

    While text adventures are pretty much kaput commercially, there are still people out there who make them out of love of the genre, and they have several contests every year to weed out the 90% of everything that is crap. Every medium can be used for good or for evil, and what the contemporary creators try to achieve is a full realization of the medium's capabilities, with the blunt stupidity removed. That's why they've gone so far as to re-title it "Interactive Fiction" in order to distance themselves from the mistakes of the pioneers.

    They don't always succeed perfectly, but there is some truly impressive stuff out there. Two modern classics I highly recommend are "Aisle", basically an experimental art piece, and "Spider and Web". The best testimony I can give for SaW is directing you to the results of the 1998 XYZZY Awards, where it totally cleaned house: (

    I did find a single irritating quirk in SaW though: the "throw" command is implemented inconsistently, so that in one puzzle where it functions slightly differently than elsewhere I discounted trying it. Other than that, it was smooth as silk: Difficult without being frustrating, and very satisfying to play.

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