Throwback Thursday: The Secret of Monkey Island


Welcome to the first edition of Throwback Thursday,  where we cherry-pick our very earliest gaming memories for the sweet, sweet nostalgia.

The earliest memories I can recall of playing a video-game must have been around 1994 -- a combination of The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, 3-D Dinosaur Adventure, and The Seventh Guest. I was four years old at the time and mostly illiterate, but I do remember clicking through these intricate adventures just for the thrill of some kind of reaction or change from the game. I vaguely recall we had a console or two in the house by that time, but my brothers were usually using them, so I resorted to bothering my parents to boot up these weird PC games for me.

Since Myst and Seventh Guest had this habit of scaring the living shit out of me from one second to the next (the first person perspective - particularly in dark and abandoned buildings - creeps out children, go figure!) and the beloved 3-D Dinosaur Adventure barely constituted a game,  I didn't spend nearly as much time with them as with Monkey Island. That game charmed me in a way that has followed me ever since, as much in terms of gaming education as in terms of humor and wit.

Even though the CD version with soundtrack came out in '92 we still had the game on floppydisk and the startup screen would play the wicked reggae theme music through the soundcard, rather than as a .wav file through the external speakers. If this doesn't tingle your spine then you must not have one:

So that plays. And then you're this dorky guy in a white shirt talking to some old dude by a fire. At the bottom of the screen there's a bunch of green verbs, next to your inventory in purple, and your cursor is a flashing white crosshair. By clicking on parts of the screen, your character (Guybrush Threepwood) will move there; by clicking the green verbs before clicking on the play area, your character will attempt to do the verb to that thing.

My first videogame hero was a coward, layabout, liar, cheat, thief, critic, and certified insult-swordsman.

My first videogame hero was a coward, layabout, liar, cheat, thief, critic, and certified insult-swordsman.

Mechanically, the game is a matter of collecting and combining inventory items, as well as negotiating dialogue trees with other characters, in order to solve puzzles which advance the story. The overarching plot sounds typical: an undead dread pirate kidnaps the governor-princess of Melee Island, and the boy who loves her must come to her rescue. But the adventures in the game itself are way more hilarious and involve rubber-chickens, a no-handed two-hooked failed hotelier; resolving a crew mutiny with an explosive Grog of breath mints, gunpowder, and fine wine; and navigating the bowels of hell by threatening a sentient skull for directions through threats and insults. See...hilarious! The Secret of Monkey Island is above all a highly successful work of comedy, similar to the best part of an evening of improv theatre, motivating you to play just for the reward of further jokes and oddities.

Of course all this high-brow humour was lost on me as a child.  I would literally click around until the screen changed and consider that a success. I actually got pretty far through trial-and-error, attempting to use each action and item on each interactable thing until something happened. Today i tried to use my cucumber on a locked door. This diligent trial-and-error method would develop into a core gaming skill - particularly well-demonstrated in the Monkey Island series, where puzzles are often so quirky and obscure that you'd have no other way of solving them.

I do remember coming back to it a bit later and was able to more fully explore the game, though much of the comedy continued to go way over my head. Very similar to my love of The Simpsons as a child. I would even call Secret of Monkey Island, The Simpsons of PC Gaming.

As I child I was half-oblivious, half too-blown-away-by-meta-humour-to-understand, to this blatantly parodic tie-in.

As I child I was half-oblivious, half too-blown-away-by-meta-humour-to-understand, to this blatantly parodic tie-in.

  • Each is one of the earliest examples in its medium (cartoons and PC games) to demonstrate entertainment value to adults over children. 
  • Intelligent writing - taxes humor, breaking the fourth wall, the hilarity of harsh realities - the strength of Simpsons & Monkey Island's humor lies in the overlap between wisdom and absurdity.
  • Both are supported by a large cast of likable characters.
  • Both are led by stupid, mostly useless, yet still lovable, protagonists
  • Both have stuck with me as a sort of concrete for the foundation of my humor today.

  I've come back time and again to both these series as my brain has 'matured,' and while each series has strained a bit under the weight of forced continuation, I have deeply enjoyed coming back to these familiar stories and unraveling the deeper stuff going on under the surface.

But that insult fighting though. I remember re-enacting the first scene with the swashbuckler on the schoolground at recess. Clang, clang, clang "My handkerchief will wipe up your blood!'  Clang, clang, clang "So you got that job as a janitor after all?'  Just the idea of that is still fantastic and so innovative. I remember taking a trip to mexico and was on the beach one clear night staring out into the water at a small island. I had one of those real life ---> videogame flash backs, you know what im talking about and remembered this image. Still, whenever i think of videogames i only see the word as synonymous with the Monkey island start screen.